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Buckskin: Clothes That Last

Jillian Liebl

We've taken some time this week to appreciate and celebrate our worn-in buckskin clothes. What a joy to wear something you've made for yourself from start to finish! A buckskin wardrobe takes a long time to create, but the garments'll last a decade (with patching and repairs, of course) if you treat 'em real nice.

Most of our clothes need a wash right now, but we thought we'd share these pictures, along with some sewing tips we've learned on the way.

So many hours, so much love in these clothes!

So many hours, so much love in these clothes!

1. Welted seams are your friend.

Sam's pants, finished November 2015. The welted seam goes all the way from the fly through the crotch and up middle of the seat to the waistband. You may also notice the patched bullet hole, done with buckskin and a whip stitch.

Sam's pants, finished November 2015. The welted seam goes all the way from the fly through the crotch and up middle of the seat to the waistband. You may also notice the patched bullet hole, done with buckskin and a whip stitch.

A welt is a piece of material that is sewn in between the two edges of a plain seam (that is, when the two right sides are stitched together). I think of it as a buckskin sandwich. These seams get really bulky really fast with buckskin, and while I wouldn't recommend doing welted seams for your whole garment, they sure do make a difference in high-stress areas.

Welts are crazy useful for butt & crotch seams, pockets, bags, and shoes–any seam that takes a lot of stress from movement or needs to be super strong or tight. Sam has ripped the crotch and butt out of at least four pairs of jeans in the last two years, so we took extra care with the welted seam in this pair of pants.

2.  Sometimes tailored clothes are better.

Jill's skirt, finished fall 2013.  The pale material is from a doe, the darker is from a fawn dyed with walnut hulls.

Jill's skirt, finished fall 2013.  The pale material is from a doe, the darker is from a fawn dyed with walnut hulls.

Even though my buckskin clothes are my favorite garments, I frequently change into "normal" things if I'm going into town. Sometimes I welcome and love questions about buckskin from folks at the grocery store or gas station. It can be really fun to introduce buckskin to someone who's never seen or felt it before. But it also gets really old, really fast. Sometimes you just want to run in, get your milk, and run out without weird looks.

Lots of folks we know dye their buckskins with black walnut, which, besides being beautiful and disguising dirt to keep the clothes looking cleaner, also camouflages your outfit and keeps it low-key. We've also found that putting some time into tailoring "normal"-looking buckskin clothes helps you blend in when you need to.

Take my skirt (above), for instance. It was the first garment I made, and it was a snap to do: just wrap a hide around your waist, sew a drawstring and a button, and bam! Skirt. I love my skirt and wouldn't trade it away for anything, but I will say that I have had so many old men say so many creepy things about me being Pocahontas when I wear it, that I really think twice about where I'm going before I put it on.

3. You don't need perfect hides to make Awesome clothes.

Sam's summer shirt, finished June 2015.

Sam's summer shirt, finished June 2015.

Lots of folks we know have a fixation on "perfect" buckskin. And for good reason–well-tanned hides are buttery soft, super strong, and golden. Sam tans lots of flawless buckskins, and most of them go up on our Etsy shop just as soon as they come off the smoker.

But as even the best braintanner will tell you, every hide is different and some just don't want to become soft. Others have stiff scar tissue, unfortunate holes, or score marks from being badly skinned. We don't sell buckskin with such "issues." But we do make clothes out of them! In fact, Sam's clothes are made entirely from hides he decided were not fit for sale.

Take his summer shirt (above) for instance. The front and back are from two different deer, neither of which came out particularly soft. The back panel, especially, has extensive barbed-wire scars that areas stiff and weak. But those flaws haven't made a lick of difference even though Sam has been rough beyond reason on this garment.

4. Buckskin doesn't have to be a novelty

Sam's shorts, finished spring equinox 2015.

Sam's shorts, finished spring equinox 2015.

Thanks to the wonderful gatherings we have attended and taught at, we have seen a lot of people wearing a lot of buckskin. Though we appreciate the clean, bright look of fresh buckskin duds, we have the most admiration for garments that are obviously used day-to-day and not just at gatherings.

In an age when most of our material culture is industrially produced, buckskin is radical stuff. Watch some videos on how any other leather is made (even veg-tan!) or read this excellent article on the global apparel industry, and your stomach will turn. Furthermore, hardly anyone knows how to weave or sew in the US. So even though you know your clothes are shamefully produced, you have no alternative. 

Unless you know how to braintan a deer skin.

But when it comes to clothes, ethical doesn't mean much unless it's comfortable, durable, and convenient. Buckskin excels in all those ways. And, as we pointed out earlier, buckskin clothes don't have to stand out in public unless you want them to. With some basic tailoring and thoughtful sewing, your buckskin pants will pass for Carhartts at the coffee shop.

Buckskin doesn't have to be a novelty. It's easy to wear every day if you ask yourself some basic questions before beginning a bag or piece of clothing. Will it be useful? Will it be comfortable? Will it look good? We give much thought to these questions before we pull out our sewing shears.

We look forward to a day when buckskin clothes are once again entirely normal.

5. Buckskin is good for somethings. But not everything.

Jillian's moccasins. The inner part is a one-piece pucker toe that feels like a sock. The outer part, some call it a brogue, is made from thick and not-so-soft buckskin. If Jill hadn't added the outer part, these mocs would have been goners with all the wear she's put on them. There are other reasons why this two-part moc design is brilliant but that'll have to wait for another post.

Jillian's moccasins. The inner part is a one-piece pucker toe that feels like a sock. The outer part, some call it a brogue, is made from thick and not-so-soft buckskin. If Jill hadn't added the outer part, these mocs would have been goners with all the wear she's put on them. There are other reasons why this two-part moc design is brilliant but that'll have to wait for another post.

Another reason we wear buckskin most days is that we want to learn about its limits. How well does it keep us warm? How well does it keep us cool? What seams are durable and comfortable? Does it chafe? Here's what we've found out so far.

Buckskin is great at: pants, shorts, bags, blocking wind, dry weather, loose jackets, bras.

Buckskin is mediocre at: warm weather shirts, breathability, light precipitation, insulation, footwear uppers.

Buckskin is bad at: humid or wet weather, layering with other clothes, wet shoe soles, walking on pavement, swimwear.

If were to ask us what buckskin does the very best, our answer would be pants. Buckskin pants are divine. Wear a pair and you will know why.