Monday, April 5, 2010

More Palaeoeskimo Hide Working

Cutting the thong
What a fantastic weekend! Since Friday's post, Lori and I spent more time scraping and degreasing the hooded sealskin with the slate and chert tools and then with the help of friends, cut the skin into a giant leather thong one inch wide. In the end, the skin that was stretched 58 inches wide by 80 inches long, yielded a line 331 feet long! It took 3 hours to cut and we used a single hafted microblade to do the entire cut.

Lori, Tim: John, Corey, Amanda, Elaine, Marc
Our friends John, Elaine, Marc, Amanda, and Corey came over on a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon to help us cut the skin. It was so nice to have the extra hands and new burst of enthusiasm after a pretty exhausting week of hideworking. The skin was still pretty saturated with grease after 3 days of working, but it had started to dry out a lot. On Saturday morning it kind of reminded me of a piece of crusty toast slathered in butter.

Here's a quick video showing the grease that came out with the tabular scraper on Saturday morning - after 2 previous days of degreasing.

Hooded seal with a Beater harp pelt
Everyone had a go with the scrapers while the skin was still strung up and we made some quick measurements and comparisons against a commercially tanned harp seal skin. Harp seals have been the preferred seal prey in Newfoundland for thousands of years and they come in much smaller and more manageable packages than hooded seals.

Sinew hafted scraper: After the endscraper came loose in the handle and I reglued it with seal blood, I used it for 20 minutes on Friday before it became loose in the handle again. When I washed it that evening in water the glue reset overnight and the endscraper was solid again on Saturday morning and we used it for another 44 minutes for a total scraping time over 3 days of 95 minutes. The endscraper was still sharp after all that time.

Here's Elaine using the sinew hafted scraper:

The scraper on the left is dull
Baleen hafted scraper: This scraper came loose in its handle after only 17 minutes glued with the seal blood, however, since this time is so similar to the sinew scraper (20 minutes to loosening) I think it was caused by an incomplete set of the glue. The tools were used less than 24 hours after the glue was applied, so I don't think its a fair comparison with the hide glue which had cured for weeks. Unlike the sinew scraper which reset after it was washed the baleen hafted scraper never refixed itself in the handle and it was used comfortably for another 35 minutes loose in the handle.
The resharpened edge on the left
In total, this scraper was used for 111 minutes over 3 days and at the 69 minute mark it was dull and needed to be resharpened by having a new series of flakes pressed off the scraping edge.

The hooded seal skin off the frame
After everyone had a chance to experiment with the scrapers we unstrung the hide so that we could start cutting the thong. As soon as it was cut off the frame it started to contract back into a supple, luxurious fur. We weighed it and at this point the skin only weighed 16 pounds. We took off 125 pounds of blubber and I suspect we drained off another 10 pounds of oil with the scrapers, so before processing the whole hide would have been in the 150 pound range.

To make our thong, I relied on this description by Asen Balicki in The Netsilik Eskimo. Netsilik means "People of the Seal" so it seemed like a pretty good place to start:

Boot soles and heavy thongs were made from the thick skin of the great bearded seal. To make thongs, the skin of this large mammal was cut first into a number of rings roughly ten inches wide. These rings were removed from the body, the blubber scraped, and the hair washed. Each ring was cut spirally into long thongs, which were then stretched under great tension between two rocks. When they were dry, the hair was removed with a sharp knife, If thinner thongs were needed, the skin of the ringed seal was prepared in a similar manner. Men occasionally helped the women make thongs, but for the most part it was a woman's job.

Asen Balicki - The Netsilik Eskimo

The two biggest areas that our procedure deviated from the description was in the species of seal and the method of skinning the animal. Both of which were out of my control. Removing the skin in tubes is brilliant and simple and would create a perfectly straight thong, without a left or right trend from cutting around in a circle.

The hafted microblade used to cut the thong
John played the anthropologist in the group so he had to keep his hands clean to take notes and operate everyone's cameras. He recorded the time we spent cutting, who was using the microblade (we all had a turn), and the time of each lap around the hide. At the beginning it was taking as much as 15 minutes to work all the way around the skin, and by the end it was only 4 or 5 minutes per lap. For the first 4 or 5 revolutions the skin stayed still and we all walked around it. After that it was small enough that we could sit still and just spin the hide. It was hard to count the laps at the end, but we did somewhere around 25 or 30 revolutions in total. We were working for 3 hours and 7 minutes, including breaks. The actual cutting time was 2 hours 31 minutes, so our average speed was a little over 26 inches per minute. I think with experience we could speed things up significantly.

Cutting with the microblade
Parts of the hide were tougher than others and despite everyone being new to the microblade knife and the procedure, we managed to get the entire hide off in a single long strip. The hide changed thickness, texture, density, colour, and degree of greasiness throughout its body. The neck was especially thick and it was easy to make an accidental cut when passing from an area of tough hide into a section of thinner skin.

Cutting with the microblade
Corey observed that the design of the handle seemed to help prevent run away slices. The actual area of the blade that was exposed was relatively small and buffered on either side by the wood handle. While you were in control it was possible to make relatively long clean cuts, but if you slipped, the wood would catch and bind before too much damage was done.

usewear on the microblade edge
Marc, who had experience with metal scalpels was amazed that the blade held its edge for so long against such a tough material. The microblade is actually an agate from Alabama, which forms in limestone, similarly to the way chert forms in limestone in Newfoundland. The translucent salmon colour of the stone was a good look-alike for the microblade from the Seahorse Gully site, which is why I had I happened to have it handy as a microblade. I wish that the microblade had been made form a local material, but it was just another one of those things where I was caught off gaurd by this whole opportunity and had to make do with the tools that I had on hand.

Cutting techniques tended to fall into two camps, the slicers and the sawers. In this video Lori demonstrates the sawing technique. At this point the hide is small and easily managed by one cutter and two helpers who keep it tight and spinning for the cutter.

A group effort
Perhaps the most interesting part of the whole exercise was the social aspect of it. We certainly needed the extra hands - this was not a one person job. Lori and Amanda tried a two person team and it was possible using all four hands and the cutter's knee, but the more hands on the skin the easier and faster the whole process when. Aside from the opportunity to gossip, we found that all decisions were made communally. There were lots of features on the hide to work around, like the flipper hole, the nipples, thin spots and small cuts. The cutter was always so focused on the next 3 or 4 inches of the cut that they needed extra eyes to watch out for upcoming turns or irregularities in the skin.

One inch wide hooded sealskin thong

The thong inside the outside ring
To start the cut we connected the dots between each of the holes that had been used to lash the hide into the frame. We left that first cut as a complete loop in the end of the line to give us an idea of the starting circumference of the skin. We cut the rest of the thong a thumb width wide, which is about an inch. When it was all done we wrapped it tightly back onto the frame to stretch and dry.

331 feet of sealskin thong stretched on the frame to dry

By the end of the afternoon we were tired and smelly and ready for beverages and pizza. We thought about cooking but were too tired and we thought about going out, but were too smelly. So we ordered in and spent a good chunk of the evening chatting about the day.

Photo Credits:
1: John Erwin
2-6, 12,14: Tim Rast
7: From: The Handbook of North American Indians, Vol 5 The Arctic
8,11: Corey Hutchings
9,10,13,15: Amanda Crompton

Video 1 & 4: Tim Rast
Video 2 & 3: John Erwin


  1. Hey Tim! That is my idea of a lot of fun. Really amazing! Like your blog.

  2. Hey Lisa - great to hear from you! Yeah, you would have had a blast.

  3. Looks like the best Saturday ever. Hope everyone is smelling better by now.


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