Natural Hide Tanning

Victoria practices vegetable tanning, brain tanning, and combination tanning methods at her home tannery in the North Carolina mountains. She focuses predominantly on small fur hides and deer.

Small furbearers typical to her practice include fox, possum, raccoon, squirrel, cottontail, and domestic (European) rabbit. She has more experience tanning domestic rabbit hides than any other single species of animal, which has driven her to perfect that particular hide. She also has some experience tanning fish, amphibian, and reptilian skins.

Currently, Victoria devotes most of her deer hide tanning practice to vegetable tanning hair-off, grain-on deer leather. She also makes grain-on leather from small animals (including those listed above) as well as braintanned deer buckskin.

Being a botanist, Victoria experiments with many species of wild plants throughout the Southeastern US for tanning, many of which are non-typical to natural tanning, and thus produces a great variety of styles and color of leather. 

Increasingly, many of Victoria's hides are tanned using only local wild materials, meaning wild harvested plants and fats rendered directly from the animals themselves, such as raccoon, possum, and bear. Such practices are, she believes, essential to a truly natural tanning craft which honors the sacredness of all life. 

Victoria demonstrating varying colors of leather on rabbit furs tanned with different plants. Included above are green winged sumac leaves, red winged sumac leaves, blackberry leaf, hemlock bark, black walnut husk, and alder bark.

Why tan in this old fashioned way?

Tanning in these ancient methods uses only such ingredients as leaves, tree barks, fat, brains, eggs, water, wood ash, fire, and smoke. No manufactured or store bought products are required, and no harmful chemicals. A natural tanning practice can meld into complete harmony with the workings of a small farm or homestead. All byproducts, such as hair, rancid flesh, boiled leaves and barks, and wood ash return to the garden or forest as fertilizer, and no part of an animal need be wasted.

Today, a natural tanning practice can make use almost entirely of waste materials. Most skins from animal processors, hunters, small farmers, and wild animals killed by cars are either left to rot or end up in dumpsters and landfills. An abundance of food grade and non-food grade animal fat and vegetable oils end up in dumpsters as well, all of which can be used in tanning. Natural tanning honors both death and life by understanding that all of nature's materials are sacred, and that we can live more richly and abundantly by practicing the skills which move us into deep harmony with nature rather than depending upon products which harm life.  

How can I learn natural tanning?

Victoria teaches hands-on classes on beginning fur tanning. Currently offered classes are listed here. Victoria's book, Sacred Alchemy: A Guide to Tanning Small Hides Naturally, which focuses predominantly upon the vegetable tanning method is expected to be completed by end of 2018.

For guidance on braintanning buckskin, there is no better learning material than Matt Richard's book Deerskins Into Buckskins paired together with his video instruction DVDs. Other great books on buckskin include The Ancient Art of Braintanning by Edholm & Wilder, and Blue Mountain Buckskin by Jim Riggs. The Ancient Art of Braintanning also includes some information on vegetable tanning deer skins using barks. 

What is vegetable tanning?

Vegetable tanning is an ancient method of transforming raw animals skins into leather using very strong "teas" of tannic plants. Essentially, a skin soaks in tannic liquid for anywhere from several days to many months, and gradually changes from raw skin to leather. Most commercial leather products or faux leather products sold today are imitations of old style, tradition vegetable tan. 

Sometimes the term vegetable tanning is used synonymously with bark tanning or simply tanning. The term bark tanning however is a misnomer, because this method of tanning may make use of leaves (such as sumac), roots, and fruits (botanically speaking) as well as bark from many a plant, tree, or shrub. 

Deer leather sandals tanned with red sumac leaf. Inspired by ancient Coptic Egyptian & Roman leather sandals, and modern day Indian jootis slippers. Pretty much the only form of shoe Victoria wears during the warm season. They need new or additional soles at least once a year. Shoes like this are meant to ultimately disintegrate back into the earth and be replaced frequently. Wearing them is as comfortable as a second skin.

Frog leather is extremely soft and supple, and for its ultra thinness is surprisingly strong. Definitely an oddity among leathers!

This is how soft and floppy fully tanned and softened rabbit hides can be, especially those tanned with sumac leaves. These hides are extra large domestic rabbit skins.

This simple bag is made from one de-haired, vegetable tanned domestic rabbit hide, simply folded (no cuts) and stitched with rabbit leather thong. It has held up from years of daily use as a money pouch without busting a single stitch or tear. Even I am impressed!

2-hide deer buckskin dress, dyed with black walnut husks

Braintanned raccoon hide bag, with braided deer buckskin strap. Raccoon hides are thick skinned and greasy, which makes them more work to tan.. Expect to dress & soften the hide multiple times in order to get it reasonably floppy.

Scraping hair from a bucked deer hide.

I was shocked to find that sweet gum leaves are almost an exact analog to winged sumac in tannic strength, the ultra-light color of the leather, and it's fluffy softness. This rabbit hid still wet and in process of tanning.

1-hide vegetable tanned squirrel pouch, sewn with deer sinew, with black walnut dyed deer buckskin as a strap to reinforce the very delicate squirrel tail. Vegetable tanned squirrel hides make beautiful fur-on leather as well as tough hair-off, grain on leather.

Dyes on buckskin. White is the color of this lightly smoked hide after many washings of this garment. Mustard yellow is dyer's polypore mushroom. Salmon pink is alder bark. Soak buckskin in room temperature dyes only. Never cook natural leather!

Simple 2-hide, no cut, undercoat rabbit fur vest. This garment is great as an extra middle layer under a heavier coat. Details, like extra fine braided under-arm ties give this simple garment intimacy and beauty.

The colors and patterns of rabbit furs verily number the stars. They look as amazing as they feel. 

My first time trying witch hazel leaves & twigs in fur tanning. The leather color (here wet) is surprisingly dark.

Deer leather satchel (tanned with hemlock bark) made from "messy hide." Hides which don't turn out perfect are some of the best to craft with, because you won't be afraid to cut it up, dive in, and learn something. This bag (intended to be light duty) has undergone immense wear over time, and has yet to tear. It has been a personal lesson to me about the strength of natural leather.

© 2020 by Victoria Greba 

Esmont, VA