Making a Robe From a Hide

Women’s work and extremely hard work. A fresh buffalo hide might weigh up to eighty pounds and all the processes of tanning were done manually. How did a squaw make a robe of a fresh hide? First she pegged it out on the ground, hair side down, and scraped off the flesh, sinew, and integument with a ‘graining’ tool of curved bone in which an iron blade had been seated. Then she rubbed the flesh side with warm water and some greasy substance, the brains plus such other fats as her tutor or her medicine had prescribed. This had to be worked into the hide with a smooth stone or something similar, a laborious process, after which the hide lay in the sun, shrinking a good deal, while the grease penetrated. The next step was to soften the hide in water and then bring it back to natural size and make it flexible by twisting and wringing and pulling it – a two-squaw job that lasted many hours. This is as much treatment as the trade robe received and for trade robes it was done as roughly and hastily as possible.

If the skin was to be dehaired an intervening step took place here: it was soaked in a stream and possibly treated with ashes till the hair loosened and could easily be scraped off. In any event it was worked with the hands and the flesh side was scraped with a rough stone or toothed iron blade to make it flexible. As it dried it bleached graywhite. The final step was the hardest. A rawhide rope was stretched at an angle and the hide was sawed back and forth across it endlessly. The squaw used her whole weight and preferably got a friend to trade work with her.

All skins received approximately the same treatment though with certain specific differences. Most of those used for clothing and nearly all the finer ones, for whatever use they might be destined, were given a thorough smoking over slow fires. A well-smoked skin was waterresistant dnd would dry soft. The beautiful cream-colored and white garments seen in museums had not been smoked; they were bleached by various means and had been whitened with various earths.