Or so my friend of American Indian descent used to say. It sounds cool but once the image of a giraffe pushes ts way to the front of your mind you start to wonder.
But I’m not tanning giraffes, so for all intents and purposes this adage sticks. Here is the story of my dip into the practice of tanning hides with a paste made from the brain of whatever specimen I HAVE skinned. I used rabbit, raccoon and possum, to varying degrees of success. There are plenty of references available online; I used this one from Lifesong Adventures.
The first step is extracting the brain from the skull, which isn’t for the well-manicured or easy-to-queasy set. If you’ve ever blown your nose, and tried to coax out that mammoth yet elusive mucus orb hiding in your nasal passages, then you have a decent idea of what it’s like to charm the brains out of a dead rabbit.
The brain matter is then mixed with water (preferably rain water according to experts which was funny because back when I was embarking on this journey I had rain water tricking into my studio on a daily basis through the roof and walls. I just used spring water though), heated to a near boil and then cooled. The resulting paste is what will be brushed on the raw hides of whatever it so be tanned.
It is recommended to brush any excess onto a towel, which is then laid onto the hide and rolled up within it for maximum soakage. The little bundles are then stashed somewhere cool and safe overnight while the tan penetrates.
Here’s mine the next day. The smell was surprisingly light. Perhaps this is because it was October and there was a cold snap in Philadelphia- but actually, as I look closely at this photo above I can see my two of my five little piggies that weren’t cropped out of this shot meaning I was wearing sandals on this day. So….I’m full of shit. Brain tanning just isn’t as odorous as one might think.
But I digress. Once the skin is unrolled, the staking begins. This means gripping the hide and rubbing it over a hard, blunt surface until it is completely dry. This stretches and breaks down the fibers in the epidermis.
Behold a staked rabbit skin. It starts to have that store-bought garment-leather look, and feels just as luxurious.
Home brain tanners, however, be warned: staking is no joke. I consider myself a rather fit human being and this activity left my arms and abs sore for two days. It took me almost five hours to do three small pelt (as a beginner I maybe ought to have started with just one, but if should’ves and buts were candy and nuts…). The thing about staking is, you can’t stop once you start or else the hide dries hard and the entire process must be started all over again.
There are machines that do this nowadays for tanning at an industrial level, (I believe Mike Rowe attempted to use one in one of his Dirty Jobs episodes) and other brain tanners use frames and various tools to make the process easier but being as I was just working with such small specimen I didn’t think it necessary.
My work chair is a lovely old trash picked work of art with a back just riddled with nooks and crannies. I found this to be an ideal surface for staking. As you can see I rubbed the stain right off the darned thing. But just look at those yummy pelts!
After the hide is completely dry, it is smoked. Again, there are various ways to do this but I opted for the super low maintenance method of laying them out over a screen strategically placed outside a wood burning stove. The important thing is to use punky, wet wood- this will produce maximum smoke and that’s what’s needed to bond the oils of the tan into the skin and seal it up. This makes the tan permanent in that should the hide get wet in the future, it will stay soft and not revert back to its original hard, rawhide state.
I left these on for an hour, rotating every ten minutes.
Now for the sewing! I was commissioned by a contractor friend to create a fur jacket liner that would keep him warm and toasty during his cold weather work. Side note: we wound up trading and I was treated to some MUCH NEEDED plumbing work in my bathroom. I am now a convert of the barter system; it feels like I’m really sticking it to the man when I’ve momentarily suspended the need for stupid dollars while providing goods and receiving services.
I made a pattern from his denim jacket and used it to machine sew a shell out of high-end padded wool.
The fur, since it was in scrappy unusual shapes and I didn’t want to waste any, was all completely hand sewn onto the shell. Thankfiully my friend enjoys the little imperfections that make life interesting and doesn’t mind the spots where my stitching is evident or the three little patches where I rubbed the hair off the pelts. I took the liberty, ha, of covering one such spot with a patch.
The process took much longer than anticipated and left my fingers raw, but I actually love the meditative nature of hand-stitching. I think spending quality time with my hands on a piece really transfers good vibrations into it and ensures that I’m passing along a product saturated in positive energy.
Case in point: look how toasty and pleased this guy is with his new vest! (he opted to wear it inside out for this shot I took with my very state of the art heat-sensory camera; I suppose it is reversible).
So that was my first experience braining. I am excited to employ this method more in the coming months; I have mittens, scarves and hats to produce!