A coat made of salmon skin?

I wouldn’t have believed it possible to make a coat out of something so fragile as fish skin, but it seems it was routine in times past in Siberia.

Along the lower reaches of the Amur River, where the water empties into the Pacific Ocean, the climate—unlike most of Siberia—is wet. To keep dry, the indigenous Nivkhi shrugged on fish skin coats like the one pictured here. These ingeniously constructed coats are a testament to the people’s holistic approach to natural resources; they also tell the story of a worldly culture and a wild place.

Fish skin is light, flexible, strong, and easy to work—the Gore-Tex of its day. Matchless as rainwear in milder seasons, layering fur close to the skin kept people cozy in winter. A Nivkhi woman—for only women sewed—prepared 100 salmon skins for this particular coat. She would have scraped away the flesh before washing the skins in salt water (women keeping the craft alive today use soap), then drying and beating the skins before piecing together the coat with thread fashioned from fish skin or sinew. “When it gets wet, [the thread] expands and fills the hole made by the needle, making the seams watertight,” says Cunera Buijs, the museum’s curator of Arctic regions. “It’s so clever.”

There’s more at the link.

I’d never heard of clothes being made of fish skin, although I’ve owned a knife and a sword whose makers used shark skin to cover their hilts (it provided an excellent gripping surface, rough and raspy, a bit like a fine sandpaper).  I wonder whether modern clothes manufacturers could learn anything from this ancient “technology”?  Could we improve modern synthetic materials by “cloning” some of the qualities of salmon skin?

Fascinating questions . . .



  1. The only part of that quote I have problems with is the word "holistic", since it has come to mean "smacking of the New Age Religion of the Month Club" and "Walking gently on mother earth" or similar hogwash. Tribal people all over the world use ingenious solutions to problems like potentially deadly climate, and more power to them. They most certainly have NOT walked softly on mother earth. In the first place, they have always been too goddamned busy trying to keep mother earth from killing them dead. And, in the second place, casual analysis shows that if we all went back to the 'gentle' ways of these simple people A) a huge amount of the population would die horribly (which probably is a feature, rather than a bug, for the Lefties) and B) do one hell of a lot more damage to the environment than modern society.

    Sorry for the rant, but little leftie keywords like 'Holistic' really annoy me.

  2. They weren't as stupid as people think. They made use of EVERYTHING to survive, and they did… Little to no trash is ever found at those sites, and most of what is, is broken pottery…

  3. https://www.etsy.com/search?q=fish%20skin

    Also, think that several cultures (the Japanese being the most famous, but not the only users) used rayskin or sharkskin for sword handles (and decorations, but that's sort of off topic), since they did keep dry when fecal went rotary.

    If I recall right, there are several factories in Iceland these days that separate meat and skin. Carp, salmon… And they're still mostly women work.

    Take care.

  4. The Yup'ik people also made fish skin clothing, and I seem to remember some northern Japanese people also did. Which would make sense, since really they're all the same people, just in very different places.

  5. I had an old neighbor who used fish skins for knife sheaths and other handicraft items. Gar and bowfin/dogfish in particular as I recall. If we'd bring him a nice dogfish or gar he'd put an absolutely obscenely sharp edge on our pocket or hunting knives as payment.

  6. Thanks for the link, Peter! the work in progress being set in Siberia (sort of) means this is a fascinating factoid to weave in.

  7. As well as the noted coverings on Japanese swords (underneath a silk braid wrapping usually, hence that diamond pattern you see on the hilts) the Mongols used fish glue to bond the different layers of their compound bows. Takes up to a year to dry, and you mustnt get it wet, but stronger than even modern epoxies.

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