Tanning Sheepskin Rugs at Home

Roberta Kirberger's instructional guide for tanning sheepkin to create house-warming rugs, including skinning, tanning, preparation and dyeing information.

| November/December 1975


Remember that sheepskins must be cooled before they're salted (how many hours this cooling takes depends on the weather).


As readers of More About Milk Sheep may recall, we keep a small flock of Corriedale sheep on our place in Minnesota. The breed is a very heavy wool producer, and as our first slaughtering time neared I began to look thoughtfully at our lambs' thick jackets. "Wouldn't it be nice," I thought, "to make the hides up into rugs? We'd have those around long after the chops and roasts are gone from the freezer."

I figured I ought to be able to prepare the sheepskins myself, and got some encouragement when the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Bookshelf promised that two of its offerings — Home Manufacture of Furs and Skins and Home Tanning and Leather Making Guide, both by A.B. Farnham — told all one needed to know about tanning hides in the "old homey way."

My early enthusiasm was dampened a little, it's true, when I called a professional tanner to ask about one of the chemical solutions the books recommended. "Madam," the expert informed me, "there is no way you can possibly tan those hides at home." Fortunately, he was wrong. I could, and you can too.

First, though, there was the little matter of the slaughter to get past. Come now, Mother Kirberger, you didn't go and make pets of your good gray ladies' young'uns, did you? Oh, didn't I? That first butchering day has to be a super shock to a city–raised person, and it was several weeks before the packages in the freezer could be looked upon as meat and not as personalities.

My introduction to tanning was also a bit of a shock, and yours will be likewise. Nothing I can tell you will truly prepare you for working with a fresh-off-the-sheep hide. I'll simply put it on record that when Mr. Farnham says tanning is essentially hard, dirty work, he ain't just a-foolin'. The business of getting, cozy with a dead sheep isn't something polite society (whomever that might include) would applaud ... though even the most genteel will have to admit that the finished product is a fine sight to behold.

If my warning hasn't discouraged you from "tanning your own" — and I hope it hasn't — I'll be glad to tell you about own first try . . . and then summarize the method we use now nor that we have a little more experience.

greg lovellette
11/23/2011 5:43:42 PM

I have tanned several sheep skins following the directions in the atricle "How We Tan Sheepskins into Beautiful Rugs", and have recieved very good results. I use regular salt for initial curing. All you're doing here is drawing moisture out of the hide and preventing it from spoiling. Not sure if or why iodized or kosher salt would make a difference. I have always used oxalic acid as specified in the directions. I would think that muriatic acid would be too strong. Oxalic acid can easily be found on ebay. I prefer painting (with a paint brush) the solution onto the hides as opposed to submerging into a vat of solution. You use way less solution if done this way. The directions say to start stretching the hide after the fleece is mostly dry, but the skin itself is still damp (and pliable). At this point, I tack the hide, skin side up, to a piece of plywood. I use a staple gun - it's quick, and I staple along the very outer edge, all the way around. This keeps the hide flat and stretched out and defines the final shape your rug will have. From here, I work the surface of the hide with the end of a 3 foot piece of 1 X 2. Keep the wood at about a 45 degree angle as you rub it in all directions, accross every square inch of the hide. The soft layer of fleece between the hide and the plywood allows the hide to stretch where you rub it. Round off the corners of the 1 X 2 so it doesn't poke though. Watch out for weak spots to prevent tearing. Keep this up a few times a day while the hide dries, and until the hide is dry. This is a good time to apply saddle soap or neats foot oil ( I have used both, depending on what I had on hand at the time) and work it in with the 1 X 2 as well. When done, pry the staples out of the plywood with a screw driver, and cut or pull the staples out of the hide. Finish fleece as desired ( to comb or not to comb, I prefer not to comb). I never wash my rugs with water or let them get wet, otherwise, they may get stiff and shrink as they re-dry. I find a good shaking or whacks with a broom stick outdoors cleans them just fine. I completed my first hide using this method 5 years ago, and it is still holding up great.

cindy law
11/13/2011 6:03:13 AM

Does anyone respond to these comments? Or should I send an email?

cindy law
11/3/2011 1:17:06 PM

I have a couple of questions. You mentioned regular salt, is that iodized? I read I need to get kosher salt. Also, can muriatic acid be used? I have a easy source of that.

marion nunn_2
9/9/2010 3:25:18 PM

My son brought ome sheepskin home from Romania, and it has an awful smell to it. It should have been cured and tanned, but I think either it was not done right or? Not dry or? It looks fairly clean but stinks and is unusable! Is thr a way to clean this an make it usable? Thanks, Marion Nunn.

12/29/2008 1:05:16 PM

The sidebar (which contains instructions) is available here: http://www.motherearthnews.com/Sustainable-Farming/1975-11-01/How-To-Tan-The-Easy-Way.aspx

ken knabenshue
11/5/2008 5:36:57 AM

my nane is ken and i wood like info taning cowhides

kymberlyn weber
10/7/2008 6:09:59 PM

Okay, I have 3 hides that are only a few hours old. Is there more to the article? What would you do next? I'll salt mine down chill them. I hope that is correct. What will we do with them once my husband wants the coolers back?

1/5/2008 3:51:27 PM

I have my hide now and need to go on

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