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
Among the ancient Inca, the Aclla Cuna or Virgins of the Sun were selected from girls aged 8-10 who had special beauty. They spent their lives in temple convents and prepared food, corn beer and tended the sacred fire. They also spun very fine thread and wove garments for the emperor to be used in special ceremonies and sacrifices.
Vadmal is a woven wool cloth that has been felted. Felting the fabric after weaving, thickens the cloth and makes it wind and water resistant as well as warm. Vadmal is generally woven in a tabby or a twill weave on warp weighted or floor looms.
In order to felt the fabric, there are two methods that can be used. The wet fabric can be pounded in a hammer mill for several hours in order to flatten and thicken the fabric. The hammering process creates a fabric that looks more like “real cloth” and produces a stable fabric with very little nap and the wool keeps its shine. The wool fabric can also be pounded and stamped by placing the fabric in a large bucket filled with water and stamping with your feet.
Vadmal can also be felted using a wet felting method. The woolen cloth can be felted by hand by rolling or using a washboard and also by washing the fabric in the washing machine until the fabric stops shrinking. This process can take up to 10 machine washes. The wool fabric can shrink up to 60% in size. Wet felting creates a cloth that is fuzzier in appearance than one that has been pounded.
Vadmal cloth has been used for clothing since the Viking Age. Vadmal was so popular that the woven and felted cloth was used and traded as legal tender in many Scandinavian countries. Vadmal was a major export in Iceland and the length, width, thread count of the fabrics were set by law.
Vadmal fabric is still used today in most of the Saami traditional clothing, hats, mittens, bags and other items. The vadmal clothing is often decorated with pewter thread embroidery.
A Raanu rug was traditionally a flat weave weft faced handwoven wall hanging that was sometimes also used as a bed covering. The warp is made of cotton rug yarn or sometimes linen yarn, and the weft is woven of multicoloured fine wool yarns, often a single ply. The weave structure is a repp weave and the weft is beaten down firmly so that the warp yarns are fully covered.
The earliest Raanu date back to the 1600’s. The Saami wove Raanu (Rátnu, Rádno, Grene) and used them as wall coverings in their tents and sod huts. The designs of the Raanu depicted the colours of the landscape scenes around them and brought some colour into their homes during the dark and long winter nights. Raanu were also woven in many parts of Finland. In the 1960-70’s Raanu again became popular and were displayed on the walls of many Finnish and Scandinavian homes.
I thought that I would weave a Raanu based on one of my favourite places in the UK, West Wittering Beach. The photo is by Robert Lane.
I am weaving this Raanu with yarns that I have dyed with natural dyes. The dyes I have used are:
Indigo, Logwood, Madder Root, Brazilwood, Alkanet Root, Indian Barberry, Flame of the Forest
Warp Yarn: Cotton Rug Warp 12/9 1900 m/kg
Weft Yarn: Sport Weight Wool 2600 m/kg
Sett: No. 30 Reed (approx 6 epi)
Width in Reed: 60 cm
PPI: 30 ppi
Weave Structure: Repp Weave
The weft yarns must be beaten firmly. Throw the shuttle. Beat. Change shed. Beat again before throwing the next weft.
My studio is filled with weaving looms of many sizes ranging from large floor looms, to 4 shaft table looms, band looms and inkle looms. If you are a weaver, you will have noticed that during weaving, dust bunnies collect under the loom. In the past, I haven’t been too concerned about this except to pull out my vacuum cleaner and clean it up.
However, a few months ago I caught that flu bug that has been making its rounds, with one of the symptoms being an annoying cough that doesn’t seem to go away. After about a week, the cough seemed to clear up, but another week later, it came back. Many of my neighbours had it, and also friends in Canada said it was making the rounds there as well. So I wasn’t too concerned about the cough, and thought it was just more of the same thing. I did notice that my cough seemed to be worse about a month ago when I wove a lengthy linen warp. The loom dust under my loom was very fine, much more so than when weaving with wool yarns.
Over the recent months, I have also made a transition to dyeing wool and cotton yarns using natural dyes, rather than the vinegar/acid based dyes that I have used previously. Many of the natural dyes come in fine ground powder form, often using wood chips such as birch bark, logwood, brazilwood, madder root. The fine powder is placed into the dyepot, the pre-mordanted yarn is steeped in the dyebath for a few hours and then removed. The yarn is rinsed out in the sink and hung up to dry. After drying, there is still a lot of fine wood chip dye residue left on the yarn. I rewind the skeins into yarn balls or reskein. During this process, much of the natural dye residue falls off. I vacuum the fine dust from the floor.
A few days ago, I started to weave a Sami style band on my table loom. I was using a combination of wool and natural unbleached cotton yarns. I dyed the yarns using natural dyes.
After I wove for a bit, I noticed that some loom dust was collecting on the table, under the loom. I vacuumed this up in the evening before I left the studio. The next morning I returned to weaving this band. After about 2 hours, I had another terrible coughing fit. And again, I noticed an accumulation of loom dust under the table loom.
And I start to wonder, how much of this fine dye dust or loom dust am I breathing in? Can this be a cause of my almost chronic cough?
At that point I took some allergy medication and went out for a walk in the fresh air. My breathing seemed to clear up and I had a full nights restful sleep. The following day, I was away and didn’t go into the studio. I have felt much better the past few days with very little coughing.
I spend a few hours on trusty Google to research about the environmental hazards of the craft and textile work that I do.
I have since ordered an air purifier (Vax ACAMV101 Pure Air 300 Air Purifier) and dust ventilation masks.
I looked for an air purifier that has high CADR ratings hoping that it will be effective in clearing much of the harmful dust from the air.
I am now waiting for the air purifier and dust masks to be delivered before I continue working in the studio.
This air purifier really does work. I leave it running on the Auto setting during the day. When I wind a skein of yarn from the swift into a ball, the green light changes to Red and the fan comes on at full speed. And when I am at my loom weaving a rug, the air purifier also goes into action with lights glowing red, and fan speeding up. After a weaving session, I now set the fan speed to high for about an hour, so it can continue to clear the air for my next return to the studio.
As natural dyers we are aware that many mordants used in natural dyes can be dangerous to your health. For example, Rhubarb leaves are used as a mordant but are high in oxalic acid that is corrosive, and can cause acid burns, ulcers, and is hazardous by skin contact, inhalation, and ingestion. Sodium hydrosulphite or sodium diothinate which is often used when creating an indigo vat, can be explosive when added too quickly to the vat. When heated or allowed to stand in basic solution, sodium hydrosulfite decomposes to form highly toxic sulfur dioxide gas. For those who use acid dyes, vinegar or acetic acid fumes can cause damage to the lining of the nose, throat and lungs.
Some natural dyes themselves also contain toxic chemicals. For example, Logwood contains hematein or hematoxlyn can be poisonous if inhaled, absorbed through the skin or ingested. Madder root contains alizarin and purpurin that have been associated with kidney damage in animal experiments.
Wood chips and wood dust such as birch bark, logwood and other tree barks are also used as natural dyes but can also pose dangers to your health. Breathing in wood dust can cause allergic reactions, asthma as well as nose and lung cancer.
I also tend to have a high sensitivity to moulds, so I try to avoid working with natural dye fermentation types of dyes. The indigo vats that I have seem to be ok, but I notice that as soon as the natural dye pots start to ferment (usually after a few days) they make me ill. So I dispose of them immediately. As lovely as some of the natural fermented colours can be, in my opinion, it’s not worth the health risk to myself.
Although I work on a small scale and not in a large industrial setting, textile hazards are still something to think about. Be careful when handling any type of dyestuff or mordant, even if it is ‘natural’. Wear appropriate protective gear, gloves, facemasks, clothing and ensure that your studio has good ventilation.
I have designed some new tablet weaving cards that are made of durable plastic, because I didn’t like to use the matt board ones. I found that they tended to wear out rather quickly.
I designed these cards to be made of plastic so that they would be able to withstand the friction that is placed on the tablets during weaving. The edges are smooth and the cards turn easily.
The plastic tablets are not mass produced, but are made locally by skilled craftsmen.
The tablets come in a set of 4 colours: Red, Yellow, Blue and Green
One face of the card has a logo, the other side is blank. The multiple colours allow you to use different colours if you are turning groups of cards in different directions. The cards are not numbered, but you can easily write numbers or letters on them with a permanent marker to help you keep track while weaving. Be sure to let the ink dry before using the tablets.
The Paivatar Yarns cards are slightly smaller than the standard tablet weaving cards that are on the market (60 mm square) Because the cards are thin and slightly smaller in size than other tablet weaving cards, I find it easy to hold several in my hand – and I have fairly small hands. The thinner size is also better when working with fine yarns as it allows the warp yarns to be sett closer together, much as in weaving with a fine dent reed.
Paivatar Tablet Weaving Cards
The holes in the cards are also slightly smaller than the standard cards. This helps to keep the warp threads in alignment while weaving, as there is less play in the warp.
If you are interesting in purchasing a set please visit my Etsy Shop.