Brain tan buckskin is a beautiful hand-made fabric. We use natural tanning methods that have been used for many thousands of years. This type of tanning was done by traditional peoples all over the world (such as the Native Americans), and was still a basic garment well into the last century. The hides are softened with the aid of eggs, soap and oil, or the animal’s own brains. Brains are what we, and most people use, and so this type of leather is popularly known as ‘braintan’. It is also sometimes called ‘indian tan’ or ‘smoke tan’.
We tan hides in batches of four at a time, spread over the course of many days. First they are soaked in a wood ash lye for a few days. Then the hair, grain and membrane are removed, by scraping over a wooden beam. Next, the hides are wrung out, soaked in a mixture of brains and water, and wrung out again. Then they are stretched, pulled and worked (yes, work!) until completely soft and dry. At this point we’ve made white buckskin, which many Native Americans use. However most of our hides are smoked as the final step, so that they can be wetted and washed over and over again, without stiffening up. The smoke also colors the hides a variety of tans, browns and golden yellows.
The result is a 100% natural material, that is luxuriously soft, warm and long lasting. It feels so good next to the body, that it wears like a second skin. This fabric breathes and stretches with the movement of your body, yet provides protection from the sun and wind, and can be washed (it is not water-proof). Buckskin is particularly valued as a durable yet comfortable clothing, and is also excellent for pouches, moccasins and many other items.
The difference between commercially tanned leathers and natural buckskin is the use of chemicals and the quality of the material. Most commercially tanned leathers are soaked in chemicals, usually chromic acid. Chrome tanned leather is also not as strong as buckskin. It is broken down by washing and through perspiration. Chromic acids are very cheap to use but are unfortunately quite toxic. Pollution of waterways is the number one problem facing the modern leather tannery (as well as the folks down-stream), and chrome compounds are the culprit.
The reasons for wearing brain tan are many and diverse!
To learn more about braintan, visit braintan.com, where you’ll find on-line articles, sources and reviews for books, videos, and tools.