I have been working with reindeer leather for the past year or so, hand stitching and making small bags, purses and pouches. My interest in reindeer leather began when I decided I wanted to weave and work with materials from my Saami heritage. My grandmother used to make reindeer leather shoes, bags and other items that she sold to the Sami community in Northern Norway. Many of these types of items were embellished with hand woven colourful bands or pewter thread embroidery. After doing some research in online museum archives, I discovered that fish skins were also tanned and used to make bags and other items.
I first learned about fish tanning during one of the textile and dye workshops that I attended in Finland. I thought I would do a bit more research on the various ways to tan a fish and make it into useable leather.
Wear protective rubber gloves at all times when handling fish. This will protect you from any bacteria that may be on the fish, and will also prevent the fish from getting bacteria that can affect the tanning process.
The basic procedure for tanning fish leather is to remove the skin from the fish. This is easier to do if the fish has been frozen.
Using a spoon, scrape off the fish scales.
Turn the fish skin over and gently scrape off the fat and as much of the membrane as you can. With some types of fish, this can be quite easy to do and sometimes more difficult.
Rinse in clean water.
Soak in the tanning solution for 12-24 hours – sometimes longer depending on the tanning method you are using.
Soften the tanned skin by rubbing egg yolks and oil. This replaces some of the proteins and fish fats that were removed during the tanning process.
Let the oiled skin dry.
Then massage, rub, stretch and work the skin until it is soft and flexible. This can take several hours to do.
There are many methods and recipes for tanning fish skin. Here are a few, though I haven’t had a chance to try all of them yet.
Urine is often used to tan fish leather. The ammonia from the urine helps to break down the fats and fibrous cells of the fish skin.
Urine Tanned Fish Leather
Egg Yolk and Smoke Fish Tanning
This recipe includes the use of egg yolks and smoke to tan the fish leather.
Making Leather from Fish Skin
Bark Tanning Salmon Skins
Fish Leather Products
Moon Rise Jewellery
What is Fish Leather
Sustainable Fish Leather for Clothing
Kari Furre – A Maker of Fish Leather
A fin of beauty: the art of making objects out of fish leather
Fish Tanning Books
Fish Leather Tanning and Sewing
Lotta Rahme has written a book about tanning fish leather. She also offers workshops in the fish tanning process.
Look for some of my handmade products made from fish leather in my Etsy Shop.