2016 09 12 & 13: Sheep Skins

posted Sep 14, 2016, 11:08 AM by Freydis Egilsdottir   [ updated Jan 8, 2017, 6:45 PM by Mikhail H- ]
On Monday evening Mór and I had the opportunity to head over to Cresent Moon Farms (Nesrin and Alman's place) to start in on the process of tanning sheep skins! We returned yesterday to try and finish all nine skins up.

It was an interesting experience, and by that I do not mean "interesting" in the way of politely saying, "Ugh, never again." It truly was an interesting experience, and I am looking forward to doing it again the next time sheep are butchered (although I will need to build up the muscles in my left arm more; my right arm is fine, thanks to manually turning my sewing machine's fly wheel so much; but my left is sooooore!).

First off, it was far, far less gross than one might expect. It only smelled of sheep, not blood or other grossness, and while the sheep fat we were removing from the undersides of the skins was undeniably greasy and slippery, it is also basically just lanolin, and felt a lot nicer on the skin than, say, chicken fat would have.

Second, while I was not surprised that the process is easiest while the skins still have some body heat in them (so typically for the first hour after the slaughter, about the same window for ease of plucking chickens), I was happily surprised to learn that it eases up again the second day, and at that point is possibly even easier, as the membranes that need to be separated from the skin dry out, and become tougher, allowing one to force ones' fingers into the space to separate them, rather than having to cut the two apart. That makes for far fewer nicks on the skins (which we did several times, being complete novices to the process)! And also fewer nicks on the fingers, although we mostly came out of it unscathed. Harder on the forearms, though!

We did not quite manage to get all the skins completed before we had to leave to get kids from school, but still, eight skins in one day and one (long) evening, for two complete beginners, is pretty good, I think! We got them mostly prepped, and salted (leading, of course, to all sorts of puns: "Mor assaulted me with a meat cleaver!--No, wait, she salted my meat cleaver," heh). They can now sit until we have a chance to mix up some tanning solution (we are going to try a few different kinds of tanning, including brain tanning, to see which process gives us the best results) for up to six months. We will probably pick it up again after Hallowe'en, the weekends between now and then being pretty full of SCA activities already!

Lessons learned:

1. Sheep skin is way, way tougher than I expected. Even my knife with which I have trimmed belt leather with ease had a hard time with it! A sharp knife is an absolute must (as is a way of sharpening it). Also, cutting it from the skin side when trimming off tails and other undesirable bits, rather than from the woollen side, helps; the wool dulls blades very quickly and is surprisingly tough to sever.

2. Hey, we remembered to bring water bottles! What we didn't bring was straws. Note for next time: either put a straw in it so one can simply lean over and sip, or wrap some paper towel around it so one can pick it up without getting sheep fat all over the bottle. Or, you know, have a water bottle with a built-in straw.

3. If texting, put the phone inside a Ziploc baggie first, even if the phone is washable.

4. Something to wipe ones' hands off on (a rag or some paper towel) before handling non-skinning-related tools etc (water bottles, cell phones, door knobs, eyeglasses) would be helpful. As it was, meh; the pants were going into the wash anyways.

5. Lever door knobs are the best. Round ones and lanolin-covered hands are not a practical combination.

I'd guess it was taking me about two hours per skin, more or less? A proper skinning knife would have helped, but perhaps not as much as one might have thought. Having a second person there to pull the skin taut while one is cutting helps a lot, though. On the second day, once things had dried out quite a bit, I was able to sort of (slowly) peel the membranes off the skin in much the same way one would peel a difficult orange; but for pulling the membranes and skin apart while slicing the connecting fibres, one needs at least three hands.

Mór found her hair was falling into her eyes a lot and giving her issues (we were seated on the ground doing it, and so bent over quite a bit), so if one has bits of hair that are long enough to get in the way but too short to stay in a ponytail or braid, something like  a hair band or hat to keep it back is very, very helpful, although I am sure that lanolin is an excellent conditioner.

Keep an eye on the "Tanning Sheepskins" thread in the forums to find out when we next are working on them if you want to lend a hand.
Mikhail H-,
Sep 14, 2016, 2:54 PM