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Pages 57-60 from some book on American Indians and their Crafts.
I would love to be more accurate and I have no record of this source to cite. All I have are some photocopied pages dating from 1994, in Kent, OH, while at Kent State University. If this work is copyrighted and it is a problem for the author and/or publisher to have this appear here, please let me know and I will remove this from view. I hope this Helps, R

Untanned skins and hides were used by Indians as a raw material for the manufacture of artifacts and as a binding lace for many objects.

Compared to the process of soft-tanning, the work of making rawhide is relatively simple. Fleshing and de-hairing are really the only steps required to prepare a skin or hide for use. Actually, the steps or processes varied slightly from tribe to tribe and depended somewhat upon the skin being prepared.

First, of course, a skin must be provided. The Plains Indian rawhide came quite naturally, from buffalo in most cases. Sources in other culture areas include deer, elk, caribou, and moose. Today, a reasonable substitute can be made from a calfskin for thin rawhide and cow or horse hide for heavier material. A calfskin may measure about 15-20 square feet. A full-sized cow hide is about 40-45 square feet. If the large hide is not needed in one piece for future use, I advise that it be cut in two pieces for ease in working. A complete cowhide when wet makes a clumsy bundle of better than 100 pounds.

As in most tanning processes, a fresh or “green” hide is desired, but a salted or dried hide may be used. A dried hide must be soaked in water for several days to soften it -- up to a week or more for a heavy hide such as steer or buffalo. In addition, a salted hide must be rinsed daily to wash out the salt completely. A green hide needs only to be rinsed to remove hair, blood, leaves, and the like. (A good washing helps to kill some of the odor which may be offensive. I may add a little scented soap at times to serve both purposes.)

The hide should be wrung out now, if only to make it weigh less, but I find that the rinse water dripping down on me is somewhat disagreeable. If two persons are available, a simple twisting of the hide between them is usually sufficient. Working alone, the tanner may wrap the hide around the wrist of one hand and wring the hide out with the opposite hand.

The hide must be fleshed; IE, all the flesh or fatty tissue must be cut or scraped off. I prefer to do this while the hide is stretched, but it may also be done on the ground or with the hide draped over some suitable flat surface. Plains women pegged the hide out over the ground while Woodland women customarily used a stretching frame and worked in a standing position. I follow the latter -- it requires less backbreaking bending.

A sturdy frame of posts of about 4 inches in diameter is constructed so that it’s rectangular opening is slightly larger than the stretched size of the hide. Don’t plan on the present size of the hide, for one can expect some enlarging as a result of the tension placed on it during the work. Holes are punched with a knife or awl around the margins of the hide. Several long lengths of sturdy cord are used to lace the hide inside the wooden frame so that the hide is suspended in the rectangle (Fig. 1). Tension is adjusted so that the cords stretch the hide taut. The fleshing and de-hairing will require some hours of work so it is best to work in a shady location. Even then, the hide may dry out during work and may need to be dampened occasionally. Drying and dampening as well as the pressure of tools will require additional adjusting of the cords as needed to keep the tension even.

When the hide has been properly laced in place, flesh and fat are removed with a knife or a bone or steel scraper. Earlier, a stone scraper was used for this purpose. A good curved flint scraper, with or without a handle. Is still functional. Further, a new edge may be flaked easily if the old one becomes dull. When all of the flesh and fat have been removed, the flesh side of the hide should have a bluish-white color and a slimy, clammy surface, but not greasy. Be sure that all grease is scraped or cut off.

The hide needs now to be de-haired. On a long-haired animal, it is advisable to shear some of the hair with a knife, taking care not to cut into the skin itself. A small bundle of hair is pulled up with one hand as the knife, wielded by the other, cuts the bundle off more or less flush with the surface. If the hair has already begun to “slip”, this shearing may not be necessary.

A steel scraper made of a bent piece of strap steel about 1 inch wide is ground or filed to a semi-circular cutting edge and is hafted with a suitable wood handle. If the edge is fairly sharp (an extremely keen edge may cut through the hide too easily), the hair can be shaved off with firm downward strokes. Two hands are necessary. Two people can work at once in this process if each one has a scraper. The scarf skin will probably be removed along with the hair if the latter is difficult to remove. These strokes tend to stretch the hide so that the cords may need to be adjusted to keep the hide taut. A hide stretched too loosely may ripple up in front of the scraper blade which then can pierce the hide accidentally. A half of a cowhide may take an afternoon for de-hairing; a deerskin about two hours.

It is almost impossible to flesh and de-hair the hide in the immediate vicinity of the lacing and holes for fear of cutting the cords or distending the holes. This marginal area will be discarded later. When the de-hairing is complete, the hide can be washed in the stretched position. A better job is accomplished if the hide is taken down, but it means that it must be re-stretched afterward, which process is unduly tedious. A good job of de-hairing and scraping should leave fairly clean anyway, and it is only the remaining scraps of tissue and hair which need to be washed off. Because the hide is translucent to a degree, it can also be checked for thickness according to the degree of translucency. Excessively thick portions can be shaved down with the scraper. This can also be done later as the hide becomes stiffer. In the latter case, it is shaved almost as a plank would be planed except that the blade is curved rather than straight as on a wood plane.

Now the cords should be checked again, for the hide should have stretched quite a lot during these steps. For some rawhide construction, the hide may be taken down for immediate use. I prefer to dry it stretched out and to cut it later into usable shapes. The hide should be dried slowly for 2-3 days. Some slight dampening may be needed if the weather is dry. The shrinking of the drying hide necessitates a relieving of the tension cords. The legendary strength of drying rawhide is such that it may otherwise break the cords, rip out the holes, or even crack the frame poles. If the hide is dried slowly and sufficient tension has been allowed, the hide should dry to an extremely hard surface more like a sheet of metal than leather and with a brown or tan color. It may be translucent or opaque.

Sometimes, during the drying period, the hide is sanded with a block of sandstone. If this is done when the hide is too damp, the sandstone becomes quickly clogged with tissue and must be cleaned off frequently. If the hide is too dry, it may already be so hard that the sand refuses to cut. The sanding, if done at the opportune time, evens out irregularities in thickness and removes bits of hanging tissue from the previous processes. Any nap of texture remaining from sanding can be smoothed with a light sponging. Coarse sandpaper can be used in place of sandstone, of course.

Some tribes cured rawhide with an application of urine. It is said that a washing in urine before drying creates a bleached white color. This has been called by the French, babiche , when it is cut into lacing. In most journals, babiche and lace are terms used interchangeably with no reference to the urine treatment. I used a gallon of urine on a half cowhide recently, but with no noticeable results. The ammonia in the urine should act as a bleach, but in my experiment, it only made a smell.

When the hide is completely dry, it may be set aside for future use in a cool, dry, place. Extreme humidity will cause the hide to wrinkle which may be bothersome later.

Skipped section on Babiche.

Other uses of rawhide: DRUMS

Rawhide is ideally suited for drum heads because of its shrinking characteristics. As a matter of fact, it is still used in drums professionally today. Several drum designs were used by the Indians, but all had rawhide heads. Woodland tribes used a water drum in certain ceremonies. This drum was made of a hollow section of log with a bottom fitted like a barrel hoop, pressed over it and down the sides to hold the head taut. The drum was tuned by pouring in a quantity of water through a hole in the side of the drum which was plugged when the proper pitch was achieved. It is said that this drum was not loud in its immediate vicinity, yet, when placed on the ground, its sound carried for a considerable distance. Some Southwest tribes made drums by stretching rawhide over an appropriate pottery shape. The head was held in place with a wrapping of lace. More familiar to the layman is the tambourine or “tom-tom”. In the manufacture of these a hoop of split green wood about three inches wide was bent and the overlapping ends laced together. Woodland tribes usually fitted two heads over the hoop, for a front and back, and a handle was provided somewhere on the hoop. A drum was considered sacred to its owner who painted the heads with personal symbols of magical powers. In addition, some Woodland tambourines became a kind of trap drum, for several cords were stretched inside beneath the head. Small pieces of wood were tied on these strings so that a beat on the head vibrated the head but also caused the wood to rattle inside. Plains tambourines usually had only one head which was laced across the back or opposite side. These laces provided a handhold for its use.

You may also wish to check this article on: "How to make rawhide" posted to AAA Native Arts website on Tuesday, February, 12, 2K2, @ 03:43:44 PST


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