Friday, December 18, 2009

Bark Tanned Seal Skin

I use bark tanned seal skin when I need lines or lashings for a reproduction. I spent last evening starting to cut the leather that I need for the Thule harpoons. One of the lines will be braided and the other will be twisted.

I get my bark tanned skins from Great Northern Peninsula Craft Producers in Shoal Cove East. They're the folks that make and sell sealskin boots. I had this pair made almost 10 years ago when I was working on the Northern Peninsula. They're the only tailored piece of footwear I own and my favourite pair of winter boots. Mine are in need of repair, but I like them best in the spring when the snow and streets start to get slushy. When I ordered my boots, I went into the shop at the start of the summer, while the skins were still in the ponds on the side of the road, and they traced around my foot to make the pattern. By the end of the summer I had my boots!

That same summer, I was fortunate enough to get to tour the tannery. There are several stages to bark tanning a hide. The skins are laced into frames with the hair and fat on to dry and the fat is scraped off. The stretched hides are then placed into freshwater ponds for about 3 weeks to naturally de-hair. When they come out they are cleaned again and then go into a big vat of bark solution for tanning. The bark solution is made from spruce and fir rinds soaking in saltwater. The hides spend about a week in the solution and come out a warm brown to chocolate colour, depending on the variety of bark used. From start to finish the process takes about 10 weeks.

There's a warm smell to the leather that I love as well. Cats love it too. Its like catnip to them. At the end of the evening, its not at all unusual to find someone's cat flat on their back, shoulders-deep inside your boot sucking in the smell of the leather.

Interestingly, archaeologists and geographers working at Port au Choix on the Northern Peninsula have found increased salinity in a pond in that community during the time that the Dorset Palaeoeskimo seal hunters lived there. They suggest that the salinity increase comes from soaking seal pelts in the ponds, just like people still do in the area today. You can read their case here and here.

Like a lot of traditional crafts, skin boot making relies on a small number of aging craftspeople who are trying to pass the skills on to a new generation who have a difficult time fitting it into their lives. Annual fluctuations in the availability and price of harp seal pelts has also been a major challenge for the industry. I haven't been to visit the GNP shop in several years and I hope they are able to keep producing. The last I'd heard was that after several years of virtual shut down, they were back at barking tanning again. The stages of the tanning process described in this post comes from the GNP produced book, Out of Necessity: The Story of Sealskin Boots in the Strait of Belle Isle.

Photo Credits: Tim Rast

Photo Captions:
First: Bark tanned sealskin harpoon lines and lashings
Second: My sealskin boots, made by GNP Craft Producers
Third: A harp seal skin stretched on a frame, with the hair still on
Fourth: Checking the bark tanning vat
Fifth: Finished hides hanging in the tannery, Shoal Cove East
Sixth: Out of Necessity book cover.


  1. I've heard that sealskin is an excellent bookbinding leather--I think I'll have to get my hands on some and try it out.

  2. I believe that. The bark tanned skins can be softened, but a freshly tanned hide is stiff and only a little thicker than cereal box cardboard. Its durable, unharmed by water, doesn't stretch and can be creased, folded, and glued a lot like cardboard. But it can also be softened and sewn like a heavy fabric.

  3. Hmm. How would you soften it and keep it flexible?

  4. To get the lines flexible I twist them, chew them, ball them up, soak them in water, and work mineral oil into them. Once a piece is bent or creased, that crease will stay flexible, so to get a line flexible I bend and crease every inch of it. A bigger sheet should work the same, just bend and flex it until its soft. The only thing you might have to avoid for bookbinding would be the mineral oil. It never sets, so until it wears off you'd probably get greasy smears on your paper. That's not such a big deal on my stuff because I usually oil the wood and other organics as well.

  5. Yeah, mineral oil would definitely be a non-no for books, but there might be some sort of leather dressing that would work. I'll have to ask Joe. I really don't fancy chewing enough leather for a book. Unless it was a really small book.

  6. With beaver prices so low, I wonder how de-haired beaver would tan with bark. I have been saving a bunch of dried tamarack inner bark from sled making. I tanned some deer skin and it turned out alright. I just don't know about beaver.

  7. I don't know. My guess would be that it would work fine. I suppose there may be different oils in beaver skin because of the freshwater habitat vs. saltwater home of seals, but if the same process works on deer skin, then my guess would be it'll work on a wide range of hides.


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