Notes from Windward: #71

 

From Life to Mitten

Oana works with rabbit pelts

     During a week-long visit to Windward in December, events converged in such a way that I was able to experience the process of using more fully the lives of the rabbits raised here.

     Since we raise the rabbits mainly for meat, we clearly then eat them once they have grown adequately. But until recently, no one had been working with the pelts, until Opalyn found a great resource on processing rabbit pelts. She began working with the pelts and, upon my arrival, taught me how. I am going to relate to you the entire process from life to mitten as concisely as possible.

First: Skinning

     Although we grow rabbits for food, it is important that their lives serve more than that purpose if possible. They are patient, playful creatures who provide comfort to the people who enjoy spending time with them while they are alive. (See Eliot's article for more details on both fun with and food for rabbits.)

     Then they provide the whole community with nourishment. Finally, my goal this week has been to demonstrate that they can provide us with warmth as well. Once a rabbit has grown and has not been slated to become a breeding rabbit, it is a candidate for the dinner table. The rabbits are skinned, gutted, and then either frozen for later consumption or immediately placed into the crock-pot for the next day's meal. The pelts are washed in cold water to cool and clean them, wrung out, turned inside-out, and then frozen for later use. If there is still a little meat on them, that is fine, since the rest of the process will take care of that.

Second: Fleshing

     To begin processing the pelts, it is easier to unfreeze several pelts simultaneously than to deal with each pelt separately. This time we processed four, but the fleshing/tanning recipe can deal with 6-9. It is important to flesh the hide so that no meat or fat remains on it, since it will rot and be unpleasant.

     Opalyn found the following information in an article by Kathy Kellog, whose instructions have been useful.

     Obtain the following:

  • a five-gallon (or so) bucket

  • two gallons of room-temperature (about 70°F) lukewarm water (which should be added to the bucket)

  • 1 cup of coarse or granulated salt (not iodized)

  • 1 cup of common alum (aluminum sulfate or any of several similar double sulfates), powdered or granulated

     Add the salt and alum and stir until all is dissolved into solution. Finally, add the thawed pelts and make sure every surface is covered in the solution.

     Stir the solution with the pelts about twice a day, allowing them to remain in the brine for about 48 hours. The stirring ensures that all surfaces have been covered and properly pickled. If the pelts float to the top, weigh them down with a clean, heavy object such as a bottle or rock.

     At the end of the 48 hours, pull out each pelt and begin at the rump, carefully loosening the flesh from the hide using your fingers and a steak knife if necessary. If you are careful and lucky, you may be able to peel off the entire fleshy layer in one smooth, slow go.

Third: Tanning

     To the current solution of salt and alum, again add:
  • 1 cup of coarse or granulated salt (not iodized)

  • 1 cup of common alum (aluminum sulfate or any of several similar double sulfates), powdered or granulated

     Make sure, again, that all of the granules have dissolved into solution.Put the pelts back in , making sure to soak them well. This time, mix the solution twice a day for seven days.

     To test whether the pelts have been properly tanned, boil a mug of water and drop in a little piece of hide. If the hide curls up and becomes hard and rubbery, the tanning is not complete. Properly tanned hides do not change, or change little, in boiling water.

Fourth: Drying and Stretching

     If the pelts are done, rinse them of the tanning solution and wash them (if you wish) with soap. Hang them to dry in the shade or roll them up and allow them to dry slowly inside. Drying pelts too fast will turn them into a hard useless shell (unless that is your purpose!). Partially dried hides need to be stretched, so find a good movie or some good company (or both) and begin "breaking the skin". The leather will become soft, white, and pliable as you stretch it. Use a strong hand, but be careful not to break the hide. If it happens, don't worry yourself. Most often the hide can still be just as useful.

     Alternately stretch and dry the hide until it is all soft. You may grease or oil the hide if you wish, to keep it as pliable as possible.

Fifth: Sewing

     Once you have several pelts, it is time to decide what to make with them.

     Here are some ideas.

     With the fur still on the hide:

  • Mittens (you will need about 1.5 hides for large mittens, and just one for small ones.)

  • Hats (a hide per hat will probably be fine, depending on the style.)

  • Vest (approximately 10-16 hides, cut into rectangles and assembled.

     This would be so useful at Windward in the wintertime!)

  • Booties (A hide per bootie will probably be enough, but some people have larger feet. Make sure the fur is definitely on the inside for this one! These are meant for indoor use.)
     If the fur is removed, the hide is thin, soft, and pliable:

  • Underwear. Certainly a great material for bras, as it is strong but flexible.

  • Thin Shirts. Same idea as the vest, only with the fur removed and perhaps with sleeves.

     I wonder if they would be light enough to be worn in the summertime?

Opalyn models Oana's rabbit pelt mitten
  


     There are many other useful or decorative things that one can make out of the pelts, leftover pieces, and fur. Let your imagination run wild.

     I have used cotton thread to sew the mittens together, but I would recommend quilting thread or even nylon floss for durability and flexibility. Remember that when sewing leather every hole that the needle makes, remains, so think what you are going to sew where, since re-sewing can weaken the holes and therefore the connections between pieces.

     So.

     I have found that it is not difficult, expensive, nor time-consuming to process small pelts. It gives me great satisfaction to be able to create something functional and durable out of the lives the rabbits have given. It is their gift to us. Thanks, bunnies.


Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 71