Fixative Application –
The use of “sizing” (also called fixative) is the same as applying a thin, clear varnish over a finished modern painting on canvas. Sizing should be applied while the parfleche is still tacked out or stretched.
Osage Painted Rawhide Shield, ca1870-1890
When the entire parfleche has been painted, the next step also requires a damp surface. For a small parfleche, the surface may still be damp. But if the entire piece or any part of it has dried, it should be lightly rehydrated. Take a damp (not wet) rag or old towel and lay it over the hide. Do NOT rub the rag into the hide but, rather, lay it down gently over the painted area. Allow the hide to absorb some of the moisture for just a few minutes. The idea is to make the hide damp but not so wet that the paint will smear.
When damp, the surface should be gently coated with a light layer of thinned hide glue, aloe vera gel, or prickly pear juice. The sizing solution should be a little thicker than the paint and hide mixture described above, but it should still be thin enough so that if flows on very easily. Practice on a piece of scrap rawhide until you get a satisfactory solution mixture. (Note: The hide glue, when dried, may produce a yellowish cast on the finished hide.) Use long, gentle strokes, and do not go back over your work (to avoid smearing the paint).
Allow to dry. If you deem it necessary, a second coat of fixative can be applied over the first. The hide does not have to be re-dampened for this second coat. But, again, use long strokes and do not go back over the work.
Instead of using hide glue fixative, painted parfleche may be coated with a dull finish spray varnish or artist’s fixative. This works quite well in humid parts of the country where traditional sizings can remain tacky for some time after application. Although the use of commercial products is not traditional, it does give satisfactory results.
NOTE: Some parfleche makers actually coat the entire parfleche surface with fixative BEFORE they apply the painted designs, then apply another coat of fixative over the design. You may wish to experiment with this variation in technique to see if you prefer the final “look” of the design work.
Completing the Parfleche-
After the rawhide thoroughly dries, remove the tacks holding it to the board and cut out the finished shape. Rawhide can be cut with tin snips, heavy leather shears, or even a hand-held electric jigsaw.
Holes will be required for lacing up sides or tying a flap cover in place. Ideally, holes should be burned. Small, commercial soldering irons with pointed tips work well for this and are available in hobby shops or hardware stores. Or you may prefer to use a large, heated nail held with a pair of pliers or vise grips. Burning the hole seals the hole edges and helps prevent lacing from tearing the hole. Small holes created with an unheated awl can be used for sinew-sewing the sides of an envelope.
Make all the holes, then attach the laces. Your parfleche is now finished and ready for use.
Additional Resources –
Just as there are many tanning techniques among Native Americans, there is an almost endless number of “tricks of the trade” for making and painting parfleches. The information above will help get you started, but we also recommend that you experiment on your own, talk to others who do parfleche work, and seek out written resources such as the following:
The American Indian Parfleche: A Tradition of Abstract Painting by Gaylord Torrence, Univeristy of Washington Press in association with the Des Moines Art Center. 1994. ISBN 0-205-07333-1.
Indian Rawhide: An American Folk Art by Mable Morrow, reprinted by Crazy Crow Trading Post.