Tanning Rabbit Hides with Kids

The art of transforming skins into leather is a traditional skill held by nearly every human culture that existed up until the industrial revolution.  Protecting our skin from the elements is the first step for meeting our shelter needs and the skins and furs of animals are perfect for providing the raw materials for manufacturing clothing.  Modern Homo sapiens’ lack of skill to meet this basic survival need is an indicator of how far removed contemporary humanity is from our origins.  This is why we decided to teach the children of our Clovis and Jumping Mouse programs how to tan hides the old way.  The following is a look into the process and experience.

Step one: obtaining the hides.

One reason why we decided to tan rabbit pelts with the children is because of the access we have to a local rabbit farm.  Another attractive feature is their size, which is small enough for the tanning project to be a reasonable undertaking.  We presented the kids with the hides (already skinned from the rabbits) and had each of them stretch their pelts flesh-side-out over a short section of round log to use as a fleshing and scraping surface.

Step two: fleshing

This is the part where you test how much the students really want to learn this skill.  When the hide comes off the animal various amounts of fat and flesh come with it.  This stuff has to come off in order to progress.  We used a variety of fleshing tools: some made from antler, stone, hard wood, and even our hands.  Some kids saved the fat pieces from their hides to use as fuel for their fat burning stone lamps.  They all agreed that this was the grossest part of the entire process. 


Step three: scraping

In order for the dressing to thoroughly coat the fiber structure of the hides (the dermis), the thin membrane from the flesh side (the hypodermis) needs to be scraped off.  We used the same tools that were utilized in the fleshing process, although now it was more of a challenge to keep the young tanners methodical and persistent enough to effectively remove the membrane.  This is the stage of the process that the kids received the most help from the instructors, mostly because it was difficult to see the membrane layer and they were just then gaining experience with the scraping tools for the first time.  Once the hides were more or less scraped, the children used sand paper to lightly buff the entire hide, paying special attention to the places that were stubborn to scrape.         

Step four: dressing

The dressing substance needs to be emulsified oil. Traditionally people used brains mashed up and mixed with warm water for tanning hides.  We used chicken eggs as our dressing, which have been used for this purpose for ages.  A dozen eggs beaten and mixed with a half gallon of warm water was enough for fourteen rabbit hides to get two applications.  The kids took turns with the paint brushes as they applied the egg dressing onto their dry scraped hides, being careful not to get any egg into the fur.  As the hides moistened they were worked with the hands in order to expose the fibers of the dermis to the oils in the dressing.  The hides were worked this way until dry, and then the dressing was reapplied.   


Step five: stitching

For many of the kids this was the first time they had threaded a needle. Each of the holes that had appeared in the hides (some from over scraping) were stitched closed using a simple whip stitch.  The craftsmanship clearly improved with the sewing of each hole.

Step six: stretching

With the holes all sewn up the stretching process began.  We fired up the wood stove in the barn and each student pulled and tugged on their hides in opposing directions until they were dry and velvety soft.  At this point the project was nearing its end and the kids could directly appreciate the transformation that was occurring.

Step seven: smoking

In order to seal the deal, the rabbit hides needed to be smoked.  When the smoke from punky wood is forced through the hide, the fibers of the dermis are coated with resins that finalize the transformation.  Our smoking station was composed of a metal bucket with 6 inches of hardwood coals in it, an overhead line of cordage about 10 feet high, and an old pair of denim pants for the buffer skirt.  The hides were stitched together into two furry tubes, each stitched to the cuff of each pant leg.  The other end of the hide tubes were tied off to the overhead line for suspension.  The waistline of the pants was sealed over the rim of the metal bucket after a fresh layer of punky wood was added to produce smoke.  The kids watched and listened attentively for flames, and added more punky wood when needed.  After 20 minutes or so the hides were finished smoking and the tanning process was completed.

After thoughts:

It was an ambitious project to have a group of kids (age 8-13) each tan their own rabbit hide.  Keeping their attention span’s focused on the completion of the project began to be a challenge for some, particularly during the scraping process.  However, each student’s enthusiasm was rekindled once the stretching was complete, and the hides changed texture from wet and slimy, to soft and velvety.  Each step of the way became its own curriculum: providing opportunities to develop skills and experience with stone tools, needle and thread, the anatomy of a mammal hide, natural history of the lagomorphs, and possibly the most valuable lesson being that persistence and hard work can pay off in great ways. 

 When all the hides were finished we took a group photo of the kids and their rabbit pelts.  Seconds after I took the picture, a snowshoe hare bounded out from the brush pile just behind the group and disappeared into the forest.   The kids scattered from their poses and promptly organized into tracking teams.  As one project ended another began.

By Nick Neddo