Sheepskin rugs are an attractive addition to a rustic decor. For those who raise sheep, or have access to them, turning a pelt into a rug can mean simply taking the fresh sheepskin to a professional tanner. The rug-making process primarily involves preserving, or tanning, the hide. The grooming of the fleece side to produce the lustrous fibres we associate with a sheepskin rug is the final task. Some people prefer to process their sheepskins at home, by hand. While labour intensive, it can be successfully accomplished with attention to detail and proper safety precautions.
Lay your sheep pelt out flat. It is best to use a fresh sheepskin, although those frozen soon after butchering can also be tanned successfully. When the fresh fleece is cool, remove visible remnants of flesh and fat carefully from the skin with a sharp knife or scraper.
Pour a layer of non-iodised salt evenly over the sheepskin. The layer should be about 1.2 cm (1/2 inch) thick; each skin will take 1.8 to 2.27 kg (4 to 5 lb) of salt. Be sure the skin is completely flat, with no curled edges, and smooth out wrinkles so every portion of the skin is covered with salt. Leave the salt for about four days until it has "cured" and absorbed all the moisture from the skin.
Remove the salt and then scrape any remaining tissue from the hide. Sheepskin can be thin, so proceed carefully.
Immerse the skin in the tanning solution. This is the step that turns the rawhide into leather. Wear rubber gloves to protect your hands when handling the solution or the wet sheepskin. The length of time for immersion depends on the solution you use. There are numerous home recipes available, not all of equal quality.
Rinse your sheepskin once the tanning process has completed. This process may or may not include using washing soda to neutralise the acid of the tanning solution, depending on the products used. Follow your solution instructions carefully, and rinse until the water is clear. You can also wash the fleece with a mild washing powder or Woolite.
Dry the sheepskin by laying it over a railing, or on the ground outside, but not in direct sunlight. If the fleece is very thick, drying may take one day or several days. Check the skin daily, and pull and work the skin to soften it as it dries. Alternately, you can tack or nail it to a wooden stretcher, such as a rough wooden frame. Remove it from the stretcher when the sheepskin is almost completely dry.
Treat the pulled and stretched dry skin with glycerine saddle soap and a coating of leather treatment oil to keep it soft.
Allow the sheepskin to dry completely, when there is no danger of pulling out the fleece, so you can turn your attention to the top side of the rug. Separate the wool fibres, and remove any twigs or debris that might have escaped the processing and washing by hand or using a wide-toothed comb. Brush the wool fibres with a soft-bristled brush until the rug has the desired soft, fluffy appearance.
Neat's-foot oil or mink oil can be used to treat the leather.
Do not let your fresh sheepskin sit too long before processing. Even a day or two can cause the skin to begin to deteriorate. Dispose of your tanning solution carefully. Most solutions contain acid of some sort, so be careful when using them.