February 17, 2011

On working with dentalium...

Here are my musings on working with dentalium (aka tusk shell, tooth shell).

First of all, I bought far more shells then I needed! I've wanted them for a long time though. I'm used to my very bad math, and more is better! Everything arrived and I was just blown away! So many shells, so little time. I spent the next 4 hours cleaning / sterilizing them, then I laid them on a towel to dry. Note to self: do not do this in front of door. I stepped over the pile of shells for 2 weeks...

I have been packaging them (after pulling out the tiny ones and the junk) in resale bags of 100. I graded & packaged 27 bags the first day! That's exuberance. :)

I looked up the species. I believe it's here. An octagonal shape, translucent white dentalium from The Philippines. They are much more ridged then the 'precious dentalium' from the US pacific coast. Still, they're the real deal, so onward with work!

Today I began the work in earnest.

First I had to de-grain some braintan mule deer I did in 2008, to use for spacers and ties. That is hard work but it's fun. The leather comes out so soft and fluffy!
I selected 80 shells from the resale pile and decided to make a 10-row Ponca style choker from them.

I snipped the tips off with a guillotine cutter. It was easier then trimming parakeet nails.

Now for the 'de silting'. Almost every one of them was jam packed with Phillipine sand! How aggravating. So I took a pin and removed the sand from every one of them. This took an hour and 20 minutes (for 80 shells). 2 exploded. Not fun!
Then it was time to match up the rows and start sewing. Because the tops were so rough and small, I decided against filing/sanding them. Instead I used rugged beading wire and 2 thicknesses of waxed nylon thread. That's 3 stringing materials on a needle through a little hole...

Amazingly, I didn't poke myself at all. Usually that needle (a cutting point) will impale me at least once. I bleed and cry like a 3 year old when this happens. Seriously. It HURTS. I got lucky though and all of that needling only resulted in lots more length loss to the shells... no bloody fingers.

Having a shell snap in half while you're trying to pass the needle through it is VERY annoying. Luckily I had a giant pile of shells nearby to replace the exploded ones quickly.

Almost every one of them lost some length when the thread passed through tthe hole. So this ended up much more bracelet size then choker size, and most of my careful row matching for size ended up being for naught.
I wanted to rip my hair out with exasperation...
Finally, after almost 3 and a half hours, the choker was finished! It looks very nice.
Here is the thread which provided the inspiration.

I used double-shaved, de-grained braintan; the Ponca used *much* thicker, stiffer harness leather.

The ties on my choker are actually tied in to the necklace, not just slip loop knotted on to the first and last rows. Additionally I have sewn covers on to the first and last rows, so my knots are not exposed. It makes for a much softer (and more attractive to a contemporary user, as this is intended for) wearing experience.

What a hand-killer though. Every stitch was done with a needle awl - the old way... not a single stitch would pass through the leather unaided. Mule deer are the thickest-skinned North American deer - elk are elk, and moose are moose! - and I am using skin from about a foot in front of the rump, from a mature buck, unframed. I should have used white-tail doe belly! :)

Now I know why dentalium stuff costs so much. The earrings are going to have to wait. Man what a PITA.

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