I am often asked how I learned or how I got started out as a hide-tanner, a rather obscure vocation, to say the least, and not something I knew existed in this age. But somehow, over a decade ago now, I was given the opportunity to learn how to tan a few deerskins – not be taught, not be shown, just a good old chance to learn.
It was in short a disaster - half-rotted, full of holes and slimy – then cardboard. Looking back at my complete unfamiliarity with everything about it: the hesitations, preconceptions, aversions, wishes, desires and somewhere in there some old longing; these were the signs along an old grown over and neglected path. Not a personal journey or a healing trail – I have come to learn this work as wading into the cultural waters of how things are between humans and animals, here and now. Far from being a by-product of meat production or something that “shouldn't go to waste” from the hunt, their skins – the oldest and first human clothing – are up there with stone-tools and fire in the short list of the old gifts that made humans.
So what does it mean that nearly every skin today is either left in the bush, paid to be disposed of from slaughterhouses, or sent to places with lax labour and environmental standards to be treated and filled with harmful substances? This is what I unknowingly waded into with that first deerskin all those years ago – how could something as fundamental to life as skins and leather have become so utterly foreign, its meaning and value so trivialized?
There was something about the simple beauty of that first tanned deerskin – yes, the feel, the look, and the smell; there was something old too, my first profound encounter and engagement with real hand-made beauty. Something whose ways and means of its creation and care are a part of its beauty – skin treated in ways recognizable to how the deer lived their life. Leather that remembers its deer-ness, its kinship with the natural world, and now the human one too. This, and its vegetable fibre equivalents, is how healthy people and cultures clothe themselves.
People enthrone the natural world through their beauty-making, hand-work and prayers, in every literal sense it can be meant, to become the way they appear to each other and the world. Every person's ancestral traditions carry some form of this understanding.
And so, I set about learning to sew, to make patterns, to measure and to design. After all, and for all its alchemy, mystery and hard work, the tanning is still the vast preparatory stage to actually making something, one part of a clothing tradition. As the part of the animal that can stay amongst us the longest, the making of something beautiful and useful from skin takes on the shape of something obligatory. Not some kind of individually shaming prescription that if you kill you therefore must sew. No, this is the cultures work – to see to it that what we take from the world in order to live receives its place of honour in the cultural life. From the hunter or herdsman to the butcher, the tanner, the cook, the tailor, the shoemaker and so on – not industries, but people who care about their work.
I have been blessed to have learned from so many good teachers and fellow tanners over the years. I am grateful to all the writers, contemporary and ancient alike, who took the time to impart some of their hard-earned learning to those they would never meet. It has also turned into a great sorrow for the state of mentorship and apprenticeship that I have had to do so much learning on my own – so many failures and skins I couldn't keep – without the steady hand and eye of someone older who has been there before, for so much has been forgotten.
The Herd's Throne is now a very small tannery and sewing studio attached to a farm in the Upper Ottawa Valley of Eastern Ontario. This is where I make clothing and leather goods from bark-tanned and brain-tanned locally hunted and farmed skins. Everything employed in the tannery is turned into compost once spent, part of a healthy organic farm.
- Daniel Stermac-Stein
Golden Lake, Ontario