A Book Review by Matt Richards

Leather: Preparation and Tanning by Traditional Methods

by Lotta Rahme.

112 pages – illustrated – $24.95.
ISBN: 978-91-637-1847-2

This is the best survey of traditional bark tanning, alum tawing, oil tanning (aka chamoising) and brain tanning, that I know of, but it is not a really thorough ‘how-to guide’. The history, science and how-to are woven together by Lotta Rahme, a hide tanner from Sweden, who has studied traditional brain & smoke tanning methods under Native Americans in northern Canada, and traditional bark tanning methods from the Sami (aka Laplanders) in northern Sweden. She is clearly more experienced in a wider array of traditional tanning methods, than anyone else I know of.

Whether you are a beginner or experienced, I think that you will find Lotta’s work to be an excellent source of ideas and starting points for studying and/or learning these methods. I do not however, think that there is enough detail to sufficiently guide the would be tanner through the processes. Though for tanners who are already experienced at one method, there is probably enough direction for you to learn the others.

Take for example the information on brain tanning. Key details such as what it looks and feels like to completely remove the grain are left out and the section on softening is woefully simplistic. I can only assume that this is also true of the tanning info for the other methods, but I honestly don’t know, and perhaps a person just doesn’t need to know that many ins and outs to successfully alum taw, or bark tan.

Lotta Rahme wearing a hat she
made from tanned salmon skin

The really strong point of this book is that Lotta has combined her extensive tanning experience, with research into the history and science of these methods. She includes many details, recipes, tools, and methodologies that have been traditionally used, most of which she has used, or at least tried, herself. She usually tells you which techniques she has personally done herself, on what hides etc., which helps distinguish from what is simply being repeated from other sources. This allows you to know what should definitely work, and what would be more experimental for you to try.

Here’s an example from page 84 in the section on bark tanning, of some of her good, solid experiential info. :

The length of the tanning time is determined by cutting off a piece of the hide. Tanned leather has an even brown color in cross-section; untanned is white, almost bluish. The difference in color is more visible if you moisten the edges of the section. The inner, lighter stripe is weakly tanned if at all. The fiber is matted, glistening, and doesn’t absorb the saliva when moistened. On a thin skin, it can be difficult to see the difference in color, and if you can then fold the skin double two times and press the folded area between your fingers, when the skin is unfolded the places where the fold was should appear as light dry lines…… 

How to tell if the bark tanning is complete on a thin skin

There’s also a Lotta information that she has gleaned from other sources, that might get you going in the right direction for experiments. Here she quotes Rita Pitka Blumenstein from SW Alaska about ‘urine tanning’:

You take the skin off and soak it in the water, and then you scrape it with a sea shell. Some fish you have to scale; some fish you don’t. Like pike and white fish, you’ve got to scale it; you soak it in urine. The urine has to come from a young boy baby before weaning. It doesn’t contain any chemicals, just momma’s milk. For thicker skins, you have to use the urine from an older boy, around the time his voice changes….

This section goes on to describe the rest of the process. Then Lotta mentions her own experiments using woman’s urine (I guess she was short on non-weaned baby boys at the moment).

Lotta covers a lot of topics in these 112 pages. There’s an excellent section on the difference between hides from various animals, and which ones are best tanned which way (ie, pigs are best bark tanned, and wild boars are to be preferred to ‘tame pigs’). I also really enjoyed all that she had to share about Inuit tanning which seems quite different from other Native American peoples. You learn about when and why hides are chewed, the tool known as a ‘white man’s woman’, combinations of bark, urine and oil tanning, as well as the reasons behind various clothing styles and materials used by these people who depended so much upon tanning for survival.

One other problem this book has is unclear organization. The same size font and style of headings is used throughout the tanning section, and its often very hard to tell whether you are entering a totally new method, or whether its another step in the same method. If this could be cleared up, and Lotta added a lot more how-to detail (and I mean a lot more) to the different tanning methods, with good pictures of key points, this could turn into a great book. I know that she has the tanning experience to be able to do this.

For now, my advice is this. If you want to learn a lot of great information about traditional tanning and get inspired in myriad new directions, get this book. If you are looking for a solid ‘how-to guide’ to alum tawing, bark tanning or chamoising, this isn’t it. But then again, I don’t know any book that’s any better on these topics, so Michelle and I are going to try and follow Lotta through our first bark tans….

To order your copy of Lotta’s book (as well as her new book on fish skin tanning) go to http://lottastannery.se/tanningbooks.html.

You can visit ‘Lottas Tannery’ on the web at the above link. One page is in english, and the rest is swedish. There are some inspiring pictures of Lotta’s creations on the page titled ‘museer’.