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Fish Leather - A Unique Learning and Cultural Experience

PART ONE - How It Began

For those who don't know me personally, which is quite a lot of you - I'm always striving to learn more whether it's academic learning or culturally-exclusive skills like my beading. After taking part in a program called Pathways to Resiliency that was semi-local to where I am, I fell upon a post shared by a fellow member of the group. It was for a fish leather tanning class on Zoom, hosted by the Georgian Bay Anishnaabek Youth and taught by Amber Sandy.

First off, I had actually NEVER heard of fish leather before. All concepts of fish skins to me at that point involved a LOT of slime and funky smells. Intrigued, I signed up for the Zoom class on behalf of sheer impulse and curiosity. Although I was out of the region for supplies kits unfortunately, living right on a lake made it easy to score some fish skin to try it out either way. Plus I had way too much tea and jars in my house at that point so I had those supply needs already taken care off. There was nothing for me to lose and a lot for me to learn as well as possibly gain and add to my creation arsenal. I was ready with my slimy skins and iPad to attempt something new and interesting.

My first skins I worked with were caught by my uncle Woody. Really nice and cool guy, he even gave us the fillets of the BIG pickerel to have dinner as well. So I got a nice big and filling pickerel dinner with my family and two huge skins for my first attempt at this project. So before proceeding further, I'd like to say chi-miigwetch for his contribution to my learning project, as well as giving me the best dinner I had lately. On a totally different side note too, I also came eventually to name this gifted-to-me pickerel Todd, for no reason really. Just thought it rather rude not to give him any name of sorts while I ate him and made his skin into art.

The process was anticipated to take about 5-7 days according to Amber's class, but due to the sheer deadly size of Todd- we were about 12 days until completion. That meant that huge tea supply I had was demolished entirely in efforts to tan Todd's skins, thankfully it WORKED! Todd's skin was made into some really gorgeous leather, being a dark brown almost black in colour. Very thick and sturdy as well with almost all the stunning scale pockets intact. For my first try ever, I felt very accomplished on how amazing they came out. Todd would've been proud to know how he turned out. I was too excited to hold back and made him in earrings immediately which are pictured above. They were called "Temagami Vibrance," and sold quite quickly to a good family friend of mine.

*In the picture below, the leather itself looks to almost glow a brownish shade in the sunlight. In most lighting situations however, the leather looks practically black. Beautiful and awesome either way though.

After I finished Todd's skins, I've since moved on to experimenting with different species. So far, I currently have pike, bass and a smaller set of pickerel on deck. They're currently in and out of my freezer since I want to soften down some of their structure on a molecular level to increase usability in my projects with fish leather. So thawing them then freezing them again on repeat should help that process before I oil them down before completion. So you'll see soon how they turned out. So far, my favourite skins to work with are pickerel due to the durability and solid thickness of the hide but the pike seems like it'd make a nice softer leather. We shall see.

Overall, I have absolutely no regrets with learning how to tan my own fish leather. It was a trying project at times, especially with how long it took the first time. But the new possibilities of creation I've unlocked were well worth the major tests on my patience. Sure, for the first few days I noticed the fish smell when I'd open the jars but towards the end, my entire house and air within had the scent of tea. Orange pekoe to be exact, because that's what I like using (and drinking). It was also quite amusing to have my fiancé and daughter giving me weird looks as I'd get up just to go stir my fish skin multiple times a day and night. But they were also the first ones to say how cool they turned out when I finished oiling them down. Now my daughter is almost like an apprentice to me, she loves watching and attempting to help although she doesn't actually like fish and their skins at all which is ironic and kind of really funny.

I have so many ideas and designs hammered out to make, from earrings to hair pieces to phone grips. It's awesome because I LOVE fishing so now I have a new objective for myself when I'm out and about on the lake fishing with the family. It's like I challenge myself to hunt down gorgeous fish to make gorgeous leather (and great dinners!). After this batch, I'll be making it a goal of mine to catch a trout to try tanning this summer/fall as well as look into more fish leather classes to expand on my current knowledge. I'll be sharing more in-depth steps on how I learned to tan leather on my new business TikTok and Facebook page (and then here eventually when I write it ALL down). Until then, I can't wait to learn more new and cool things to share with you guys!

- Callie Paul, Odemin's Creeations (@calistapaul)

Part Two of my Fish Leather Blog Series will come out this summer in July sometime!

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