Modern-day hobbyists study and practice the ancient art of curing hides by relying on historical accounts. However, there is not just one set of traditional curing techniques. Even within individual Native American tribes, the techniques used to cure hides could vary widely. Overall, deerskins were the most popular hide to cure, and were readily available for many tribes. Although curing hides was often messy and time consuming, the end result was a durable, soft fabric with a wide range of uses.
Bones cut into a sharp or serrated angle on one end, sharp-edged stones, or stones affixed to wooden handles were common tools used to flesh and clean animal hides. Wooden pegs or frames were often used to stretch a hide for cleaning, to stretch and soften, and later to dry and smoke. Pumice, mussel shells, and turtle shells were some of the tools traditionally used to stretch and soften hides. However, some Native Americans also chewed on hides to soften them.
Cleaning the Hide
Deerskins were usually wet scraped over a wooden beam to remove meat and fat. The beam was often set at an angle against the ground or a tree. Some Native Americans would scrape hides while stretched and pegged to the ground or stretched within a wooden frame. A solution of wood ashes and water might be used to remove hair.
Before soaking or rubbing a brain solution into the hide, Native Americans often used an intermediate step to ensure the membrane or mucus on the hide was fully removed. Some methods included smoking the hide or repeatedly freezing and thawing it. The hide was rubbed or soaked well in a brain solution. Techniques included rolling and wringing the hide, then using softening and stretching tools to thoroughly rub the brain solution into the hide and work the hide to remove moisture. Hides would be thoroughly dried and sometimes smoked over a fire in a frame or a tripod made of three wooden sticks. Sometimes hides were dyed using bark dyes from trees such as oaks and willows.
Hide Types and Uses
Deerskins were used as a soft, multipurpose fabric for leggings, shirts, moccasins, dresses, pouches and containers. Although deerskins were the most popular hide to cure, Native Americans also cured moose, elk, antelope, caribous, bighorn sheep and many others. Curing techniques were at times adapted to maintain the rich fur coats of buffalo, sheep, and other hides to create warm, soft blankets.
- Braintan.com; The Bulletin of Primitive Technology: Brains, Bones & Hotsprings; Matt Richards; Fall 1996
- Braintan.com; The History of Brain Tan; adapted from Deerskins into Buckskins; Matt Richards
- New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension; Tanning Deer Hides and Small Fur Skins; Jon Boren, Terrell T. “Red” Baker, Brian J. Hurd, and Glenn Mason; Oct. 2004
- Thomas Northcut/Photodisc/Getty Images