Written by Courtney Collins & Photographed by Ben DeFlorio
There’s a growing desire to support a positive impact on our shared climate and environment, with more and more consumers seeking to better understand their textile sources. When it comes to preserving sheepskins — a tanning process often obscured from farmer and customer alike — Vermont Natural Sheepskins stands out as the only provider of organic processing of hair-on domestic hides in the United States. Founded by Sarah Scully, the tannery developed out of her commitment to conservation, connection to the land and animals, desire to provide better conditions for workers and consumers—and her own notable allergic reaction.
Sarah and her husband Rick settled on ten bucolic acres in central Vermont, land well suited to shepherd livestock. “In 2008, Rick was working on web design for a local sheep owner, who semi-jokingly offered to pay in sheep,” says Sarah. “We thought about it, and fell in love with the idea of grazing sheep on our cleared acres. We started with six Navajo-Churro sheep, a rarer breed, and we felt it was important to be a part of their conservation.” Their transition to sheep ownership was going well until they sent some skins away to be tanned. “When the skins came back, I quickly discovered I was allergic to the chemicals used to process the sheepskins,” explains Sarah. “It was very frustrating to take pride and work in the animals, only to have the skins end up full of chemicals. It was then I asked myself: is there a better way to do this?”
An internet search came up empty-handed States-side, but across the pond in England, Sarah discovered one woman who successfully managed an organic tannery. She reached out to Nicki Port of Organic Sheepskins, and began apprenticing with her over the course of several visits to learn the trade. The main difference between natural tanning and conventional tanning is that instead of relying on industrial chemicals that often contain carcinogens or heavy metals, organic processing uses imported tree bark that is estate grown (meaning cultivated for this purpose, as opposed to cutting down wild habitat). One of the advantages of this method of tanning is that the water discharged from the process is not contaminated with inorganic toxins. In England, Nicki uses her wastewater in a regenerative wetlands habitat on her farm. “This type of water management could serve areas like California that have become more susceptible to drought,” Sarah observes. “It also supports the Fibershed ethos of using methods that can sustain and benefit the landscape.” Equipped with this knowledge and a new skill set, the path forward for Sarah was clear, but not without risk.
“It was incredibly scary at the time,” admits Sarah. “I realized that I was going to be the person to bring this process back to the United States, and I had to look into starting costs, forming my own business, quitting my cushy full-time job, all while learning how to tan organically.”
Vermont Natural Sheepskins began in 2015, and quickly became a full-time endeavor. Nestled next to the White River in Randolph, Vermont, the tannery sits between the area food shelf and a local solar installation company. With over 600 skins processed in 2017 alone, the majority of Sarah’s work is from custom tanning. Vermont Natural Sheepskins also offers retail of hides that Sarah processes, including sheep, goat, and alpaca hides for home décor, rugs, and blankets, as well as hand-dyed yarn. Parents especially are enthusiastic about using organic material next to their baby’s skin.
“I am in communication with my vendors and customers,” says Sarah. “With local butchers, I’ll ask about the different types and colors of the available skins. With a client, I will talk about the different uses for a skin so that they can decide how to best artistically display or use the skin within their home.” Sarah locally sources skins from small regional farms where she can confirm the animals have been humanely raised and sustainably sourced, and she still keeps a spinners flock at home.
“I started out as a frustrated customer; now, I want to help other people who are frustrated about a lack of options,” says Sarah. She and Rick attend major sheep and wool shows in Vermont every fall and Maryland each spring. Sarah is also a member of the Vermont Sheep and Goat Association. Sarah says she learned a lot by meeting people at local farmers markets early on. “I was struck by how little people are aware of where things come from and what they’re made of. One time a person asked me how I attached the wool onto its backing. Some farmers don’t think it matters which tannery they choose to work with, when it absolutely can make a huge difference.”
Sarah’s desire to educate consumers recently extended into a joint venture with her husband Rick. Inspired by international fiber tours and their own extensive travels, Sarah and Rick launched Gage Hill Crafts. These themed tours are ideal for people interested in learning more about natural textiles, or who desire an immersive weekend in the trade and craft. Gage Hill Crafts offers a complete package, including meals, lodging, materials, and itinerary. “It’s an absolute delight for people both new to the scene as well as experienced crafters to visit farms and learn their ways of dyeing, petting the animals, enjoying healthy, local food, and visiting the wealth of Vermont studios, farms, and people here,” says Sarah.
Her vision looks ever forward. She is mindful that Vermont Natural Sheepskins is currently the only tannery to practice an approved organic production for hair-on skins in the U.S, and shares that “I would love for the Fibershed community to encourage people to start a similar facility out west. Ideally, we would have organic tanneries throughout the country. It would be good for all the people involved, for the animals, and for our interconnected relationships with the land.”
For information on custom tanning services, and to browse the current selection of sheepskins, visit them online at www.vermontnaturalsheepskins.com as well as www.gagehillcrafts.com and follow them on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter under the handle @vtsheepskins.