Last Morsel—A Slow Tan
Written onFebruary 10 , 2016
Sheep aren’t raised for their skins, but the soft pelts that are a byproduct of meat and wool production are a fluffy reward for farmers and homesteaders who spend many hours tending their flocks.
For years, local shepherds have had to send their pelts out of state to be tanned. Without a local tannery in the state, most Vermonters have relied on facilities in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, but the cost of shipping skins there are high, and the tanneries use odoriferous chemicals.
Now a new business in Randolph is offering custom natural tanning of sheep and goat skins. Vermont Natural Sheepskins was started by Sarah and Rick Scully in an effort to provide a local, chemical-free tanning alternative.
The couple was a few years into raising sheep of their own in Tunbridge when Sarah discovered she was having skin reactions to the chemicals used in the commercial tanning of her sheepskins. “I came to this as a frustrated customer,” Sarah says.
One day she was searching online for an alternative when she came across a woman in England who invented a way to tan sheepskins using a particular type of tree bark. (She doesn’t reveal what type it is, for business reasons.) Sarah and Rick went to England to learn the woman’s unique process, and so far they are the only Americans who use it commercially. In fact, Vermont Natural Sheepskins could be the only chemical-free sheep and goat tannery in the U.S.
Sarah was a full-time librarian at Dartmouth College when she decided to open the tannery. She has no background in tanning, but it helps that she has “farm cred”: she and Rick raise a few Shetlands at home and a Navajo-Churro. (The finished sheepskins for sale on their website come from local butchers who would otherwise throw them away.)
Like their mentor, the Scullys consider the tannin they use to be proprietary information, but Sarah says the process is similar to the traditional oak bark process of tanning. Both processes take longer than chemical tanning but leave no odor on the sheepskin.
At the Randolph shop, skins soak in the tannin solution for one to four weeks. Prior to that they are cleaned in industrial washing machines, and the fat on the backs of them is shaved off. After soaking in the tannin, the skins are pinned to wooden boards to dry, and a sanding machine makes the back of the skins feel soft and supple. Finally, the edges are trimmed with a razor blade to give the skin that “sheep shape” that people expect from a sheepskin rug.
Although Vermont Natural Sheepskins has only been open since the fall of 2015, word has gotten out, and Sarah is busy. Roughly 80 percent of her customers are from New England but she also gets skins mailed to her from other parts of the country.
On the day I visited, Jennifer Megyesi of Fat Rooster Farm in South Royalton was dropping off a dozen sheepskins and a few goat skins. She said she is thrilled to have a chemical-free alternative and is glad to avoid expensive shipping costs.
“This is in my backyard,” Jennifer said. “I’m five miles away. It’s awesome.”
For more info visit vermontnaturalsheepskins.com