Turning eel into earrings: Mi’kmaw artist makes jewelry from homemade fish leather

Turning eel into earrings: Mi’kmaw artist makes jewelry from homemade fish leather

Travers used salmon skin to make the leather for these beaded petroglyph earrings. (Submitted by Nicole Travers)

Nicole Travers has a long and slow process for making her own leather — and it starts by skinning a fish.

The Mi’kmaw artist based in Lark Harbour on the south shore of Newfoundland’s Bay of Islands makes her own leather from fish skin for her hand-beaded jewlery.

While the beadwork itself is intricate and fine, the fish leather is surprisingly tough. Travers has to use a thimble and pliers to get her needle through.

Travers says her fish leather jewelry gives her a special connection to her Mi’kmaq and settler ancestors. (Submitted by Nicole Travers)

“It feels like a really wet, heavy canvas,” she said. “When the fibres of the skin have soaked up the tannins to help preserve it, it’s full-on leather when you see it. It’s actually amazing how it’s transformed.”

Travers has only been making fish leather for about a year, but it’s a traditional craft for many cultures who live near the water. She said she had an interest in the craft but didn’t know where to start, so when she stumbled upon an online tutorial from Amber Sandy, an Anishinaabe artist in Ontario, she couldn’t wait to try it herself.

Travers learned to scrape away all the flesh and carefully remove the scales, before washing the skins with dish soap and soaking them with tea bags, making the solution a little stronger each day. After nearly a week, the consistency completely changes from a slippery skin to a rugged leather.

Besides cod, Travers has used skin from eel, mackerel and even salmon she bought from the grocery store.

“I have yet to find anything I haven’t been able to tan,” she said. “I would like to try halibut and some other fish if I can get my hands on it.” 

Travers gets many of her fish skins from her brother-in-law’s catch in the food fishery. (Submitted by Aden Park)

If you open up Travers’s freezer, you’ll find bags of frozen fish skins, many of them from her brother in-law Aden Park who participates in the food fishery every year. 

He plans on saving more cod skins for her when the season re-opens, but admits he was pretty sceptical when she talked about it last summer. Despite her talent as a beader, Park said he found the idea of making leather from fish “just so hard to conceptualize.”

But watching his catch turn into beautiful earrings was eye opening.

“It’s amazing how she could take natural products and transform something normally discarded on the beach using things you have in your pantry,” said Park.

Park said hunting and fishing has always been a big part of his life and he believes in using as much of the animal as possible, so he’s proud that Travers is honouring that tradition.

Travers says eel skin, like the one she used to make these earrings, takes on different colours depending the the species and age of the fish. (Submitted by Nicole Travers)

Whether she’s using mackerel leather with its iridescent shine or textured salmon leather, Travers said with every piece she makes, she feels a connection to her Mi’kmaq and settler ancestors who relied heavily on fish.

“It’s my connection back to the water,” she said. “It’s the marrying of the two cultures and it’s me remaining true to something that now has stopped in my family, which is fishing. My father was the last fisherman in my family.”

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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