From an interview with Aayushi Gupta.
In July 2021, Katrina attended a four-day course in Embercombe near Exeter in Devon. Called Material: The Alchemy of Making, it was organised by three craftspeople, Nick Kary, Elizabeth Crawford, and Jesse Watson Brown, who taught woodwork, basketry, and tanning, respectively. In Brown’s tanning workshop, she learnt to make bags using animal skin, and in particular, fish skin. Due to her embodied knowledge of this process, Katrina proved to be the perfect candidate for a wider discussion on the processes entailed in the production and preservation of similar bags made using reindeer, sheep, and fish skin, in the collections at MAA.
MAA looks after four skin bags from Sápmi (the Sámi people’s name for their traditional territory, now covering large parts of Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia). Three of these were collected by Dr. Sharon Webb during fieldwork for her PhD in the early-2000s. As part of this, she interviewed several Sámi craftspeople about their products and practices and this information is now recorded in the museum archives. We chat about one of these bags later.
The fourth bag was collected by American-born British anthropologist, Dr. Ethel John Lindgren in August 1937, presumably during a trip to the Sámi part of Sweden, when she was researching reindeer nomadism in the region. It was with this bag that Katrina and I began our conversation.
So, Katrina, tell me a bit about this bag. What do we know about it? What can we tell from an initial glance? We know that it was collected by Ethel Lindgren, but do we know how she acquired it?
Well, looking at the database, one of the first and perhaps most important things we know about this bag is its local name: saste siexka (saste meaning tanned skin, and siexka meaning bag). The term was recorded on the catalogue card by Lindgren, presumably following fieldwork. And, interestingly there is a later note confirming that this is the correct local term, signed by Mikel Utsi, a Sámi man who Lindgren met and married during fieldwork. He made many contributions to the information MAA holds about the Sámi collections and is now considered to have been an honorary curator. As part of the Stores Move project, we have been digging for and foregrounding local terms for material culture; although they were historically recorded on the database where known, they were not commonly used when describing collections.
So this particular saste siexka was made using a combination of sheep and reindeer skin. It clearly has a history of use, and is a bit worn. There are several historical repairs consisting of applied patches of animal skin stitched around the border with sinew or plant fibre thread. The bag would have been used for holding coffee, flour, or groats, and in fact, still contains a small amount of grain and flour with which it was bought.
Lindgren purchased this saste siexka from a Karesuando family at Vaisaluokta in Sweden. Lindgren noted that the family didn’t recall what substance had been stored in the bag until they looked into it, indicating that the form of bags used to store various food substances were visually indistinguishable. We also know that Louis Colville Gray Clarke, the curator of MAA from 1922–1937, had given Lindgren the money to purchase this saste siexka in addition to 52 other Sámi objects. Whilst Lindgren is cited as the collector of these objects, Clarke is often referred to as their monetary donor.
Focussing on the physical aspects of the saste siexka a bit more, can you tell me how it was made? What processes were entailed in its production?
Lindgren records that this saste siexka is made of a combination of reindeer and sheepskin – the top and thongs around its neck are made of reindeer skin, and the body of sheep skin. If you look closely you can see that the part made of reindeer skin is much lighter than that made of sheepskin. This could be due to slight differences in the skins themselves, the tanning process which was followed, or in the type of use it was exposed to during its lifetime.
Reindeer and sheep would have been kept for meat, so skinned hide was a readily available by-product. Hides would have been scraped to remove any adhering flesh or muscles, and a decision would be made whether to keep the hair attached or not – in this case that was also scraped off leaving a smooth finish on both surfaces. The prepared skins were then treated with tannins which are chemicals used to preserve leather. It’s likely that natural tannins would have been used in this case, possibly from tree bark like willow. Some kind of fat, maybe fat from the reindeer or sheep itself, was then applied to the tanned skins, and as they dried over the fire they would be stretched and manipulated in order to keep them supple. Once this was done, the necessary shapes for the siexka were cut from the stretched skins, and sewn together using sinew or plant fibre.
You pointed out that the top of the siexka and its body are of two different colours because they have been made using two different animal skins. But its entire body is covered with patches of different colours. What could these be from?
Well noticed! These dark brown and black patches are likely indicators of the fact that this siexka was heavily used; they could have resulted from many different things. Some of them, perhaps the black or darker brown patches could be soot which adhered itself to the siexka if it was placed next to a fire. Other patches, for example those that look a bit like oil stains, could be fat. It’s possible that extra animal fat soaked into areas of the siexka during the production process or this could be fat from what was stored in it. And some other patches could simply be dirt and dust accumulated onto the siexka’s surface, as it passed the hands of many individuals and was moved between different spaces in MAA.
In addition to these black and brown patches, we can see thinner lines across the siexka, as if it had been scratched using a sharp tool, causing some of the surface of the leather to come off. These as well as some small holes are probably the result of grazing by insects such as carpet and vodka beetles or wood boring insects.
And finally, we can see patches of repair, done by sewing a different piece of leather on parts that were torn.
These pieces of leather used for repair, are also quite noticeably of different colours. Is this because they are different from the leather from which the siexka is made?
It is quite hard to tell whether these patches are from leather made from a different animal – you would need a microscope to be able to work this out. But we can tell that the leather of these patches is newer, and less aged than that of the siexka. In some places, the newer leather patches are acquiring a similar colour to the leather of the siexka, and I wonder if the siexka’s leather was originally of this light-beige colour, becoming gradually darker with age and use.
You mentioned that the siexka is damaged in parts due to insect grazing. Did this happen at the Museum, or did it come to the Museum like this? Have there been any challenges in conserving this siexka, and if so, then how were they dealt with?
I can’t say for certain when the insect damage was caused. Sadly, it’s definitely possible that it occurred while in the Museum, and in fact there’s a note on the database which tells us that it received attention from the conservator. This was because someone thought that there might be some mould – in the end this was found to be the remnants of flour which was originally part of the contents. The siexka was brush vacuumed in any case, and a few carpet beetle cases were removed so it’s likely that they were the ones who caused the insect damage I mentioned earlier.
Moving on, I would like to speak to you a bit about one of the bags that Sharon Webb collected, and in particular this fish skin purse made by Matleena Fofonoff. What do we know about it and its maker?
We actually know quite a lot about this purse and its maker which is great but often rare when working with museum collections. Webb recorded information about both the traditional and modern practices regarding this bag, and this information is all stored on the database record.
The bag was made in the traditional style of Sámi coffee and salt bags using pike and salmon leather and a range of other materials including woollen cloth, and both plastic and bone beads. Although this purse is made in the traditional Sámi style for coffee and salt bags, it is not used for carrying coffee or salt anymore. Instead, purses like these are used for carrying money or small objects. This particular purse has a label, a shop tag attached to it, indicating that it was meant to be sold. The outside of the tag reads ‘Sámi Duodji’ and the inside, ‘Your guarantee for genuine Sámi handicraft and design’. This is repeated in Finnish and German. The label also bears the maker, name, Matleena Fofonoff, a serial number, and a price. According to our catalogue records, this purse was due to be sold at the Duodji Shop in Anár (Inari) village, Finnish Sápmi. But we do not know if Sharon purchased it from the shop or directly from Fofonoff; there might be more information on this in Webb’s archives at MAA.
Fofonoff is a well-known craftsperson, renowned for her work with traditional Skolt crafts such as root basketry, leathercraft with tanned fish skin, and beadwork. Many of her works have been purchased for Sámi Museums including Siida in Anár (Inari). And she was one amongst many incredibly talented craftspeople whom Webb interviewed as part of her PhD research on the representation of Sámi through material culture in museums. I don’t know much about Webb herself. But I know that there is a wealth of material relating to her research, including recordings of interviews with Fofonoff and the others, deposited in the archives at MAA – although they’re not yet digitised, these can be accessed by anyone interested!
Tell me a bit more about the processes entailed in the production of this purse. You made a similar fish-skin purse didn’t you? In what ways was your production process similar to Fofonoff’s, and in what ways was it different?
I did! I suspect our production processes were rather similar, and indeed similar to the processes involved in making the saste siexka we discussed before.
The small purse that I made is made from salmon skin, sourced by Brown from a fishmonger who would have disposed of it as waste. The fish had presumably been filleted, and the skin was then frozen while it awaited the course. The first step was to remove the scales and any remnants of flesh, just like you would with any other animal skins. You can actually see that I didn’t do it as thoroughly as I should because scales still occasionally fall off!
Once we descaled and smoothened the surface of the fish’s skin, we immersed it in gradually stronger liquids with tannins for several days. This is what gives the leather a dark brown-purple colour. We then returned to oil, stretching and manipulating the leather by hand and by the fire. The more the leather is manipulated, the more supple and stable it later is. Once it was malleable and dry enough, we began moulding the leather into the shapes of bags that we wanted to make. I chose to use the whole fish skin with raw edges rather than cut and use parts of it for different parts of the purse. When you look at it you notice that the top has been folded over to make the flap – this is actually the top, wider end of the fish skin, with the narrower bit toward the tail coming up towards the opening of the bag. The side panels are made from deer leather, which Jesse had with her, and the whole thing is sewn together with waxed cotton thread – traditionally this would be sinew. To close the flap I added a button made from a segment of deer antler, drilling the holes using a hand drill and smoothing the surface with sandpaper.
It’s a fantastic piece of work Katrina. It is so beautiful. Do you use it for something?
No, not really. I didn’t make it with a particular purpose in mind, I mainly wanted to learn and experience the process involved. If I do decide to use it, then I might need to reinforce the stitching, as the edges are quite stiff in places and wouldn’t do a good job of keeping small objects safe. I did think it could make quite an effective glasses case, but I’m lucky enough not to need glasses! I’m sure I’ll find a use for it one day.