Sewing Rabbit Hides
How to Go from Rabbit Farming to Outerwear
Leather is notoriously difficult to work with, but stitching rabbit hides isn’t much different from sewing thick cloth.
Different rabbit breeds produce different types of fur. Most pelts come from rex rabbits, which have short, thick, velvety coats. Jersey wooleys have longer hair and angora rabbits have silky strands so long that they are often harvested and spun into yarn without ever butchering the animal. The most sustainable pelts come from meat rabbits such as New Zealand, Californian, and larger Argente breeds.
A quick study proves that the meat is leaner and has higher protein than chicken breast. Rabbits are also cleaner and less obnoxious than chickens. Raising rabbits can be the most humane meat choice for both the animal and urban neighbors. But though many homesteaders raise rabbits for meat, they don’t often save the pelts because tanning rabbit hides require more work during their already busy lives and the financial return is low unless they craft items for themselves or loved ones.
Rabbit hides can be crafted into hats, gloves, blankets and bedspreads, toys, pillow covers, baby booties, and more. It’s an exceptionally warm garment lining for people who spend long periods in intense cold, such as hunters, farmers, ranchers, and construction workers. Though sewing rabbit hides takes more work than purchasing a hat at a department store, the effort is appreciated by those who need the insulation.
Obtaining the Hides
If you want to cut costs and be involved in the project from start to finish, tan the hides yourself. Tanning rabbit hides via a salt/alum brine is easy and costs very little. You need green (raw, unprocessed) hides, non-iodized salt, alum, water, and a non-reactive container such as a plastic bucket with a lid.
Homesteaders raising rabbits for meat may offer hides for free because they don’t want to see the resource go to waste. Offer to tan one out of every five or ten pelts for the homesteader. Or, if she offers a high quantity, offer to make a hat in trade. Homesteaders thrive on trades and that hat may help her complete her chores on January mornings.
If you don’t want to tan them or can’t find green rabbit hides, search for products that have already been tanned. Look first at homesteading communities where the rabbits are raised. Then try online classifieds or craft fairs, because those pelts are often processed as hobbies and the sellers want outlets for their interests. The best, and most expensive, rabbit hides are found at leatherworking stores.
Once you obtain the tanned hides, store in a cool and well-ventilated area until you are ready to use them. A cardboard box or paper bag work best, within a basement closet. Place mothballs or aromatherapy inside the box if insects are a problem.
Cutting the Hides
Decide what you’re going to make and find a pattern. If you find no patterns for fur, search for one suited to fake fur or thick canvas. Or draw the pattern on sheets of paper. Use scrap fabric to make a model of the original product so you can test size and dimensions without wasting pelts.
Place the pelt fur-side-down on a cutting board. Lay the pattern atop the hide, paying attention to the “grain,” the direction in which the fur grows. The best finished products have all the fur running in the same direction. Pin in place or tack down with glue dots and trace the outline with a felt-tip pen. Set the pattern aside and cut the hide using a scalpel or sharp knife. Avoid using scissors because they will shear through hair you’ll want to keep, creating uneven lines on your finished product.
If you’re working with scraps or small pieces, you may need to sew several scraps together to make a piece large enough for your pattern.
Sewing the Hides
Some non-commercial sewing machines can handle leather. One well-known for its strength and durability is the Pfaff 130, a black-lacquered German masterpiece manufactured in 1932. Modern machines rated for leather range from $250 to over $1,600.
But you don’t need a special machine unless you intend to sew many items out of rabbit hides. Some lower-end sewing machines can handle leather if you use a larger needle such as No. 19. A hand-sewing needle and thread work well enough for small projects.
Purchase several needles that are wide enough to handle the abuse but sharp enough to puncture the hide. The best choices are leatherworking or furrier needles, but if you can’t find those, judge based on size and quality. Select a strong thread, such as types intended for upholstery or carpet, in the color closest to your pelts. And don’t forget a thimble. Repetitive pushing at the back of the needle may eventually puncture your fingertip.
Laying fur against fur, align the edges you intend to sew and pin them in place. Binder clips also well to maintain a tight grip without slipping. If the edges are too thick, flatten them with a hammer. Consider applying iron-on reinforcing material to the backs of the hides if you’re making heavy projects such as coats. Also, use a very strong thread that can withstand the weight of all the rabbit hides.
Sew along the edges with a machine or by hand, using a whip stitch or cross stitch. This may create a small ridged seam which will usually be hidden when the project is complete. Be sure to tie off ends so your hard work doesn’t come undone. Keep knots on the unfurred side.
After you’ve sewn the entire project, turn it fur-side-out. Use a needle to fluff out hairs that have become caught in the stitching. This will also hide your seams if the fur is the same color. Gently brush hair with a soft hairbrush or tumble your project in a dryer set to no heat.
Save the Scraps
Don’t throw the scraps away! Even small pieces of rabbit hide can be saved for future projects such as patchwork quilts. Some crafters even save strips to secure end-to-end then twist into a thick, soft “yarn” for weaving blankets in a style used by some Native American tribes.
Store scraps in the same manner you stored the original hides: in a well-ventilated container such as a cardboard box, set in a cool, dry place.
Patchwork quilts utilize scraps well. If you’re willing to sew small pieces to larger ones, you can cut rectangles at two-inch increments, such as 2×4 or 6×6, piecing them together to eventually make a body-length rectangle. Using rectangles of different sizes allows you to work with flaws such as small patches of hair slip. Just cut directly across the hairless patch. Turn edges in when you stitch scraps together and you can hide the slipped area very well.
It takes approximately 100 good, large pelts to make a quilt for a double bed and 50 to make a lap blanket. If you craft pelts for other projects, save the scraps and sew them together as they accumulate. Eventually, you’ll have enough for a small blanket.
Once you’ve completed your rabbit hide rectangle, purchase a matching back piece out of strong fabric such as denim or cotton duck. Batting is probably unnecessary and will add to the overall weight of an already heavy project. If you choose a filler material, keep it thin and lightweight. Match the back of the fabric to the sewn side of the pelt rectangle. Pin in place. Working on a quilting frame or a flat surface such as a table, stitch the two pieces together about every four inches, using a needle and thread and keeping stitches well hidden in the fur. Or make a traditional tied quilt, using loops of yarn and knotting it on the fabric side. Bind the edges with long strips of strong fabric.
First, select the style of hat. Rabbit hide patterns (http://sewbon.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Sewbon_Ear_Flap_Hat.pdf) are scarce on the Internet but you may find a couple of them. Search fake fur patterns for more options. If you’re experienced with cutting out patterns, or are comfortable with trial and error so you can attain the exact style you want, first choose a crochet pattern then cut the fur to match. (http://allcrafts.net/crochet/crochethats.htm )
Draw or print your pattern before cutting the fur. Cut out the pattern pieces then place them on the bare side of the rabbit hide, paying attention to the grain so your fur all goes the direction you want. Trace the pattern with a felt-tip pen then cut out using a sharp blade.
Placing cut pelt side against the cut side, sew the ends together to make a secure cap. Fit the cap over your head occasionally as you sew to judge fit. Once the cap is completely sewn and feels comfortable, set it aside as you crochet the top piece.
Use a strong, versatile yarn in a color that coordinates with the pelts. Tight single crochet is best for hats that may encounter a lot of use or abuse. Don’t use many lacy or open stitches unless you intend to add a lining between the hide and the crocheted cap because the white skin would otherwise show through. As you crochet the top, periodically place it over the sewn hides to judge whether it will fit. Don’t worry if the cap is a tiny bit too small, because it can stretch. It’s easier to fix a tight cap than one that has been crafted too loosely.
Once you have matching crochet and fur pieces, place the fur piece inside the crocheted cap with the fur facing toward the scalp. Attach the pieces in several places, starting at the very crown and working your way down, looping the thread through the leather then through the crochet. It’s important to start at the top because you can always sew fur pieces onto the bottom if the ends don’t match. Work your way around the circumference of the cap, all the way to the bottom edge.
Bind the ends several ways. The most attractive method involves curling the fur edges up and around the crocheted cap, looping the very edge in before sewing the excess fur to the crocheted surface. These ends can be a half-inch or several inches, depending on the desired effect. The important thing is to turn the hide so the fur fluffs out at the edges.
If you want to focus more on an artistic crochet stitch, trim the hide (or attach more if the hide is too short) so pieces match perfectly. Sew together, pulling the crocheted edge down just past the hide and stitching it flat.
Embellish the hat by weaving ribbon in and out of the crocheted cap, sewing on bows or gems, or by attaching a loop onto ear flaps so they can be secured to buttons sewn high up on the sides.
After trying your first project, you’ll probably realize sewing rabbit hides is not as daunting as it seems. Don’t stop now. Keep this usable resource from being thrown away and craft gloves, pillows, or clothing to keep everyone warm.
Do you enjoy sewing rabbit hides? If so what projects have you made?