Archive for the 'Animal Materials' Category

Mar 26 2011

Winter clothing – Part 2: Head wear

Published by under Animal Materials

I decided to split the winter clothing post into two different sections for better readability…so here´s the second part, winter head wear.

This brain-tanned beaver hat is very comfortable and warm under most circumstances. It consists of a circular top piece and a long, rectangular section of fur (in this case, two short ones sewn together) that forms the side.

A look at the inside shows part of the stiching around the round top piece. I make the side section extra wide so that it can be folded inside and easily adjusted as needed. That way the ears can be completely covered during a snow storm, or kept free in other conditions for better hearing.

I found an article in Wilderness Way magazine called “Making a Winter Hat from Beaver Pelt” (Volume 2 Issue 2) that uses the same basic pattern, and since then I´m using a baseball stich for this type of sewing. I used artificial sinew as a thread.

When there is a lot of precipitation or I move through brushy area with a lot of snow on the branches I like to use this simple coyote fur hood. Its weight keeps it from slipping off, and it nicely overlaps the neck and shoulder area of the parka to keep snow from falling in (and melting down the back…not the most “pleasant” feeling). The hood consists of two pelt pieces sewn together along the centerline. Again, it´s a simple whip stich that does the job, whereas the “thread” is a buckskin thong (since coyote pelts are so thin, I prefer to use buckskin lacings over thinner threads such as (artificial) sinew since it tends to tear less through the hide).

One response so far

Mar 26 2011

Winter clothing – Part 1: Fur parka and leggins

Published by under Animal Materials

Northwoods winters can sometimes be unpredictable. Until recently almost all the snow melted away – then, a couple of days ago, a snowstorm moved through and brought several inches of snow with it, along with more winterly temperatures…

It´s time to put on some winter gear again.

It rarely gets very cold (-30F or below) around here these days, but we get periodic thaws almost every winter. Most winter days fall between that temperature range, so an Inuit-style parka would be overkill much of the time.

My equipment of choice during cold conditions consists of a coyote fur parka, fur leggins and a beaver hat. I chose coyote pelts because of their insulative value, light weight, and easy avalability (many people here hunt and trap coyotes, yet they still seem to maintain a thriving population). Pre-contact Natives of this area most likely used woodland caribou (which are now extinct here) for a lot of their winter clothing, much like many of the subarctic tribes did.

Rear view of winter outfit. Notice how the parka shingles over the leggins – shingling layers is an important part of keeping body heat from escaping. The footwear is buckskin mukluks with canvas uppers. Part of the rear flap of the loincloth can be seen between the leggins.

Coyote pelts – like a number of other pelts – do have a distinct advantage over caribou or deer hides: They shed a lot less hair and therefore last much longer. Most tribes that used caribou skins for winter clothing made a new set of clothing every winter or two. In contrast, pelts can last for years (if they´re taken care of) without much wear. The picture above shows a caribou parka I made a few years ago which lasted about one winter before most of the hairs were worn off…

Now compare that to the coyote parka which has been used on a daily basis for more than one winter.

The parka spread out with the inside up. It consists of  a front and rear panel (1 brain-tanned coyote pelt each), with side-flaps (half a pelt for each) sewn to both sides of the rear flap. Front and rear flap are sewn together at the shoulder/neck area, with a circular opening cut out for the head. The sleeves (1 pelt each) are attached at the shoulders with the armpits left open – this prevents excessive buildup of sweat. In warm weather, the parka can just be left dangling from the shoulders (much like a poncho). Since the armpits are open, it´s easy to put the sleeves on or off in this position. For more insulation, the side flaps can be tied together over the front panel (see tying strigs on the side flaps in the picture above) – this way all the exposed areas get closed up.

For this parka I used no patterns; measurements were done by eye and by temporarily sewing the parka in a few spots to test & adjust.

All the stiches on the parka are simple whip stiches with buckskin thongs as shown in the picture above. Coyote pelts are quite thin (which makes them fairly easy to tan) and yet strong and durable, so I wasn´t too concerned with elaborate stiching. After a season of heavy use I noticed though that the seams in the areas with a lot of stress/tension (such as where the sleeves are attached to the main body of the parka) had ripped in some spots. I reenforced those areas with a welt to lessen the tension on the seams.

For an excellent article on making a fur parka of a similar design I recommend the article “Make your own Fur Parka” by Tamarack Song, Wilderness Way Volume 15 Issue 1. Unfortunately the magazine is no longer being published but you may find a used copy somewhere.

Coyote fur leggins. Each leg cosists of two pelts sewn into tubes which overlap in the knee area. Because of the amout of streching that happens in that area, I only sewed the pelts in the back and to the side of the knee, with the upper pelt overlapping the lower one in front of the knee.

I find that fur is usually too bulky and too warm for a loincloth (unless the hair is very short), so I decided to use a buckskin loincloth with a back flap of fur (folded under the buckskin section in the picture above and therefore not visible). Since the fur from the leggins already covers most of the hip and thigh area and the parka overlaps the upper part of the leggins, I haven´t noticed any drafts or coldspots with this design (which can sometimes be an issue with a leggins and loincloth combination). The back flap provides an instant insulating cushion for sitting down wherever one desires. The upper outer edge of each leggin is folded over and sewn so that a belt can pass through to hold up the leggins and loincloth. As with the parka, all stiches are whip stiches made with buckskin thong and a buckskin welt for reenforcement.

There is one downside to the leggins: Unless the temperature is 0F (-17C) or lower they´re simply too warm…

As usual, I welcome any thoughts, questions, suggestions…if you made some of your own winter gear, I´d love to hear about how it´s been working for you and what you discovered in the process!

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Mar 12 2011


Published by under Animal Materials

Footwear must be one of the most abused items in a practicing primitive´s kit – I for my part have certainly worn down a number of moccasins. Walking barefoot whenever possible helps to cut down on how often footwear needs to be repaired or replaced. The Ojibway people of this area had a reason though that they used moccasins: When walking/running off trail, one repeatedly encounters sharp objects like twigs that can easily cause a serious injury – something that people who need to move to hunt, trap, gather and explore can´t afford to happen too often.  I had to learn this lesson the hard way, thinking my feet could get used to a little bit of discomfort. Enduring discomfort is one thing, dealing with a deep stabbing wound is another. Anyways, here are a couple of examples of footwear that are part of my equipment:

A pair of winter mukluks that I finished earlier this winter. This is the  “puckered-toe” style that Natives in this area typically used.  Two long lacings on each mukluk can be wrapped around several times and tied off to secure it to the foot. A drawstring on the top prevents snow or debris from falling in (which usually is not a problem since the upper part of the mukluk is overlapped by pants or leggins anyways). The material is buckskin (grain off); I placed the sole in the thicker area of the hide, for the uppers a thinner piece is sufficient. For the sewing I used artificial sinew.

The same mukluks after a winter of heavy use. They´re still in very good shape, and besides reenforcing some of the stiches (after the buckskins streched some of the seams were not completely tight anymore) no repairs were necessary.

Winter conditions are usually more gentle on footwear, and so a pair can last for a while. This style of mukluks is mainly suited for cold temperatures – once the snow gets wet, the mukluks and eventually the stockings and feet will get wet, too. One of the (many) projects I´d like to work on is to make some more water-resistant boots e.g. made with beaver fur. If it happens I´ll post about it here.

A pair of summer moccasins made from grain-on buckskin that´s been treated with pitch and oil. To increase their durability, I´ll probably sew on one or two more soles of buckskin to the bottom. Soft grass stuffed inside provides some extra comfort and insulation, especially when the moccasins get soaked in wet conditions.

In any case, it makes sense to have at least two pairs available so they can easily be switched out when one needs to be repaired etc. On rough and hard surfaces (rock, asphalt) moccasins naturally wear out much faster, which is why I switch to a rubber-soled commercial style in those areas…

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Jan 31 2011

Mittens and choppers

Published by under Animal Materials

The pictures below are from a pair of mittens and choppers I completed a little while ago. I´ve  just recently started to take more pictures of the crafts I´m working on, and will keep in mind to have photos of work-in-progress available in the future.

The choppers are made from grain-on buckskin (with the hide being from a whitetail deer, Odocoileus virginianus, a species common in the area where I currently live), the mittens are tanned hair-on racoon skin, with the hair turned inside. Both are sewn with artificial sinew, though sinew would work just as well.

Choppers and Mittens

The advantage of having separate choppers and mittens is that they can be dried out much faster when wet, which is especially important when you only have a small fire or body wamth to dry out your gear.

The racoon mittens are soft and warm, and I find them to be a good alternative to wool mittens.

Buckskin tends to absorb water fairly fast; leaving the grain on helps a little bit with water repellency. To increase the latter, I applied a mix of beaver oil and pitch to the chopper. I find that I never get the fat-pitch mix quite to the point where they completely mix (some of the pitch settles on the bottom of the container I use for mixing and heating), though it seems to do the job. Below is a picture of the oiled choppers, the color changed to a pleasant reddish-brown.

Oiled choppers

Beaver oil has a very low melting point (around 30F/-1C) and therefor makes an excellent choice for leather work. Beaver fat is also very nutritious and tasty – I prefer to eat it unless I come across some rancid fat (which I then render to be used as utility fat, like in this case).

It´ll be a while till my next post since I´ll be in the woods for the next few weeks. To make it clear, I don´t consider myself as an “expert” in any of these skills and crafts. Like probably most of you who read this, I didn´t grow up in a traditional (hunter-gatherer) culture where those skills are practiced from early age on, though I´ve experimented with and used a variety of them over the years (and the people who know me could probably make a better judgement of that anyways). I say this because following a passion like this may not get you a lot of encouragement and recognition, especially from the dominant culture, and it can sometimes be a challenge to keep going with it. Yet I´d choose this life of richness and connectedness any day over one of comfort and material wealth.

I appreciate questions and discussions, as I think that those can help us all with learning and growing. Have fun on your journey.

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Jan 13 2008

Patching Wool

Published by under Animal Materials

Purist Warning! This post contains non-primitive tools. 🙂

What you need to do this:

  • A wool garnment with holes in it.
  • A blunt, preferably large needle with a big eye.
  • Some wool thread. Preferably matching colours, though I didn’t have that available..

Knitted and felted wool is two of the most common materials for traditional clothes in Norway. Wool is warm, even when wet, but it has one disadvantage: It wears out quickly if used in tasks that abrades it heavily. Because of this it’s smart to know how to patch them.

The whole process is organised as when weaving cloth. Start by making threads going in one direction. Use simple overhand stitches, but don’t tighten them together.


Then you weave like on a loom. Remember that there are threads on the inside too, that needs to be incorporated. This is a little fiddely, but if you poke around a little in the hole with the needle you’ll find them. Feel on the inside as well, to make it easier. The first row is the hardest.


There is no need to make any knots at the beginning or end of the weave. Just make a few additional stitches. It’s remarkable quick to patch a pair of mittens, socks or whatever.


Just for your information, I am crappy at patching wool, as you probably can see it looks like a mess. It does the job though.

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