Authentically Handcrafted Buckskin Clothing & Wampum Weaving
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Types & Colors of Buckskin Used

(For Buckskin Clothing & Accessories)

Next Page in Article Series Sewing Original Buckskin Clothing
On This Page: Generically Speaking Cautions!
Indian Tanned Preferred Colors

Generically Speaking
Buckskin is a fairly generic word used to describe the leather produced from both genders (not just bucks) of undomesticated, split hoofed animals.  The hides of deer, antelope, elk, moose, and others have been used for centuries to produce what we call buckskin.  Deer and elk are the principle hides used in America today to make buckskin.

Another generic term is "brain tanned" when referring to buckskin produced by Native Americans' tanning methods.  Not all Native Americans used the animal's brains to tan the hide, so we prefer to use the term "Indian tanned".  The pancreas, liver, spleen, and gall bladder were used by some people, and others used fish oils.  The end product was the same, though.  Since the hides we use may come from different sources, we use the term "Indian tanned" instead of "brain tanned".     [Top of Page]

Indian Tanned Preferred:
Someone living in or near a town may have had breeches, pants or a jacket made of vegetable-tanned leather from a regional tannery. This was like commercial vegetable tanned buckskin today, with a smooth side, often called the "grain" side. Even in the settlements, though, people preferred Indian-tanned buckskin, if it was available. It was much more comfortable, and it was cheaper to buy buckskin from the Indians than from tanneries.

If, on a rare occasion, a frontiersman had to use "flatlander" buckskin they invariably turned the suede side out (or "flesh" side).  It was much quieter in the underbrush than the membrane left on (the smooth side) by the vegetable tanning process.

Vegetable tanning takes a lot of time, space, and equipment, that frontier people rarely had.  Nor did they have a need for it.  They either traded for buckskin from their native neighbors or learned from them how to produce buckskin with a few hand tools made from animal parts or local materials.  American Indian tanning methods remove the membrane from both sides of a hide, so there is NO "smooth" side like there is with other tanning methods.

Indian tanning removes the fat from between the buckskin fibers, producing an air layer between the fibers.  This allows the buckskin to "breathe", and makes it cooler in summer and warmer in winter than buckskin made by other methods. Therefore, Native Americans, of course, and Euro-Americans on the frontier preferred buckskin made by native tanning methods.

Vegetable-tanned leather is not stretched during the tanning process.  It will stretch far out of shape and size after wearing only a few times.  Stretching the buckskin is part of the Indian tanning process.  Though it stretches some when worn, as all leather will, Indian tanned buckskin stretches very little in comparison to commercial tanned buckskin.   That's another reason all frontier people preferred Indian tanned buckskin.     [Top of Page]

Caution 1!   We've noticed people lately using semantics to deceive consumers into believing they are selling Indian tanned buckskin.   A very prominent, national leather company stated in some of their ads that you can, "Enjoy the look and feel of real brain tanned buckskin", at a very low cost.   When I visited their store I found they were actually selling "splits".

What are splits?  Tanneries slice the smooth, grain side off of leather to sell to glove and jacket manufacturers.  The remaining leather is called a "split".  Tanneries sell this by-product for about 1/2 the price of full leather - NOT 25% more like this company was charging for their "look and feel"!  Splits also have only about 1/2 the strength and durability of full leather.

Caution 2!  If a craft or buckskin clothing maker is selling clothing "sueded on both sides", ask whether or not it is Indian tanned.  Chances are that it is only splits.  It's how some dealers lower their prices to make more sales.

If they use true Indian tanned they will tell you, because they want you to know their products are more authentic.  If they simply say something like, "double-sueded", or "similar to Indian tanned", you can be sure they're using splits.    [Top of Page]

Colors Were Limited:
[Colors shown may vary slightly due to your browser.  But then, buckskin varies a little in color from batch to batch during processing anyway.]  Color is added to commercial tanned buckskin with dye.  The dye usually "bleeds" onto you or adjacent clothing when the leather gets wet.  In colonial times they only had natural dyes, so the range of colors was very limited by today's standards;  usually black, brown, tan, and saffron (gold).

Commercial
Tanned
Modern Indian Tanned
Dyed
"Smoke"
Dyed Smoke color swatch

White

White color swatch
Light
smoking

Light smoked buckskin
Heavy
smoking

Heavy smoked buckskin

Indian tanning produces a nearly pure white buckskin.  Extra care is needed when working with white leathers.  Body oils quickly attract dirt and stain the leather.  Indian tanned buckskin is smoked after tanning, which colors the buckskin.  The final color depends partly on the condition of the wood used, but mostly on how long the buckskin is smoked.

Note: Contrary to popular belief, smoking does not waterproof buckskin.  It coats the individual fibers to somewhat waterproof them, thereby preventing the hide from shrinking back to its original, un-stretched size.  It does not, however, waterproof the hide as a whole.  Water still seeps between the fibers.

The predominant color used on the frontier, both east and west, was a yellowish-tan ("Light smoking" above).  Some nations, the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Dakota, and Kiowa, in particular, often painted their buckskin with a light yellow ochre, regardless what color it was after smoking.  Other exceptions were the Blackfeet who often heavily smoked their buckskin, and the Crow who often treated their buckskin after a light smoking until it was nearly white again.
  [Top of Page]

Next Page in Article Series Sewing Original Buckskin Clothing

Copyright Jan 1999-2008, Gary A. Reneker. All rights reserved. All text, graphics, programming, and coding are protected by U.S. and International Copyright Laws, and may not be copied, reprinted, published, translated, hosted, or otherwise distributed by any means without explicit permission from Gary A. Reneker.