The changing seasons this time of year also signal a shifting amongst our flock. Fall is when we send ram lambs to the butcher that we won’t be keeping on for breeding, and we just sent our first group this past week. Harvest day always has me deep in thought about all things connection, local food, and regeneration. I often get asked if it makes me a little sad, to which I say “a little,” but of course, it’s more nuanced than that.
I’ve been caring for these sheep since birth and as their shepherd, I naturally feel a sense of affection towards them. But I also understand the importance of local regenerative food systems, and I feel a huge sense of honor in getting to feed hundreds of families. I’m extremely grateful for the way that these lambs will nourish me and so many others and take comfort in the knowledge that no part of them will be wasted, not even the horns or the hide. In fact, part of what comes along with harvest day is the next day being spent fully immersed in trimming and salting sheepskins as I prepare to send them to the tannery. It can be a laborious process, but at the same time I take a lot of pride in the work and continuing to foster that connection between myself, the land, and the soil. And the hard work pays off because we’re left with beautiful, heirloom-quality sheepskins! Speaking of sheepskins, we just got a batch back from the tannery that are absolutely gorgeous (you can shop all of our in-stock sheepskins here) and to celebrate I thought I would do a deep dive into all things sheepskins, including the process of how we preserve them and how we use them.
Fleece vs. Sheepskins
Before I go too much further, I thought it would be helpful to outline the differences between sheepskins and sheared fleece, especially as they pertain to Icelandic sheep in particular.
Fleece is shorn off the sheep annually. In essence, we shear for the comfort of the sheep and not for monetary gain, (which you can read more about in our sheep shearing blog) and most of our fleece is composted or used for other miscellaneous projects around the ranch. Some intact fleeces can be felted together to create "vegetarian sheepskins," but for the most part the wool is cleaned, combed, and processed from its raw state into other products. Icelandic sheep are somewhat unique compared to more modern breeds in that their fleece is dual coated. The inner coat is called the “Þel'' ("thel") and has a finer consistency. The outer coat is called the “Tog” and is generally coarser and longer. When the two types of fleece are spun together, they are called "lopi" and make the warmest outerwear.
Sheepskins, on the other hand, come from the butchering process, when the hide is removed. Once the hides are removed and we get them back from the butcher, we get straight to work on the preserving process.
Fleshing the hide
The first step in the preservation process is called fleshing. It’s pretty much what it sounds like: the hides that we get back from the butcher often have bits of flesh left that haven’t completely been removed and it’s important to scrape those off completely to allow the salt that’s applied later on penetrate and to avoid any potential spoilage of the hide. Dull knives and other tools (like the one Lacey is using here) are favored to avoid cutting through the skin and the hides are tied tightly around a hoop or sometimes propped up against a fleshing beam (the key here is to keep the hide taught) and then scraped until free of flesh. Some fat is left, but only a thin layer so it won’t get in the way of the salt doing its work.
Salting the hide
Once the hide has been properly scraped, it’s time for salting. Salt is applied to the hide to prevent bacteria from growing, which could in turn lead to what’s called “hair slippage.” This is when the fiber comes loose or slips away from the hide, and seriously compromises the sheepskin.
Using a whole lot of granulated salt (and a few fresh pairs of gloves for good measure) we then spread all over the hide and rub it in thoroughly, all the way to the edges. We will also do our best to tilt the hide slightly so that any excess moisture can drain off and not pool and cause rot. Once all the salt has been added, it’s time to let the hide cure. We keep our hides out of the sun and under cover during the time, and it can take a few weeks for them to fully cure. When they’re done, they’re fully dried and stiff, and feel a little like cardboard, which means they’ll be ready to stack for shipping to the tannery! Before they get sent off we’ll also take the time to flip the hides over and make sure to pick out any weeds or thistles in the fiber so that they don’t end up in the final product.
There's no way to sugar coat this: preserving the hides is physically exhausting work, and it's very hard to do well. It requires a lot of elbow grease and vigilance on our part to make sure they are staying clean, curing correctly, and are in the right temperature range to dry out. The learning curve has been steep, and even though now we have a good system, I still block off several days to process sheepskins and end up very sore. But it's worth every minute to preserve these hides and turn them into heirlooms.
Something that I’m incredibly passionate about is the use of natural methods when it comes to tanning hides. Oftentimes tanning solutions are made from heavy and harsh metals, like chrome or aluminum, and then rinsed with sulfate and phosphate laden soaps which are definitely not the most environmentally friendly when you consider where all those chemicals end up at the end of the process. Meanwhile, natural tanneries use primarily plant-based solutions in their process, but you can even use egg yolks from your chickens if you’ve got ‘em, which we ended up doing last year as part of a tanning demo at Shepherd Camp! And then…we wait patiently (or sometimes not so patiently) for our sheepskins to come back. This usually takes at least six months, sometimes longer.
Uses for Sheepskins
Sheepskins make amazing pieces of decor of course, but there are lots of fun ways to use them! You can make them into collars, like the ones pictured here, use them camping as a mattress pad or the warmest blanket, drape them over chairs to make them more comfortable, or add them to your bedside for a soft place to land in the mornings.
I use them everywhere. I don't generally put them on the floor because I don't want them to get dirty, but I love them on chairs, sofas, picnic tables during an outside dinner, on my bed, and even packed with my sleeping bag when I go camping. They keep you warm like nothing else!
Sheepskins also have been used as medical devices due to their natural ability to provide cushioning and relieve pressure points. Sheepskin also naturally wicks away moisture and improves circulation while regulating temperature, so many folks like to use sheepskins as baby blankets. I've heard from customers that their doctors have actually prescribed them a real sheepskin to help with their circulation!
However you choose to use your sheepskin, I’m proud and honored to know that ours have become keepsakes in so many of your homes. I hope you cherish them for many years to come.