Today the weather was fine and my sweet husband took charge of our baby, so I had Time (that most precious resource!) to work on the big white wooly hide.
Early this morning I set the skin outside on my little painting easel to dry in the sun. All the salt that’s still stuck to the skin and wool has just been sucking up moisture from the air, so it’s gotten damp and stayed that way. Again, a testament to the power of salt and alum that it is in such good condition despite all the neglect… actually, it’s just as I left it, which is the point of all this.
One trip to the feed store and several breastfeeding sessions (I have a 3-month-old) later, the wool was dry! Success! And I was able to get to fleshing.
I can’t find my trusty Ulu knife (I probably abandoned it, like these skeepskin projects, back in 2019). So I’m using a new tool to flesh this skin. It’s actually a little gardening tool, I think, for grubbing or scraping up weeds. My husband used the bench grinder to take the sharp corners off for me, which would in theory reduce the risk of it slicing through the hide while I use it to scrape away bits of flesh, dried fat, and skin membrane.
I forgot how physically difficult this work is! Not the least reason being that I had a cesarean section almost four months ago; my lower abs are killing me now. But honestly, I’m out of shape – out of shape for this work specifically, and just in general for my usual level of activity and running-around-outside. Yes, I get that I’m postpartum and my body is healing. It’s a beautiful thing and all that. But I’m not used to my forearms being sore about ten minutes into using them!
It took a little bit to get the feel of how to use this new fleshing tool best. I started out just kind of hacking and beating away at the skin. This is pretty typical for me – honestly hide work isn’t a lot of finesse, at least not the way I do it
This brutish approach was working well to soften and whiten the leather, as well as to break up the dried stringy flesh bits.
I was trying to remember/rediscover what direction to work in when fleshing. I think (though I could be wrong) it’s best to work outwards from the center back line of the body. This seems to be the natural way that flesh comes off. As you can see, before I figured that out I slashed a little hole in the leather near one of the legs. I’ll have to sew that up when the skin is tanned.
Here’s a pic of the skin getting closer to how it should look.
After some more hacking and beating, I found it was even better to grip the tool farther down the handle and turn it slightly so that I could scrape at specific areas with the corner of the blade. This really helped lift up bits of stuff that needed peeling off.
I do wear gloves to do this work, most of the time. But some things call for bare fingers. I often find that pulling and peeling off the dried flesh and fat requires gloves-off.
Today reminded me of why it’s best, for me anyway, to tan hides one at a time rather than dealing with a whole batch at once. I had already fleshed this hide when it was fresh and unsalted, but I hadn’t finished, probably because I was trying to do 8 of them at once and running out of time. This meant that in order to preserve it, I had to salt & alum it with flesh still on.
Now, I’m having to repeat my work, and it’s no easier to remove dried, salted flesh and fat. In some ways, it’s harder because I can tear or cut the brittle bits of the hide. It’ll soften up once I dress it, break it, and smoke it, but right now the edges and a couple spots in the middle are a bit crispy.
Speaking of dressing it – I need to make soap! I didn’t even think of it until today, but I don’t have any handmade soap left, and I always tan with homemade lard or tallow soap. Making soap: another thing I haven’t done in a couple years. Luckily I have some tallow left to make it with.
I also forgot how easy it is while tanning a hide to get little cuts on your hands – and then automatically and immediately get salt in ’em. There’s a metaphor in there.