In traditional Sámi handicraft, duodji, a bark tanned reindeerskin (sisti) is the central material produced by the craft makers themselves. In the old days, people used it for all types of garments that can now be made from fabric. Reindeerskin is still used for sewing leather clothes, accessories, bags and pouches, and for a range of smaller details in crafts. Earlier, handmade leather was also used for reindeer harnesses. Today, tanned reindeerskin is an expensive material because of the great amount of work it requires.
You start the making of tanned reindeerskin by slaughtering a reindeer. The hide is flayed carefully and then kept under the snow until it is treated. The hair can be removed from the hide in melting snow later in the spring, or by rotting it with the help of water in the early summer. The wet hair is removed by picking by hand, and the fat and meat left on the back of the hide are removed carefully with a scraper.
A hairless reindeerskin is tanned by soaking it in liquor that has been produced by boiling willow bark in water. At the beginning, the liquor, or the tan, needs to be more diluted in order not to damage the leather. Towards the end of the process, the tan is made increasingly stronger. The treatment takes 1–2 weeks. After this, the leather is dried and scraped; the skin is scraped clean and worked and stretched so that it becomes soft.
Tan from willow gives reindeerskin its typical beautiful and warm brown shade. The colour can be made darker by adding alder or birch bark into the liquor. The reindeerskin has traditionally been finished off by greasing it with a mixture of coalfish liver oil and water. At present, linen or even cooking oil is used. The same methods have also been applied for the maintenance and protection of leather garments when they have not been used for a period of time.
Early summer is the best time to remove the bark from the trunk. This period coincides with the blossom of the Labrador tea. At this time, willow bark can be removed in long strips just by pulling by hand, but it can also be removed later by cutting with a knife or a bark scraper. The coarseness of the bark varies according to the purpose from coarse bark to fine bark cut from thin willow stems. Thin strips have been boiled in a small amount of water into a paste; when tanning, the leather has been rubbed with the paste.
Reindeerskin, or tanned reindeer leather, is sewn with a triangular needle, a leather hand needle, and with strong and flexible “tendon thread”. Earlier, people used real sinew thread that was made and spun from a tendon found by the backbone of the reindeer. From the 1950s on, leather garments have been sewn with synthetic thread: first with nylon thread, and nowadays with long fibre filament thread that also needs to be spun before sewing. The needle is stuck through the leather with the help of a thimble sewn from reindeerskin.
Extra fine and soft white reindeerskin has been made on the snow in the sunshine of the late spring. White reindeerskin is not as strong as ordinary reindeer leather, but it can be used for decoration.
Sisnaa poronnahkaa – sisnanteon opas. Sisnaa poronnahkaa -hanke. Saamelaisalueen koulutuskeskus / Sámi oahpahusguovddáš. 2. painos. 2012.
Somby, Seija Risten: Sisti Duodji. Sámediggi. Vaasa 2008.