Sheepskin is one of three types of leather produced from sheep for use in clothing and other leather goods. Sheepskin is the hide of a mature sheep that has been tanned into leather with the wooly fleece still attached. Shearling is the hide and fleece of a yearling lamb that has been tanned into leather and then had the fleece sheared to a uniform depth, typically between a half inch and an inch. Shearling has a much softer feel and is lighter in weight than sheepskin. Mouton is a sheepskin that has been specially sheared, processed and dyed so it resembles the fur of a beaver or seal.
Making Sheepskin Leather
Sheepskin production starts with skinning the animal as soon as possible after it is killed, said the leather merchants at Diamond Leathers. The fresh hide then is treated with an alkaline solution to soften it for the next step, in which any flesh or fat attached to the hide is scraped off. The hide then is rinsed with an acidic solution, stretched tightly over a frame and allowed to air dry. At this stage, it’s called rawhide. If rawhide can’t immediately be sent to a tannery, it is preserved either by freezing or salting and put into storage for up to a year.
The raw sheepskin hide becomes leather by being soaked in a solution of chromium salts or of natural tannin derived from plants, mixed with soda ash, sodium chloride, and an acid. The tanning chemicals react with the proteins in the hide to transform it into leather in a process that takes about nine hours. The tanned leather is rinsed clean and then put through softening and finishing processes to impart the characteristics desired in the intended leather product.
How Sheepskin is Used
Sheepskin is the warmest lightweight leather you can buy, say the folks at leather fabricator ShepherdsFlock. That’s why it’s used for a wide variety of cold-weather apparel including jackets, boots, hats and gloves. It can be used with the fleece side in or out, depending on the garment. Sheepskin as a pelt is used as a rug or seat cover. Sheepskin provides a soft yet resilient surface that makes it ideal for bed pads and wheelchair pads that help prevent pressure sores from developing in hospitalized patients. Sheepskin also is used in equestrian saddle pads and covers.
Sheepskin is a leather product, said the ShepherdsFlock people, so it should be stored away from dampness that encourages mold, and from high heat sources that can dry and crack the leather. Sheepskin products should be stored in paper bags or paperboard boxes. Never store sheepskin in plastic bags or plastic boxes. If your sheepskin outerwear gets wet, simply spread it out flat to air dry. Never use a blow dryer or other high heat source on sheepskin. Use a soft bristle brush to brush out water spots once the garment is dry.
Soiled sheepskin garments should be dry cleaned by a cleaner experienced in handling leather goods, said ShepherdsFlock. Sheepskin rugs and pads can be hand washed in cool water with a soap intended for leather cleaning. Avoid laundry detergents, bleaches, enzyme or “oxy” cleaners. Gently agitate for about 10 minutes. Then gently squeeze out excess water or use the spin cycle of your washer. Never wring out the item. Lay the item flat with fleece side down and allow to air dry. When the item is just slightly damp, brush the fleece side with a fine wire brush and then finish air drying. Never put sheepskin in a clothes dryer, even one without heat.