This time of year we usually have a few new sheepskins, salted and stacked and raw, waiting patiently on the cold garage floor and looking still a little bit alive. Although the skins could easily be thrown away, they gently assert their right to survive and be turned into something both beautiful and useful. It is the "waste not, want not" principle of yesteryear, and a fine winter project.
In the first years, we did a good job with the wool and a poor job with the skin, which, when dried, transitioned into stiff rawhide with sharp pokey edges. The internet experts recommended more and more oiling to make them supple. But no amount of rubbed oil made a dent in the hard undersides, so the early sheepskins were suitable for flat floor rugs and little else.
Last summer a visiting shepherd from Wildhair Farm showed us some sheepskins she had tanned. Somehow her leather undersides were soft and loose nearly as a living skin would be. She said it was all about brain and smoke. This sounded like vaguely familiar Native American lore, and it sounded like something I ought to pay attention to.
So this time around, I opened the lamb skulls with a hand saw and scooped out the shimmering brains, each about the size of a large egg. Carefully I slid them into the kitchen blender and added a little warm water. About this time Julie walked in, but it was too late to turn back and there was nowhere to hide my work. I pushed on, ignoring the retching sounds in the background, drowning them out with the comforting noise of the blender. With a few bursts, the brains were turned into a beautiful puree that looked like pink tomato soup. I was told after I had cleaned things up I would be expected to use the blender next on myself -- that or buy a new one. In the morning I made myself a smoothie. It was delicious.
From there I massaged the brain into the clean wet skins. Somehow, one brain was exactly enough to do one hide, reminding me that God too must have had tanning in mind. I imagine these proportions would apply for all animals. One brain, one hide. The animal world comes with its own natural preservative and in just the right amount.
The texture of blended brain is interesting, more tacky than greasy and just a little sticky. We let the skins sit awhile so the brains could soak in well, and then we worked them, rubbing and stretching and softening the fibers. One of the traditional ways to do this involves chewing the leather. But although I suggested Julie gnaw on the hides while I was gone to work, she turned me down, so in the evenings we stretched them by hand. I noticed the brains also softened my hands from the ravages of hospital soap. Apparently brains are good for a lot of things.
Once the sheepskins were dry, I built a smoldering fire out back and smoked them for an hour. And it worked, helping the leather retain its inherent softness. Maybe now it's time to work on a brain balm for dry hands.