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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Liu

Tanning salmon skins, Not for the faint of heart!

Updated: Apr 30, 2019

Traditionally tanning any type of skin, whether it be deer, cow or fish, is a strenuous process that involves hours of manual manipulation. Since this is a labour-intensive and time-consuming activity, when you get to the end and see the skin transform into beautifully soft leather, it is an extremely gratifying experience.

Days like today when I begin working with my salmon leather, I can't help but smile to myself as I remember how I began this journey of figuring out the best methods of tanning salmon skins. After pots of melted fish skins and hand injuries, I find myself still in disbelief how I have crossed over the valley of the unknown and now am in another new terrain of figuring out how to work with this amazing material in exciting and innovative ways.

A Lost Art

Two years ago, when I decided to work with salmon skins, I had no inkling of how challenging and intense of an obstacle course I was about to embark on. I loved the idea of sustainability and I was inspired to work in a fully eco-friendly and organic way. I thought, what better way to begin this sustainable conversation than to take a by-product and transform it to a useable material for my weaving? A beautiful concept, but a behind-the-scene nightmare when I was figuring out how to put it all in to practice.

To say I was clueless is a colossal understatement. I was a capitalised 'B' Beyond clueless. The one word that branded my mind at this stage was HOW? Where do I begin? Where do I find guidance to tanning fish leather? How can I turn this slimy, raw salmon skin into leather that's just like my wallet? Looking at point A and then imagining point Z was daunting.

Point A, the starting point : slimy, fishy, raw salmon skins collected from the bins of a factory

Point Z, the final destination : soft, pliable, useable leather for weaving and stitching

Like a pocket gopher, I dug my way through endless electronic pages of the Internet. I discovered through my readings that tanning fish leather was almost no different to tanning buckskin. I clicked on so many links and blogs and more links that I found myself being directed to a series of interviews of three Alaskan Native women who were sponsored by the Anchorage Museum to re-discover their lost heritage, the art of sewing salmon skins. This was my first breakthrough. These women spoke of their journey of re-acquainting themselves to a lost inheritance. That moment, I realised that to work with salmon skins is more than a sustainable concept, it is to respect and preserve ancient practices and stories that have been lost.


I soon discovered a number of recipes that avid tanners have experimented with, from tanning with bark, glycerine, brain and even urine. And guess which tanning technique I decided to try out first?

Yes, brain tanning.

I don't know if it was because I was sleep deprived and was watching a French-Canadian mountaineer brain tanning his buckskin on YouTube or I was truly intrigued by my readings about how out of all the traditional tanning techniques, brain tanning produced the softest leathers... But I do know that I decided to begin my journey with pig brains.

I won't go into detail into how I gathered my supply of pig brains from butchers nor will I show the pictures that I took of the brains and pig heads I was so kindly gifted, but I will say I was very surprised by the buttery consistency of the ingredient. As well, before I am judged by any animal rights activists or vegans / vegetarians, in the food industry pig heads and brains are considered waste. So I was delighted that I was using another by-product for my tanning adventures. As well, brain tanning is a very old technique used by many hunters and also Native Americans in the past and also present.

What did I learn from trying my hand at brain tanning? I think this quote that I found from an Ojibwa elder explains the experience of brain tanning much butter than I am able to:

"Brain tanning hides is a lot of work. It's a very labour intensive process that uses an emulsified solution of animal brain and water to provide outstanding absorbency to the final product. But what you get at the end of your sweat and toil is an exceptionally soft hide that stays pliable even after it gets wet. Nevertheless, the process of tanning hides by hand using the animal's brains, is not for the faint of heart."

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