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Treating animal skins

There are many ways to treat animal skins

2001 Available in French, English, Spanish and Portuguese

Footsteps magazine issues on a wooden desk.

From: Appropriate technology – Footsteps 46

Testing and adapting ideas to meet local needs

We would like to respond to the request in a recent issue of Footsteps about technical knowledge for processing hides and running a small-scale tannery. We have run courses teaching tanning techniques and how to use the leather for items such as sandals and belts. We are preparing a booklet on this subject.

We started our course by discovering together the best available source of tannin in the area. The participants brought in tree leaves and bark from thirty different trees, which we tested with a solution made from ordinary iron pills (available at most chemists) and water. We added ten ground-up pills to a small bottle half full of water and shook it well. To test the samples, we put a bit of the bark in water and added a few drops of the iron pill solution to it. If tannin was present, the solution turned blue-black.

There are many ways to preserve animal skins, but many of the methods used by large tanneries require chemicals that are very hazardous to the environment and toxic to humans. We try to teach methods that use natural materials that can be disposed of safely. The box below shows a method used by one of the participants for tanning goat skins.

Bud and Marlys Larsen, Community Development Co-ordinators for, the Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Preparing goat skins


  • Soak a goatskin (still with hair on it) in water.
  • Spread wood ashes on the ‘flesh side’ of the skin and leave it for two days. _ Soak it in water again, wash out the ash, then squeeze out the water.
  • Scrape off the hair with a knife, then wash the skin in water.
  • Collect urine from female camels, sheep or goats with a shovel off the ground. Mix the urine and earth with some water, spread it all over the skin, and then leave for two days. The skin will now be stiff.
  • Wash with water until the skin becomes ‘white’.
  • Pound a good source of natural tannin in a mortar and pestle and mix with some water. In my area we use ‘agar’ – a wild dried fruit from the acacia tree.
  • Put the skin in the tannin or agar mixture until it all soaks in. Leave the skin saturated and bury it underground for three days.
  • Take out the skin and wash again, squeeze out the water and stretch out.
  • Spread oil (butter extracted from milk by shaking in a leather bag) over the hair side of the skin. Leave until it soaks in – one day and one night.
  • Pound more tannin (or agar), soak again for 24 hours and wash in water.
  • Pound red soft stones (to give colour) to make a powder. Spread and rub hard to get it into the skin (both sides) till skin gets soft.
  • The skins should now be ready to piece and sew into goatskin tents or for any other use.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Always wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling the skins. Avoid skin contact with tannin solutions.

These directions for tanning goat skins are from Mariama Khamed Attayoub of Niger and were submitted by Meredith Bunting.

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