There are many in the prepper/survivalist community who believe that society as a whole will ultimately disintegrate, for a slew of varied reasons, and that we will be forced to return to the land into a pre-industrial world of non electric living. That may well be the outcome, but I have my doubts as to whether the plunge will be that severe. We will, I believe be in for some surprises, but I don’t believe that it will be a severe a decline as some are praying for.
But at any rate, I got to thinking of what life would be like in those extreme circumstances and started researching how things were done before we became spoiled with today’s easy living. Clothing has always been a need, and I looked at how some of the fabrics of our life came to be used in keeping our backsides under cover from the weather. Leather has long been a fabric of choice, and I found a short piece from 1871 that describes some of the crude ways leather was processed for use as clothing. Remember, this piece is 140 years old, so you may have a hard time finding things like powdered alum, but the processes will work today as well as they did a century and a half ago.
DRESSING AND TANNING SKINS AND FURS
Dressing Skins with Fur or Wool on
The cheapest and readiest as well as the best method of dressing skins for use with the hair or wool on, is to first scrape off all the fat with a knife rather blunt on the edge, so as not to cut holes into the hide, upon a round smooth log. The log for convenience sake should have a couple of legs in one end, like a trestle; the other end should rest upon the ground. After the fat is well cleaned off, take the brains of the animal, or the brains of any other recently killed, and work them thoroughly into the hide. This renders the hide pliable.
Then to preserve from the ravages of insects scatter on it some powdered alum and a little saltpeter. If the hair side has become greasy, a little weak lye will take it out. Sheepskins may be dressed in the same way, though the wool should be cleaned with soapsuds before using the brains. Another way, but more expensive, is to use a paste made of the yolk of eggs and whiting instead of brains, working it in the same way, letting it dry and brushing off the whiting. Then add the powdered alum as before. Deerskins and even small calf skins are often tawed us the process is called with the hair on for garments. If it is desired to give the deerskin a yellow color, yellow ocher or chrome yellow may be used in combination with the brains or yolks of eggs, and afterward brushed off.
If it is simply desired to preserve skins until they are sold, it is only necessary to dry them thoroughly. If the weather should be damp and warm, salt the flesh side slightly with fine salt.
Indian Mode of Tanning Buffalo Skins
Theo. K. Davis, in Harper’s Magazine, says: “The hard and incessant labor that is necessary to properly ‘Indian tan’ a robe is not easy to realize unless one may see the work go on day by day from the first step, which is to spread out the pelt or undressed hide upon the ground, where it is pinned first by means of wooden pins driven through little cuts in the edge of the robe into the earth. The flesh side of the robe being uppermost is then worked over by two, and sometimes three, squaws. The tools used are often very rude, some being provided simply with sharp stones or buffalo bones. Others, wealthier, have something that much resembles a drawing knife or shave of the cooper. The work at hand is to free the hide of every particle of flesh, and to reduce the thickness of the robe nearly one half, and sometimes even more. This fleshing, as it is termed, haTing been satisfactorily accomplished, the hide is thoroughly moistened with water in which buffalo brains have been steeped; for ten days the hide is kept damp with this brain water. Once each day the hide is taken up, and every portion of it rubbed and re-rubbed by the squaws, who do not have recourse to anything like a rubbing board, but use their hands until it would seem as if the skin would soon be torn off. There seems to be no definite rule as to the length of time which the robe shall occupy in curing. The squaw labors until the hide becomes a robe, which may require the work of one week or two, sometimes even more; but I think that ten days may be considered as the average time which it takes to properly cure a robe.
“I have not the space here to go into a lengthy account of the different modes of dressing the skins which the Indians use for tents (tepees) and clothing. Some skins from which the hair has been removed are as white as the paper upon which this article is printed.
“The painting and decorating of the robe is the work of much time, and for the extremely rude materials employed, by the squaws in the work a result is attained which is highly creditable to the uneducated and somewhat savage wives and daughters of ‘Nasty Elk,’ or whatever euphonious term the master of the lodge may seem fit to designate himself by. But this work increases the price of a robe, and is generally only expended upon a robe that is to be used in the family, and not as a means of obtaining sugar, coffee, calico and other coveted articles which are of use to the Indian, and serve as an indication of wealth on the part of the possessor, who takes care to make great parade of all such articles as may be likely to excite the envy of the habitants of neighboring tepees.”
Without the Wool or Hair
Sheepskin, deerskin, doeskin, calfskin, etc., for gloves, etc., are also tawed, but the hair must be taken off. The skins are first soaked in warm water, scraped on the flesh side to get off fat, and hung in a warm room until they begin to give a slight smell of Hartshorne. The wool or fur then comes off readily. The hair side should now be thoroughly scraped against the hair. The skin is next soaked two or three weeks in weak lime water, changing the water two or three times. Then they are brought out again, scraped smooth and trimmed. Then rinsed in clean water, and then soaked in wheat bran and water for two or three weeks. After this they are well stirred around in a pickle of alum, salt and water. Then they are thrown again into the bran and water for two or three days. Then stretched and dried somewhat in a warm room. After this they are soaked in warm water and then worked or trodden on in a trough or pail filled with yolk of eggs, salt, alum, flour and water, beaten to a froth. They are finally stretched and dried in an airy room, and last of all smoothed with a warm smoothing iron. This makes the beautiful leather we see in gloves, military trimmings, etc. The proportions for the egg paste are as follows: 3 pounds salt, 5
pounds alum, 21 pounds wheat flour and yolks of nine dozen eggs. Make a paste with water, dissolving first the alum and salt. A little of this paste is used as wanted with a great deal of water.
Chamois skin and deer skins not wanted for gloves are similarly treated up to the point of treating with egg paste. Instead of using this process they are oiled on the hair side with very clean animal oil, rolled into balls and thrown into the trough of a fulling mill, well beaten two or three hours, aired, re-oiled, beaten again and the process repeated a third time. They are then put into a warm room until they begin to give out a decided smell, then scoured in weak lye to take out superfluous grease. Here the intention is merely to get a thick felt-like skin of good color; a nicely grained surface is not required as in gloves. The skins are finally rinsed, wrung out, stretched and dried, and when nearly dry slightly rubbed with a smooth, hard round stick.
These are the fine processes. A dried skin oiled so as to become smooth and pliable will retain the hair or wool a considerable time. Or it may be made more durable where the color of the flesh side is no object by scraping, washing in soap suds and then putting directly into the tan pit. For ordinary, purposes rabbit, squirrel and other small skins can be efficiently preserved with the hair by the application of powdered alum and fine salt, put on them when fresh or if not fresh by dampening them first. Squirrel skins when wanted without the hair will tan very well in wheat bran tea, the fat and hair having been previously removed by soaking in lime water and scraping. Old tea leaves afford tannin enough for small skins but they give a color not nearly as pleasant as bran. Almost any of the barks afford tannin enough for small skins, willow, pine, poplar, hemlock of course, sumac, etc.
Preservation of Furs
While in use, furs should be occasionally combed. When not wanted, dry them first, and then let them cool, and mix among them bitter apples from the druggists, in small muslin bugs, sewing them in several folds of linen, carefully turned in at the edges, and kept from damp. Camphor or pepper used in the same manner will have a similar effect. Well cleaned furs are much less liable to be attacked by moths, than those affording rich repasts of dried flesh, though no furs are absolutely safe without extreme watchfulness on the part of their owner. Wrapping well in good brown paper, and keeping in a tight paper box, are all helps to the preservation of furs. Sunshine and fresh air kill the fur and wool moth grub. Hence taking out the furs occasionally and airing, sunning, and beating them is necessary.