From Deerskin to Leather

From Deerskin to Leather

Our Crannog Technology Interpreter Emma was gifted a fresh roe deerskin and so began the 12-week saga of tanning her first piece of leather…

I have long been fascinated by leather as a strong but supple, beautiful but functional material. Leather can be cut, moulded, carved, stitched, hardened and stretched. It would have been a vital material in the Iron Age to manufacture everyday goods like shoes, belts, bags and knife sheaths. Tanning pits with skins at various stages of the process must have been commonplace to meet the demand for the material, and it’s easy to imagine the Crannog dwellers gathering ash from fires and collection and crushing bark after a day of woodworking.

After some innocent enquiry into the tanning process, I was kindly given a fresh roe deerskin by leather tanner and friend to the crannog Peter Ananin, and so began my 12-week saga of tanning using traditional methods…

Step 1 was to scrape the hide clean of fat and meat which could cause it to later rot. Next week was trying to remove the hair from the skin, in this case using a solution of wood ash from campfires mixed with water, making it an alkali solution to loosen the hairs. After a couple of weeks of steeping in there (and smelling fair ripe at this point) a stone scraper could easily be used to remove the hair, much to the fascinated horror of our visitors. Now comes the actual tanning: bark tanning in this case. The tannin, a chemical in tree bark, preserves the skin and keeps it soft. Bark was collected, crushed and boiled to make a bitter, dark red ‘tea’. The skin was sunk into these watery depths for the next 6 weeks or so, occasionally adding more bark solution as the skin soaked up the tannin. Once it seemed brown throughout the skin, it was dried it, then fat was rubbed into it to help soften it. Voila, leather!

So the next time you see a piece of leather, think of the process it’s been through, the time that has gone into making it, and importantly remember where it ultimately comes from. Now I just have to decide what to make from this precious leather, and what type of skin I’ll be tanning now that I’ve got the basics… fish skin could be fun!

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