Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Fish Skins and the Tannery in Iceland.....

So we went to the only remaining tannery in Iceland . It was in Saudarkrokur, up north. They are known for tanning fish skins, not just sheep skins! And of course, that makes sense since fishing represents a large industry for them - it employs 9% of the population.

We found that the tannery was closed despite signs indicating it should be open on the day and hours we were there. And thru the window we could see all sorts of beautiful fish skins and products made from them. It was like having a bowl of chocolate chip cookie batter in front of you and not being able to take a bite!

We had looked forward to learning about the process- since fish skins are so thin it seems it would be a challenge to tan them?  

There were about 20 palettes like this one - stacked 3 palettes high-  of sheep skins just waiting to be tanned too, but sitting in the parking lot.

With no hope for a tour or opportunity to shop, we went on our way.

After stopping at an old turf village ( I've included a picture here since the pattern the turf wads are laid down in is intriguing and maybe inspires a knitting design?) and then we went on to Akureyri where we learned the fate of the Lodskinn tannery!

It had just filed bankruptcy and closed its doors most unexpectedly.

Fortunately, Anna (more about our visit with this felter in tomorrow's post) called around and found a few places for us that had some fish skins for sale. We also had a chance to talk to her about the process and I'm quite interested now to try it myself!.

Here is a photo of some of the fish skins I purchased there. I look forward to working them into the design of some felt bags in the future! The leopard looking ones are for real - that is a spotted fish and one of the skins was dyed ochre (the white is natural). 

Obviously, the red fish skins shown below are dyed, though they are salmon and feature an interesting chevron pattern.. The blue almost looks like an eel to me? And the black one is just BIG and has a nice texture!  

As you can imagine, the
 fish skins  are quite a bit thinner than camel or cowhide. And even a bit thinner than lamb's skin which is the grade I use to make gloves. Anyway, it will be fun to experiment with these in some bags.

 I have a brother who is an avid fisherman down on the Outer Banks so I'm hoping he can catch a pretty bluefish or something and I can try tanning it myself. 

So this weekend in Maine I picked up a bunch of birch bark and this morning at Shaws I got a whole snapper.After a call to Eric for advice on how to skin and descale a fish, since I've not done that before, I'm going to try tanning a la Vikings!

Stay tuned to next week's posts if you're interested in how that process works out!

This is how Anna has tanned fish skins before and she said it is the "traditional" way they did it in Iceland:
you boil the tannin source hard in water for 2 hours in a big pot. Then put the fish skins in and let them sit (with occasional rotation/stirring) for 2 weeks. Then remove, dry, dye (if desired) and voila! 

In theory, anything with tannin should work. I believe my sister Roby is experimenting with oak galls, since she has a bag of those  and they are very high in tannic acid.

It all sounds very easy. I guess we'll see!


  1. Jen, thanks for the wonderful posts about Iceland! I'm so sad to hear about the tannery. It was such an awesome place; nothing else like it. Your spotted fish is an Atlantic wolf fish... my favorite.

  2. Thanks, Sandi. I was going to ask you and Jules if you knew. I went online to look up Icelandic fish and came up with it being a spotted catfish when left to my own detective devices! So I'm glad to know what it REALLY is!!