Since 2017, meeting Audrey Armstrong has been on my list of "Must do's". When I begun my journey on finding out how to turn slimy, raw fish skins into useable, luxurious leather, entering Google's search engine was to an exaggerated sense as intimidating as an astronaut entering into outer space for the first time. Random clicks of nonsense eventually led me to a clip of three Native Alaskan women sharing about their journey of working with fish skins. One of the three women was Audrey. Her words, their words, of discovery and experience became my introduction into turning raw fish skins into a workable, imperishable material. With the fortune of hindsight, I realise now that in a funny way Audrey was already guiding me years before with my journey towards working with fish skins.
For those who have not yet had the pleasure of knowing who Audrey Armstrong is, allow me to make the introduction. My cliff note introduction of who Audrey is-- she is a brilliantly talented Athabaskan woman who designs and sews stunning fish skin baskets. There are now a number of good articles about her and her work. One of my favourite articles introducing Audrey is titled "Sewing (and Sharing) with Salmon" from The Salmon Project. If interested in some extra reading, here's the link: https://salmonlife.org/archived/stories/salmon-sewing/ .
chum salmon, ulus, rubbing alcohol
This Summer, in July, I finally won the golden ticket, getting my chance to travel to Sitka, Alaska to take a one-week workshop with Audrey. Set in the picturesque Sheldon Jackson campus, I will not forget the moment Audrey first stepped into the room where the workshop was to be held. Wearing a red flannel long-sleeved top, beaded frayed earrings and an ornate barrette that were all accessorised to match her red top, Audrey walks in with her husband Scott who towers above her. From the get go, Audrey is all about the fish.
With 10 students in the workshop, ages ranging from 19 to 79, Audrey and Scott quickly set up the converged tables with all the tools needed for us to skin the Chum Salmon we were all about to be gifted with.
With the aid of an X-Acto knife and curved skinning knife, we were able to remove the two pieces of skin from the Chum that we were each partnered with. A side note on removing skins from a whole fish, if in the process of removing the skins, you notice that there's still bits and pieces of flesh attached to the underside of the skin, do not fret, for it's all good and normal! This is where the legendary ulu comes to play an Oscar-winning role. Once the skins are removed from the fish, we flip the skins over to shows its white underside. Using the ulu, you scrape off whatever remaining flesh and tissues that are still attached. This step of ulu scraping is important because any stubborn fleshy bits that remain causes that part of the skin to discolour and deteriorate over time.
Once we learned how to skin a whole fish, Audrey tells us that two more skins are needed in order to make a basket. Apart from the Chum we were gifted to practice skinning, Audrey and Scott had also prepared extra skins for us.
While we ulu-scraped the extra two skins clean of any remaining flesh and tissues, the previous two skins we had worked on were hydrating in a large Ziplock bag filled with water. As soon as the two extra skins were scraped clean, they too were placed into the water-filled bag. Before sealing off the bag, a few drops of Dawn dishwashing soap is added to the mix. With the bag completely sealed, we sloshed the skins and soapy water together, marinating them and cleaning off any remaining slime and residue. Once the skins have completed their bath, it was time to pour out all of the soapy water and rinse the skins in clean, cold water. Important to note that when washing the skins, never wash with warm or hot water. What I have learned from my personal experience is that 20C (68F) is the maximum temperature for washing or soaking fish skins, or else the skins begin to instantly deteriorate.
The rinsed skins are placed back into the Ziplock bag. This time, we poured 70% rubbing alcohol into the bag, just enough to cover the four skins. Once the bag is completely sealed, the skins marinate in the rubbing alcohol overnight. Audrey advises that 70% should be the maximum, anything more (such as 90%) will destroy the skins.
I have found this rubbing alcohol method to be fascinating, especially since my preservation method of fish skins is through tanning the skins into leather. In past research, I had briefly come across an article on isopropyl alcohol as a preservative for specimens, but had never considered it as a means to work with. Compared to brain tanning and bark tanning, this method is certainly much easier and faster. I can see why Audrey would prefer this process. However, it is important to note that the skins are still skins, and have not been transformed into a longer lasting state such as leather. For Audrey's purpose of making baskets out of fish skins, I can understand why the rubbing alcohol method of preservation is preferred and works best for her. Once air dried, the skins become a semi-translucent, plastic state.
cutting, sewing, dyeing
Each gifted with a tray containing Audrey's basketmaking pattern cards, a hefty needle, a thimble and our bag of skins marinated in rubbing alcohol, it was time to begin making the fish skin basket.
A total of 7 pieces are needed to make the fish skin baskets:
one circle piece for the base of the basket,
four panel pieces for the sides/body of the basket
two 9-1/2 inches length x 1 inch height strips for the edge of the basket.
Once all pieces are cut, the wet skins are sewn together with synthetic sinew thread. Audrey shows us how to split the sinew into thiner strips. Grabbing onto one end of the sinew thread, fray one end slightly and split the sinew in half. Then with one of the half sinew thread, split it again in the same way. Now, the sinew thread is at the correct width for sewing the skins. We begin by stitching the four panel pieces together until it looks as if you've created an open-ended cylinder. Next, the circle base is stitched to the smaller end of stitched panels. After a few pricked fingers, the skins are now a soggy basket ready to be clothed a plastic bowl. This will help keep the shape of the basket as the skins dry.
It is important to pull the skins gently but tightly over the bowl so that no ripples are formed in the drying process. This is also the time, if one wanted to, to dye their bowls. According to Audrey, the beautiful peachy red colours of the Chum Salmon won't remain permanently. She suggested that we use a sponge to dab on some colours. For red, she used red wine as a dye. Once we were ready to set the fish skin bowls down to completely dry overnight, Scott added a bucket filled with water that was placed on top of the fish covered bowls as a weight to keep the skins firmly intact with the bowl.
beads, beads and more beads!
To hide the stitched lines of where the individual panels meet, this is where the beads come in. Turquoise being my favourite colour bedazzled my little basket. Sewing the beads from the bottom of the basket and working upwards, Audrey instructed us to leave around 1/2 an inch at the top for attaching the 9-1/2 inch strips that we had set aside earlier for the rim. Taking the strips out of the bag of rubbing alcohol, we then stitched together the two 9-1/2 inch strips of skin. We placed it over the rim, and with the help of Audrey, we trimmed off the excess skin. Once the correct length is made, the ends are stitched together. The strips, now all stitched together to make a hollow circle, is folded over the rim of the basket. Before any more decorating can be made, the basket has to be set aside again to allow the rim to fully dry.
Once that is all set, we were given free reign to decorate our baskets with whatever materials and styles. Using an awl, beading needles and beading thread, we played with materials such as beads, shells, buttons and even salmon invertebrate.
If you are interested in fish, craft, Native culture or just have a curiosity to learn something new, by all means find Audrey. Take her course and support her. I promise you won't regret it!
What I really learned
Coming from a competitive college in London, you learn quickly that your greatest assets are your ideas. Soon enough, you unfortunately learn that in order to survive a cutthroat environment where everyone has the selfish ambition of being the best at all cost, hiding and securing all sketchbooks of ideas and research for fear of being stolen becomes a secondary must-have talent. Yes, it has happened, having ideas and sometimes an entire project literally stolen, which unfortunately is a common grievance amongst design students. I suppose, unconsciously scarred by the unspoken horrors of the design world, I recognise how the idea of generosity is sparse. By simply spending a week with Audrey, I feel as if I am on the road of rehabilitation, re-learning what it means to be generous as a designer and feeling secure about that decision to be generous with my experience and knowledge.
Audrey's wide-armed, all embracing generosity is what is most captivating. Not only did I get to learn how to make a fish skin basket, but I learned how one ought be generous as a creative. Having been immersed in the world of fish skins for the last two and a half, almost three, years, I have learned many things, but one of the main lessons I have gained is the need to not keep everything that I have learned for myself. Especially with working in a craft such as fish skins or fish leather, I have incrementally discovered the craft, in truth, to be a waning heritage of the indigenous around the world. It is not mine. I just have the great fortune of discovering it, appreciating it, learning it and loving it. In all truthfulness, it would be selfish and unfair for me to keep everything locked away for my own benefit. I hope one day that I will be able to give this back to the people who are seeking to learn more about their fishy inheritance. Day after day, under the motherly guidance of Audrey, she would always loop her stories of fishing and making fish skin baskets back to her desperate need to share everything that she knew. As long as someone showed an interest, Audrey opened her heart to that person. That level of generosity is humbling. Audrey's generosity is what I truly aspire to become.