There’s something interesting that happens when you work with a new material that you haven’t before. You can read about it, watch others work with it, and research it, but nothing can teach you how to work with the material faster than actually working with it, for better or worse. That’s part of reskilling.
What is Reskilling?
Reskilling is teaching yourself or learning a “lost skill” either something you’ve forgotten how to do, or something society at large has left behind with advancing technology. I’m fascinated by a lot of forgotten skills: making cordage, flintknapping, foraging, building shelters, starting a fire without matches or a lighter, finding water, reading the land, weather and night sky, etc.
I’ve been reskilling how to make cordage with plant materials for a few years now. Every time we go camping or I happen to find some suitable materials I try to work with it even if it is just for a few minutes. I’ve used Cedar bark, cotton, hackberry bark, dried banana fiber, cattails, and probably a few more. My favorite so far is banana, but it is a bit tricky finding the right timing of harvest to get the material to work the way I want it to.
Recently though, I’ve been working with raw wool. I wouldn’t call it handspinning per se but there is little difference in the physics of making cordage and making yarn or thread other than scale. It takes patience, some minor tools, and a little skill, but I didn’t (and still don’t) have the tools to card the wool. Honestly, I never intended to work with the wool I’m using right now.
The Wool Story
When Clove, one of our sheep, unexpectedly passed I harvested her pelt. She didn’t look like any of our other sheep and we wanted to keep her beautiful colors and honor her spirit by using what we could. Since it was still winter and she was in wool, the idea was to preserve the pelt whole, because leather would be subpar due to supporting all the winter wool growth.
Working to Tan
I had never worked with leather before, let alone pelts, so I really had no idea what to do. All of my books talked about brain tanning, but I had already buried the head before I realized I needed her brain. I couldn’t buy brains either, due to regulations trying to control infectious diseases like mad cow. Everything else talked about chemicals I refused to use, or a process that would tan the leather, but where I would lose the wool. Damn. So I was in the dark and needed to experiment.
Because her wool was already dark brown and I didn’t need to worry about staining I decided to use tea for the tannin content. I decided to try to figure a concentration by working with pieces of the leg since they were covered in hair instead of wool and I wouldn’t be losing my precious pelt. Well, out of the 8 pieces I worked with, only 1 actually tanned. The others soaked so long the hair slipped, leaving me with half tanned rawhide. Damn. It was looking like I wouldn’t be able to preserve the pelt whole after all.
I tried anyway because there was nothing left for me to do unless I wanted to give and use something I didn’t agree with. It didn’t work. As I was turning the pelt handfuls of wool came off in my hands. I cried, removed the rest of the wool, and gently washed it, laying it out to dry. I may not have gotten the pelt, but now I had wool and leather. Both useful even though not their ideal form. I wound up setting both of them aside for months, at a loss of how to proceed with what I did have. I didn’t want to mess up again.
The Resolution and Reskilling
A few weeks ago I picked up the wool, absentmindedly, while watching a movie. I began to tease out the fibers and roll them into compacted “Snakes,” like we do as kids with play dough. As I picked up a piece to look at it I decided to try to make cordage and see how well it took. It was amazing! It took better than working with Banana fiber in its ideal state. So I started small and made a drink coaster. Then I made another to try and even out the fiber size to get it to be closer to uniform. Now I’m working on a rug that grows a little day by day until I run out of her wool.
I couldn’t be happier with it. It’s soft, the colors are beautiful, and I no longer feel guilty about messing up something I had no idea how to do in the first place. I learned a lot, still got an amazing product and now have even more material to work with in the future. I still haven’t begun to work with the leather, which requires more reskilling…