The story of my urban rawhide
As a woman in London, birthing drums, I usually buy my hides from trusted suppliers. I try to be as ethical as possible by making sure the hides I buy are not from mass markets or hide factories where they proudly display thousands of hides stacked up on their websites.
In 2018 I began a quest.
I wanted to get as ethical as possible with the hides I use. I wanted to make the rawhide myself if possible too.
After much searching, I met Debbie at Ellie's Dairy and started discussing the possibility of buying some goat skins. This little goat farm produces milk and cheese and some meat and the goats are well loved and rarely sent to the butchers. So, we discussed my needs and, as I was in no rush, I was able to purchase 4 goat skins when they became available.
I went to meet Debbie, strangely enough, at a farmers market in Balham, and picked up a container with the salted skins inside. We spoke about the goats and their journey and it made it really real for me. These 4 goats had died. I had their skins in a bucket.
Now, I had never handled animal skin let alone turn it into rawhide and the whole thought of even taking the skins out of the container made me feel queasy. But, I knew that I used rawhide regularly and that this was the 'green' form (the name for unworked skin). If I was to continue working with hide I needed to have got right down to the first step and to know exactly what went on to make the hides I used to make drums. And I needed to honour these goats and not let their skins be wasted.
So, with many hours of YouTube videos and tutorials and blogs behind me, I began.
First I made a frame. I post a post out on my local area Facebook page and a lovely man delivered me 4 6ft planks. I swore a lot as I tried first to bind them together and then decided that hammering in nails would create a stronger structure.
Now - it is worth mentioning here that I have a small yard, overlooked by two neighbours windows as well as being attached to my other neighbours garden space. It was a rather noisy affair, hammering, sweating and swearing as I attached and then tried to manoeuvre the frame into a sensible position.
So, then I set to work. I had watched all the videos and knew I needed a cool knife (called a draw knife) to scrape the inside of the dermis off. I went searching and unless I spent £50 on etsy I couldn't seem to find what I needed. None of the local hard wear stores had anything acceptable either.
I was lucky enough to stumble upon a man from New Zealand in one store who didn't flinch when I said what I needed the blade for. He used to do the same back home and helped me buy some kind of window level/scraper and taught me how to sharpen it.
He also gave me a discount and said bring it back if it doesn't work. Huge thanks to him.
So, looking at the image above you see me in my lovely apron with a kitchen knife. Yeah, the blade didn't work, but this one seemed to do a better job. I can not quite describe what scraping the inner dermis off of animal skin is like. There is a smell and the feel of the skin is slimy. There are bits of fat and muscle (shout out to Debbie's amazing butcher who took most of that all off otherwise I don't know if I would have succeeded). So, yes, to put it plainly it is a gruesome job. A long job. And I so should have forked out for the blade on Etsy.
Anyway, enough of my moaning. The next job, once the inside of the skin is scraped, is to wash the hides and then you choose to keep fur on or take it off. I decided I would keep one with fur on. So, I set to lace the hide to my newly built frame. You have to pull it tight and I have since learned that the more anchor points you have the better. Do not let the hide sag anywhere as it just folds over itself and create a nice home for flies!
So, this one was hung and stretched to dry. It smelt and it attracted flies. I mean, huge bluebottles. Lots of them. After a few days the colour changed and it became hard. I cut the hide down and was rather impressed with myself but could not get over the smell. I rolled the hide up and stored it in my lock up box outside.
One down and three to go!
I then spent time scraping the other three hides. It was easier as I had developed a technique. Scraping over an edge gave the knife more purchase without cutting through the skin. it still took many hours and stank to high heaven. The smell followed me throughout the day. It really was hard work.
Meanwhile, I had sourced some ashes from someones fire pit, from the same Facebook group, and put them in water to create a lye solution. This is corrosive but I decided that it would be better than the drain cleaner etc that had been suggested online!
I popped the hides in, stirred them with a stick and covered them over. I came back to them daily and tested the hair. A little pull, whilst wearing gloves, each day. One day the hair slid right off. This is what I wanted. The lye opens the pores and you can just swipe off the hair. Brilliant. Next job - somehow, without getting it on me, clean the hides and then wipe off the hair. Easy.
Nope - hideous. Smelly, hairy, ashy and generally not very nice. BUT, I felt very accomplished that I had got the solution right. These 3 hides had clear, white skin. So I set to pinning them up as well.
What I noticed as I pinned - more efficiently this time, by banging in tacks rather than making slits in the skin and using rope - was that the back of the skin, the bit I had scraped, was almost black. It was covered in the ashes and the bits had stuck in places where I had not scraped well enough.
Anyway, I let them dry. The flies returned and I felt so bad for my neighbours. I was warm, they had been opening their windows and I knew they smelt bad. Once the dried they were amazing. Real Rawhide! The accomplishment I felt was beyond measure! It was hard work and horrible work but the end result was 4 skins I could use to make drums. But they still smelt horrendous.
I later read that male goats spray like cats, except they spray over themselves and rub it in. Apparently it drives female goats wild! It reeks. It did not drive me wild.
It had taken me weeks. I can not say how many hours. More than I counted. It was smelly. But now, I have so much respect for those making their own rawhide. I know machines can do this quickly but actually where is the connection to the animal that gave its life when you use machines? I honoured these hides. I welcomed them and thanked them and spoke to them as I worked. Their hides were not wasted. I thank them for their hide. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
But they were in a lock up box outside smelling...I needed to find out how to remove the stench before making them into drums. Check out the Smell story posts here and the final drums here.