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Native American Deerskin Dressing:   Page 4
         Never heard of this step, huh? This is the really exciting stuff! Fresh hides are structurally bound up by the "ground substance", a.k.a. mucopolysaccharides ( many sweet mucus?). This is something you need to deal with with every hide you tan! Until recently, most modern wet-scrapers had to brain and rebrain deerskins until they got soft. This can be very annoying. It is necessary because the fibers are coated with "many sweet mucus" that inhibit brain penetration. In living tissue these mucoids prevent penetration by whatever weird stuff you immerse your skin in. Stone-age Indians as well as ancient and modern old world tanners had ways of dealing with this, and did so conciously with each and every hide, and so should you! The bottom line is that if you can neutralize the ground substance, you can get complete brain penetration in one simple dunk in the brain solution.
"...powerful control (is) exerted by the ground substance over the passage of ions through skin. The mucopolysaccharides in ground substance ...bind water so firmly that few other types of ions can normally reach the fibres. ...Tannage of pelt with the ground substance still present, e.g. the tanning of raw skin, tends to be slow, uneven and uncertain."
R. Reed, Ancient Skins, Parchments, and Leathers

        These are some definite, and some speculative, structure openers that I have found in neolithic deerskin dressing:

* marks the definite ones

        *Curing dry skins
        *Alkaline soaks (usually wood-ash)
        Tannic acid soaks
        Carbohydrate soaks (particularly corn)-
        Hot springs (opens my structure at least)
        *Sharp-tool scraping(dry-scrape)
        Repeated freeze/thaw
        *Multiple brainings--includes multiple wringings


"Have you ever noticed that when tanning skins in August, its easy to get the brains penetrated and the hides supple? You think you know what you're doing... and then you get fresh hides in September and SLAM it takes three brainings to get them soft."

        As a dried hide sits over time, it cures. My theory is that the cure involves the mucus bonds weakening and then dissolving. This allows much easier brain penetration. Whether this was conciously used I cannot say, but many peoples had the rhythm of hunting deer in the fall and either fleshing, or fleshing and graining, and then drying and storing their hides until spring or summer. Many tribes had traditions of drying brains and storing them which implies this rhythm. Whether concious or not, this method was and is widely used. In some instances at least, it is likely that the hides were stored in the rafters of dwellings, and were thus pre-smoked (see pre-smoking section) as well as cured.
         In my experience, partial cures seem to occur in 4-6 months and full cures seem to require a minimum of 9-12 months, depending on weather and storage conditions. If you find a three year old hide in Aunt Bessie's barn, tan it! If the bugs haven't beaten ya too it, it'll scrape and soften easily.

"The hide of the deer was soaked in water and ashes and the hair removed, and then the process of tanning continued until the buckskin was soft and pliable."
        Many tribes soaked their skins in wood-ash water prior to scraping. The reason for this is often credited to the ashes causing the hair to fall out. The real value of the ashes lies in the alkalinity's ability to disrupt the mucoid bonds. It opens the structure in two to four days. Michelle and I are excitedly using this method. By adding ash to your pre-scraping soak, you can get complete brain penetration in one simple braining with fresh hides. The Comanche used burnt lime rock for the same effect. It was likely intentionally and unintentionally practiced in desert areas by soaking hides in alkaline lakes, pools or creeks (I now doubt this as few natural bodies of water are alkaline enough to be effective). This method was used, at the very least, throughout the Plains, Great Basin, California, and northern Mexico, as well as scattered other places. This method was also the predominant one used by American pioneers as well as modern commercial tanneries (who use hydrated lime or commercial lye).

Getting the p.h. of the solution right is the key to this method. The ideal alkali content is between p.h. 12 and p.h. 13. Pioneers would float an egg or a potato in the lye solution, if it floated so that an area the size of a quarter was exposed above the surface, then it was perfect. Alkali will temporarily cause hides to swell and feel rubbery. The merit of wood ashes were summed up by Andy Schuebeck, an eighty-four year old rancher that I met this spring, who was reminiscing about his youth when his family and neighbors made buckskin,

" They would soak the hide in wood ash water to get the glue out, so it tanned easier."
For a complete guide to this method check out the book Deerskins into Buckskins

         Prior to braining the Klallam soaked their hides in boiled fern leaves. Other peoples added tannins to their braining solution in the form of punky douglas fir or shredded wood barks. This could have two possible effects. Tannins chemically combine with collagen fibers and change their nature, possibly interfering with the mucoid bonds. Acidity alone has much the same effect as alkalinity and would likely disrupt these bonds in much the same way. I have not used tannins in this way, though Steven Edholm and Tamara Wilder have. They did it with one hide and said that it seemed to improve brain penetration

"Young Indian corn, beaten to a pulp, will effect the same as brains."
John Lawson , describing the Indians of North Carolina, in 1709.
        Indians of the southeast, northeast and the southern plains soaked their hides in corn water. Either using mashed sweet corn alone, or ground flint corn and brains to tan their hides. Soaked corn as it sits quickly sours, with two possible effects. Yeasts (such as acidophilus) digest the carbohydrates in corn and excrete acids ... and acids disrupt mucoid bonds. And, if you remember, our friends the mucoids are mucopolysaccharides. The saccharides, are also carbohydrates that the yeasts will digest, opening the structure. I have tried this in part with one hide, and I believe it improved brain penetration. It merits more experiments. There is no evidence that stone-age Indians allowed their corn to sour for this effect. However, mashed sweet corn, soaking for 24 hrs., during corn season on the east coast where it is 90 degrees, 24 hrs. a day, is guaranteed to sour and have these effects. So it must have happened.
        The technique of using soured grains was very commonly used in Europe for the same reasons. There they would use, soured grains or even beer dregs.

        Using a sharp tool allows one to scrape deeper, removing the entire grain and papillary layer where fibers are densely packed and the ground substance is particularly concentrated. It is easier to penetrate brains into the remaining fiber core where the fibers are larger and less tightly packed. Dry-scrape and sharp-edged wet-scrape(a modern hybrid) both accomplish this, and this is their advantage (see Jim Riggs' Blue Mountain Buckskin for a thorough account of dry-scraping). They can be very efficient methods, and I have successfully used them many times. The drawback is that you can very easily scrape too deep, creating holes and an uneven surface.

        A few tribes hand-stretched their hides over a smoky fire after the first brain soak prior to the second, and a few others dried their just-scraped hides over a smokey fire. As mentioned before, this may have also been done incidentally by storing hides in smokey rafters. Smoke changes the internal structure of a hide creating crosslinks which I don't pretend to understand. It is still practiced in Canada by Native Americans on moose hides and by the Dinsmore bros in Montana on deerskins. They say that pre-smoked hides are easily brained in two soaks. For more information read Joe and Victoria Dinsmore's online guide to 'pre-smoking'.


"The Shuswap declare that skins are rendered much easier to dress by freezing (after graining)"
James Teit, ethnographer, 1900.
        A few tribes conciously froze and thawed their hides repeatedly, claiming that it made them easier to brain. Matt McMahon and Molly Miller did this for years with the same effect. It is not claimed to result in one soak braining.
        Some tribes, like many of us, simply rebrained their hides once or twice, after working them partly dry, especially large skins. Each time the hide is soaked, brains penetrate deeper, opening the structure more. Repeated wringing and soaking is an efficient form of this practiced by some peoples, then and now. This method is also used when other methods fall short. I tanned 100's of hides with this general method, and hadalways hoped there was a better way. There is and there are....

        Structure openers work. Understanding the need to neutralize the ground substance can make your tanning predictable and fun, instead of unpredictable and irritating. Each of these methods has its ins and outs. I encourage you to experiment and where possible seek out knowledgeable sources for more detailed how-to information.
Technical Notes for Tanners
A suggested control for deerskin experiments

        You must know the status of your hide's internal structure if you want to experiment with ways of improving brain penetration. Use fresh , frozen or wet-salted hides, hides which have not significantly dried since the deer's death.

        When hides dry they start to cure and an unknown factor comes into play: how much is cure affecting your results?

        Dried hides don't fully resaturate easily, which interferes with any soaking experiments you may try (e.g. wood-ash soaks). Hides frozen with the hair-on, or wet-salted seem to undergo no noticeable curing. They are just as tough to brain as fresh ones. Wet-salted means wet, not damp, almost as wet as it was on the deer's back. I experiment with frozen and wet-salted hides, and use fresh hides for the ultimate test.

Let's define "A Braining"

        As we work to simplify our techniques, hide-tanners often discuss how many brainings it takes to get a hide soft, but we have different definitions of the term. For some, it is how many times a hide was soaked in the brains, for others it is how many times a hide was worked until dry. Each time a hide is brought to the ' wrung out sponge' moisture content and then put in the brain soup, brains penetrate deeper.
        I suggest that if you get complete penetration in one soak, call it one braining. If you wring and resoak four times, call it four brainings. If you don't work the hide dry in between then you are rebraining efficiently, but you are rebraining. (note: hides brain better damp than dry, there is no advantage to working them all the way dry inbetween brainings)
        Despite the fact that some techniques can result in consistently complete penetration in just one soak, you're always better off braining more than once just to be sure.

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