The Art of Rawhide Braiding
Sometimes in spring
When ropes with eyes
Fly to heads and heels— From "Life and Times" by Rod McQueary, Between Earth and Sky
Kinship forged of silence,
and the graces
of weathered hands on reins
and love of open spaces.— From Fine Lines by Lyn Messersmith
The ancient tradition of using untanned hides to make useful tools remains strong today. Even for such a basic material, the range of opinion about the best way to handle rawhide is staggering: hides from fat cows versus skinny cows, "slipping" the hair versus shaving it, and the proper dampness of the hide during braiding are subject to interpretation.
Watch a short video of Doug Groves processing and working rawhide by selecting your type of internet connection below:
Once removed from the cow, the hide is nailed to the inside wall of a building, or stretched in a frame out of the sun, where it dries and hardens. When dried and hardened, the hair is removed. One method of removing the hair from the hide is to scrape it with a large, very sharp knife or shave it with an electric razor. Another common way to remove the hair is to make it "slip" from the hide by soaking it in water, burying it while still warm from the cow, or treating it with a caustic solution.
After the hide is de-haired, it is soaked over night, allowed to drip dry for a couple of hours, then cut into rough "strings". Beginning on the outside, the rawhider cuts a continuous strip around the hide, working toward the center and avoiding flaws such as brands and fence scars. A single strip, one inch wide or slightly less, is split in half lengthwise to make reata-sized strings, or into narrower ribbons for building smaller, more intricate items. One hide is usually enough to make one 70' reata, or three sets of reins.
A final piece of braided gear is only as good as the strings used to braid it. After splitting the rough string, the braider uses a "string cutter" to slice the string to the proper width for building the piece of gear desired. Then the string is beveled so that it braids together tight and smooth.
Having your rawhide in the right condition is real important in making smooth work, You can't just pick a piece of rawhide up and braid it, you have to wet it, dampen it, and then let it mellow, and get it in the right texture. If it's too wet, then when you braid it and it dries, it leaves gaps in the rawhide. And if its too dry and you try to braid it, then it doesn't braid right. It won't pull together tight; it's like trying to braid cable. You want just enough moisture so it's pliable.— By Braider Randy Stowell
Rawhiders employ a variety of ingenious tricks and tools to aid the braiding process. Soap and grease concoctions keep the strings pliable and allow for tight braiding, and awls, pliers, and cutters facilitate passing strings under and around one another. Rawhiders use a seemingly endless variety of braids and knots to construct a range of items. Many pieces are highly decorative, such as a fancy set of reins, and are ornamented with decorative "buttons." These buttons sometimes serve a practical purpose - adding weight to reins and protecting the main body of the reins from wear and tear.