Home-tanning a sheepskin

I started out with a sheepskin that had been salted and dried, I believe right after slaughter.

The first step is to clean it, which is reasonably easy using a wire wheel. It’s important to take off the salt, the membrane, which is easy when it’s dry, and any remaining fat or flesh. It’s best if you can get the latter two off immediately since anything left behind will cause the skin to start degrading immediately which causes the hair to slip. Whether you can control that depends on where you’re getting your hides from, and it’s not the end of the world!

The next step is to soak and wash it. This is a serious business when a sheep has led a rich, adventurous life–this skin was muddy and full of burrs, and I went through several rounds of washing with dish soap, then shampoo and conditioner, as it turned progressively whiter–very satisfying.

Then, it needs to drain and be oiled. I use a shop-bought tanning oil, which works fine, though I’m interested in trying more traditional methods like brains! I towel-dried the wool to help it along, applied oil and let it sit folded skin-inward for 12 hours, then opened it out to start the drying process.

When drying, the key is to work and stretch the skin as it dries, to pull the fibres apart. As it dries, portions turn darker, at which point you can stretch the skin and it turns white as the fibres pull apart. If it dries too quickly this becomes really difficult and it’s best to just wet it again. I did this three times for this skin, re-oiling each time, before getting a result I was happy with.

The final step is to give the skin a good finish and trim it. I like to go over it one more time with the wire wheel to give it a soft surface–it’s best to do this before you trim, since it’s hard to get up close to the edge! The edges are often not as well stretched and conditioned as the rest, and it’s satisfying to trim off the scruffy edges. Finally, I gave this one a brush over to make it really fluffy.

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