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Ojibwa women have been tanning hides for centuries. Buckskin is good material for clothing because it is warm and durable. Different thicknesses of hides can be used for different purposes, and tanning is not too difficult to do yourself.
- Clean the flesh side of the hide by scraping it with a blade. Bone fleshers were once used for this purpose. You want to remove all the flesh and blood stains.
- Soak the fleshed hide in clean water for three days and three nights. Wring the hide out and fasten one end of it to a fence or tree, and scrape the hide to remove the hair. If the hair is really long, cut it first. Go against the grain of the hair, and scrape away from yourself.
- Soak the fleshed and de-haired hide in a mixture of brains and water. Every animal has just enough brains to tan its hide. Simmer the brains in water with a little fat in it, then rub the mixture onto both sides. Rub it in well until it is almost absorbed. If the hide is dry, get it wet and soft before rubbing on the brain mixture. Now sprinkle the hide with warm water and roll it up tightly. Let it set overnight.
- Loop the hide over a stout stick, then take the two ends and twist the hide into a thick rope. Roll the sides up toward the middle first. Use another stout stick at the other end and overlap the ends. Grab hold of the ends and the stick and wring the moisture out of the hide. This also stretches it. Place the hide on a big piece of wood and scrape it again on both sides to remove any remaining little scraps of flesh, hair, or liquid. Now you need to stretch the hide back to its original size.
- Hold onto the hide tightly and use your hands and feet to stretch it as much as you can. Make a rough wooden frame larger than the original hide. Punch holes all around the edges of the hide, about 3 inches (7.6 cm) apart. Use leather thongs or waterproof cord to attach the hide to the frame, making the hide taut.
- Turn to the hair side and work the hide with your hands and a tool to soften the hide and stretch it. In the old days people used a bone or antler with a stone lashed to it, but later on people used a tool like a small hoe. Guide the scraper with your left hand and use your right hand to press hard to break the hide down and soften it. You'll have to tighten up the cords now and then to keep it taut.
- Note that once the skin is soft, pliable, and dry it is ready to be smoked. Stitch up any holes in the hide, then sew it up the sides of the hide to make a bag. Close one end so it is pretty tight - tight enough to hold the smoke. Invert the skin bag over a hole about a foot across and half that deep. Use sticks to make a rough frame to hold the skin bag open, and you can tie the closed end to a tree or use another long stick to keep it up.
- Make a small smoky fire built in the hole to smoke the skin. Once the little fire has a coal bed built up, start adding smoke chips to it and peg the skin around the hole. A little channel tunneled out to one side will allow you to keep the fire supplied. Once the inside is smoked, turn the bag inside out and smoke the other side. The smoking doesn't take very long. A very thin hide might be done in ten minutes (one side). Thick moccasin hide might take an hour.
- Note that smoking the hides gives them color. This color can range from cream to brown. Also, a smoked hide that has gotten wet can be carefully dried out so it stays soft and smooth. Unsmoked hides will stiffen up after getting wet.
- If you put some wood ash from a campfire in the water while it soaks, the hair should pull out very easily. It makes the water a diluted lye solution.
- White pine smoke tends to make black hides.
- Dried corn cobs will smoke very well and give the skins a yellow color.
- Be very careful when you are scraping and stretching the hide. Work away from yourself. Scraping and stretching tools shouldn't be sharp, but because you are applying pressure, they can hurt you if you slip.
- While the hides are smoking, stay right there and keep an eye on the fire.
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