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Carrier Elder Lucy Ann Bock

with a dress she made, 1999.

Mtis Garment Project

Hide Tanning: A Record of a Modern
Carrier Method
Spring/Summer/Fall 2000
Written and Compiled by Kim Stewart
Photos by Kim Stewart, Tracy Robbestad, and
Heather Young-Leslie, used by permission.

With thanks to those who

provided financial support:

University of Alberta,
project seed funding

Canada Council for the Arts/

Jean A Chalmers Fund for the

Nechako Fraser Junction Mtis

Mtis Garment Project


In 1999, two women discussed their desire to investigate the unique styles
and techniques of Mtis garment making. As an anthropologist and a Mtis
contemporary artist, they were acutely aware of the aesthetic beauty of
the Euro- Canadian- Aboriginal combination of materials and elements and
that the skills for these techniques lay with an aging population of Elders.
Their desire to preserve and reignite these skills led to the forming of the
Mtis Womens Garment Making project in the city of Prince George, British
Columbia where the women lived and worked. The project had artistic goals
for reconnecting Mtis women with the skills and knowledge required to pro-
duce traditional textiles, including garments and regalia that their ancestors
once produced. Their goals were to investigate methods and aesthetics by
relearning the traditional way of garment making, from tanning and use of
hides to the designs and the beadwork motifs. The projected aspired to devel-
op a common descriptive language, identify any unique tools required to per-
form tasks, and to document the process step by step. With funding from The
University of Alberta, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Nechako Fraser
Junction Mtis Association, the group grew to 11 people and the work began.

The group of women were unable to find Mtis Elders who could tan hides in
Prince George, so in the spring of 2000, they approached Carrier Elders Lucy
and Shirley Bock and made known their desire to learn. These two women had
been tanning hides since they were girls with their mother and grandmother
and had a wealth of knowledge. They agreed to work along side the project,
sharing what they knew. This commitment lasted an entire year and was rec-
ognized as a great gift from the Elders to the women in the garment project.
772 participant hours and 307 Elder hours were logged for hide tanning from
July to November of 2000.

The Group:

Elders for hide tanning:

Lucy and Shirley Bock, (Margo Allison and Gertie Regan via interview)

Kim Stewart and Heather Young-Leslie

Gail Rhodes, Joanne Paquette, Tracy Robbestad, Val Sylte, Shirley Vhal,
Georgina Scully, Rachel Hambler
Mtis Garment Project
Hide Tanning: A Record of a Modern Carrier
Method, Spring/Summer/Fall 2000

Compiled by Kim Stewart

1: Build the Frame.

a) The frame is made out of 4 light, thin logs, about 4-6

inches in diameter and 9-12 feet in length. These logs
are fastened together in the shape of a square. Supports
are added to the corners to keep the frame from twist-
ing when the hide is stretched tight. Try to build with
light materials as you will be lifting and turning the
frame with the hide on it later. (Joanne Paquette with
a) frame).

2: Lace the Hide on the Frame.

b) Work with a fresh hide or one that has been previ-

ously frozen. Lay the hide, hair down, on the ground in
the centre of your frame. Holes must then be cut along
the entire perimeter of the hide. Make the holes about
1 inch long and about 8 inches apart. Use a very sharp
knife. (Tracy Robbestad cutting holes).

c) Secure the corners, or legs of the hide to the corners

of the frame. Take care to secure them tightly as the
hide will later hold the body weight of as many as 3 peo-
b) ple. Then start at the neck of the skin and lace the rope
through the holes and around the frame until the whole
hide is held by the frame. Pull hard on each of the ropes
to tighten them until the hide is a tight as a drum. (Kim
Stewart and Shirley Bock lacing hide).

d) Now lift one end of the hide and frame and support
it on a stand about 3 feet high, flesh side up. You can
also lean the frame against several trees or posts. (Tracy
Robbestand and youth, April on hide).


Mtis Garment Project
Hide Tanning, page two:

3: Remove the Flesh.

a) Lay an old blanket down across the hide so that

you wont slip. The blanket will also keep the flesh
moist and protect your clothing as you work. Climb
up on the hide. (Tracy and Shirley removing the flesh).

b) Using a very sharp knife, take the meat off by slid-

a) ing the blade from left to right or right to left and
slowly work your way down. (youth, Alec Stewart
removes the flesh)

c) Be careful to apply just the right amount of pres-

sure as you work so that you dont cut holes in the
skin. If you see the hair from underneath, you have
cut too deep. The skin should look white and felt-like.
Remember, each of the marks you make in the skin
now may show later.

d) Once all the flesh is removed, turn the frame over,

still propped up with the hair running down, and let
the hide air dry for about 4-10 days in preparation for
dry scraping.

Mtis Garment Project
Hide Tanning, page three:

4: Removing the Hair.

a) The hair can be removed in several ways. One way

is to use a scraper made from a sharpened metal tool
and scrape on the dry hide. You can also soak your
hide for several days in water which will loosen the
hair. Pictured to the left is the scraper used to remove
the hair with Lucy Ann Bock and her nephew.

a) b) The hair follicles need to be scraped off the hide.

When this is done properly, the hide is almost white
in colour. If the hide has been soaking in water for
several days, you can pull the hair off with your hands
as it will be loose.Then you must re-tie the hide to
the frame, let it dry again and scrape off the layer of
skin that contained the follicles. (Kim Stewart scrap-

c) The angle at which the tool is sharpened and the

b) angle at which you hold the tool are very important
to the success of the scraping. This scraper is only
sharpened on the top side and is held with both
hands with the handle angled toward the hide. You
want the hair and follicles to peel away from the hide
like old wallpaper off a wall. (Tracy Robbestad and
Gail Rhodes remove hair follicles).


Mtis Garment Project
Hide Tanning page four:

5: Oil the Hide.

a) Oiling can be done when the hide is on the stretch-

er, or after it has been removed.The oil is applied to
the hair side of the skin and left in a dry, warm place
for 3 days.

b) Traditionally the brains of the animal were used.

a) Today brains can be difficult to obtain due to con-
cerns with disease. There are many different recipes
for oils that can be used in place of the brains to soft-
en the fibres of the hide. In this case we used a mix-
ture of bakers grease, chain saw oil and kerosene.


6: Wash and Wring the Hide.

c) The skin can be soaked in water for up to 3 days

to soften it, but you must change the water every
day. Once the hide is soft, take it out of the water
and wash it in a solution of warm water, Sunlight bar
soap, kerosene and fabric softener.We used an older
model of a wringer washer to wash the hide. It can be
washed by hand as well.
d) Once the hide is washed, it is removed from the
water and folded. Fold the leg of one side in towards
the centre, and the leg of the opposite rear in toward
the centre, then fold either side in once more, until
you have a narrow, long shape, like a log. The hide is
now ready to be wrung. This hide is wrung on a hand
built lever system by folding the 'log' in half, looping
it around a pole, securing the loose ends to a lever
and turning that lever until the hide tightens and
d) water begins to drip. You can leave the hide this way
to drip for up to an hour. If the weather is hot, you
may need to cover the hide with a blanket to keep
it from drying out too fast. If it drys too fast, it will
harden and you will have to re-wet it and begin the
softening process again.

e) Tracy Robbestad is shown wringing a deer hide 'by

hand' by looping it onto a spike nailed in a tree, then
using a stick to twist it.

Mtis Garment Project
Hide Tanning page five:

7: Stretch the hide.

a) The hide must be wrung over and over again fold-

ing it in opposite directions each time. In between
wringing, it needs to be pulled and stretched out until
the skin looks white again. Really pull and stretch that
hide using a lot of strength. You may choose to use
two people to pull. The action of the wringing and
a) stretching is what softens the hide.

b) An option to wringing and stretching is to 'wet

scrape' the hide. This works best on smaller hides,
like deer. The hide is draped over a smooth, clean log
and 'scraped dry' using a dull edge. (Val Stylte scrap-
ing hide).


8: Flour and scrape the hide.

c) The "now dry and soft" hide must be put back on

a frame for this step. Lace it on as tight as you can.
Flouring and scraping a hide removes any rough
spots and cleans the hide. It will also take off any
excess fiber that may be left on the skin. Be sure to
flour both sides of the hide and to push hard enough
to stretch the skin a bit. Be careful with deer hides as
they will tear easily. The hide should be smooth and
soft when finished this step.

d) Flouring and scraping is done with a special tool

which has a long handle and a metal 'toothed' edge.
The metal is not sharp, but the teeth help to remove
c) any remaining flaws such as left over skin. (Kim
Stewart pictured with the flouring tool.)

Mtis Garment Project
Hide Tanning page six:

9: Repair the holes.

a) All holes in the soft, dry hide must now be sewn up

in preparation for the smoking. If a hole is large and
in the middle of your hide, you may want to patch it
with a piece of hide from the edges.

b) Most holes can be sewn up by joining the two open

a) sides using a baseball stitch. Use sinew, either real, or
synthetic as the repair has to be strong and a three-
sided leather needle. You may also need a pair of
pliers to push the needle through the hide if the hide
is thick. (Kim Stewart repairing holes).


10: Sew the hide into a tube, or "pillow case" shape.

The hide will be smoked over a smoldering, rotted

spruce wood fire. The smoke needs to be trapped
in the hide for a length of time in order to trap the
'tannin' from the wood into the hide. It is the 'tan-
nin' which gives the hide its golden or tan colour and
makes the hide water repellent.
c) In order to trap the smoke, the hide is sewn into
a pillow case shape. This can be done by hand on
a sewing machine. If you use a sewing machine, be
sure to put a leather needle on it first and use a wide,
basting stitch so that it can be taken out after.

d) Shirley Bock is holding up the hide tube by the

strong string loops that have been attached to the top
two corners. The hide will hang from the loops on a
wooden rod over a smoking basin.

Mtis Garment Project
Hide Tanning page seven:

11: Sew a denim skirt on the bottom of the hide.

a) A skirt of thick material, (we used denim) must

be attached to the bottom of the hide 'tube' in order
to protect it from any potential 'flare-ups' with the
smoke fire. The occasional flame will erupt and will
blacken whatever is closest to it. The denim 'takes
the heat' in those instances. (Gail Rhodes attaches the
skirt by hand.)


12: Light the fire.

b) Arrange your rotten spruce wood in a metal pot

with some paper and a handful of 'finger-sized' kin-
dling underneath. Light the paper and coax the fire.
Place this pot within a larger metal basin.

c) Before the flames really take hold, blow the fire

out, or cover it for a bit as you want the smoke, not
the flame.


Mtis Garment Project
Hide Tanning page eight:

13: Suspend the hide over the smoking pot.

a) Hoist the hide on the loops you created by running

a stick through them and tieing the stick to an over-
head log. Prop the top of the hide open with a stick
placed inside horizontally.

b) Arrange the denim skirt around the edges of the

outside pot. There should be a good 6-8 inches of
denim between the edge of the pot and the hide. You
can use clothes pins to secure the edges of the denim
to the metal basin.



14: Plug areas where smoke is escaping.

c) Plug any holes you may have missed when repair-

ing the hide, or any other areas where smoke may be
escaping. We used little wooden plugs and clothes
pins. Remember that any area of hide you pinch off
will not turn brown.

Mtis Garment Project
Hide Tanning page nine:

13: Check progress.

a) When hide has turned a golden brown it is finished.

Now turn the hide tube inside out and smoke the
opposite side. Shake out the finished hide, remove
the skirt and stitches and hang it outside to air out.


14: The hides are ready.

b) Joanne Paquette, Gail Rhodes, Val Stylte, and

Tracy Robbestad examine finished hides.


15: Final Step: create garments, footwear or

other items.

c) Ladies planning a vest.

d) Mittens in progress.


Mtis Garment Project

With special thanks to:

Carrier Elders: Lucy Ann Bock and Shirley Bock for your
incredible dedication and patience.

Dedicated to:

Mtis Elder: Gertie Regan who passed away during

the project.


This compilation is the property of Kim Stewart and may be distrib-

uted in its entirety for education purposes only. Photos and text
may not be removed from their context within this compilation and
used or distributed separately by any means, graphic, electronic, or
mechanical without permission in writing from Kim. The information
contained in this compilation is not to be sold.