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How to Sew with Real Sinew

June 3, 2012

Many hobbyists and re-enactors use artificial sinew (waxed Dacron) to sew together bags, clothing, and other items.  It’s hard to tell the difference between artificial sinew and real sinew after the sewing is done, and the artificial stuff is sure more convenient to work with; but this is a blog about survival and primitive skills, and you don’t find waxed Dacron in the wilds.  So in this post I’m going to show you how to sew with real sinew.  The project I’m working on here is a set of straps for the pack basket that we made in the last post.  By the way, if you try this kind of sewing you will gain a quick understanding of why things like steel awls, metal sewing needles, and linen thread were such popular trade items with the Native Americans.

The Pack Straps

We could just twist up some rawhide or yucca fibers into large cordage to make our pack straps, but I know from experience that narrow straps are tough on the shoulders.  I’m going to make some straps for my pack basket out of brain tanned elk hide, with the finished straps being about an inch and three quarters wide.  Straps this wide that are made from a double layer of soft leather will be a lot easier on the shoulders.  Here’s the procedure:

First cut the straps about three and half inches wide, then fold them in half lengthwise.  This will give a double layer of leather and a finished strap that is about one and three-quarters inch wide.

Now it’s time to prepare the sinew.  You want the longest sinew possible so that you don’t have to constantly be tying off an old thread and starting a new one.  In this case we will use an elk loin sinew.  This will give us sinew threads that are about two feet long.  Pictured below: Elk loin sinew with dollar bill to show scale When you first strip off a thread of sinew it will be kind of fuzzy and rough.  Pictured below: Freshly stripped sinew thread

Run the sinew through your mouth and moisten it with saliva.  This will soften the sinew and smooth it out.  Set the sinew aside to dry for a minute.  Pictured below: Moisten and dried sinew thread

When you have your sinew prepared, it’s time to take your awl and start punching holes in the leather.  It’s a waste of time to punch more than two or three holes at a time.  The holes in the leather will shrink back up and make it hard to thread the sinew through, so it’s easier to punch the holes as you go.  Pictured below: top, leather awl made from a sharpened nail and hammer stone; bottom, using a awl and stone to punch holes in the leather

You don’t need a needle to sew with sinew.  Just leave the first inch or two of the sinew dry and stiff and that will serve as your needle.  Pictured below: Dried sinew “needle”

Chew lightly on the rest of the sinew to soften it and then tie a double knot in the tail end of the sinew.  Pictured below: top, chewing sinew: bottom, knot in the tail end of the sinew

Start sewing by running the sinew up from the inside through one layer of the leather.  This will hide your knot in between the layers.  Go to the second set of holes and sew down through both of them, then back to the first holes and up through both of them, then once again down through the second set of holes.  This makes your first stitch a double stitch with the knot hidden between the layers of leather.

Now you can start punching and stitching down the length of the strap.  Pictured below:  Sinew “needle” sticking through pre-punched holes in leather

When you run out of sinew, you will have to start a new piece.  I have never found any definitive information on how this is done, so I have tried several different methods.  I tried twisting the new sinew and the old together.  Didn’t work.  The wet sinew would pull apart.  I tried tying the new sinew to the old.  Didn’t work.  Again, the wet sinew would slide out of the knot.  If I let it dry first, the knot would be hard to pull through the holes, and you never knew if the knot was going to end up showing on the outside of a stitch.  So, this is what I came up with.  I don’t know if it’s historically accurate, but it works for me.  First I tie a knot in the old sinew so that the knot will be in between the layers of leather.

Then I take my new thread, knot it, back up one hole and start the thread so that the knot is in between the layers of leather.

I then continue my sewing.

 

When you get to the end of your sewing, do a double stitch pulling the thread out between the layers of leather.

Tie a knot in the sinew.

Cut off the excess, and use the point of your awl to push the knot back up between the layers of leather.

You should now have a nicely stitched piece of work with no visible knots. Pictured below: top, row of stitching; bottom, the finished pack strap.

In my next post we will attach the straps to our pack basket, and finish the basket out.

2 Comments
  1. from what i understand, sinew is normally made into string by breaking it into small strands then twisting the strands into string (look up flemish twist) joining strands is done by twisting them then twisting those joined strands into the string.

    • The reverse wrap that you are referring to is an excellent way to make sinew cordage. I have made a number of bowstrings using this method and I believe that I have posts in both the “primitive archery” and “primitive tools” sections of this blog on how to do the reverse wrap. The problem is that sewing thread is considerably smaller than a bowstring. I have attempted the reverse wrap to make sewing thread but it has ended up being larger than I would want to use for sewing. Also, museum pieces that I have seen appeared to be a single strand rather that a twisted thread. But reading your comment did give me a good idea for a post. I realized that I haven’t done a post on how to make a Flemish loop in a bowstring, so look for one in the near future. Thanks for reading and thanks for the comment, Hank.

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