The topic of sheepskin bags comes up frequently in the Dojo Engage Facebook group. Many pipers are anxious to try sheepskin but are concerned about the maintenance that sheepskin bags require. Is the concern justified?
I wanted to play a sheepskin bag. I was concerned, though, like many pipers, that it would require too much maintenance.
When I returned to piping after a thirty-year hiatus, I played a hybrid synthetic bag. A hybrid bag worked well for my situation. I travel a great deal for work and I could pick up my pipes even after not playing them for several weeks. There are, after all, no seasoning issues with a hybrid bag.
What I did learn, after a month of using a sheepskin bag, was that I had to test it regularly to make sure the bag was airtight. An airtight bag is the foundation of good piping. When I played the hybrid bag, I never tested my bag to see if it was airtight. Even if I was encountering pressure issues or felt like there was a lack of airtightness, I chalked it up to poor technique. This has been, for me, the biggest advantage of converting to a sheepskin bag. I now test my bag regularly. If it is not airtight, I add a bit of seasoning and aggressively work it into the hide and seams. That way, I know it is always airtight.
I also learned that a sheepskin bag does indeed help create good tone. I had received compliments in the past on the overall sound that I was able to achieve with a hybrid bag. This was a testament to the maker of my pipes, not necessarily the sound I was able to produce. I have received even more compliments on the tone of my pipes after moving to a sheepskin bag. Now, I will allow that the improved tone is based on my perception. It is not based on any measurements. But it's a perception that many pipers share. What other pipers are noticing may not be measurable, but it is perceivable, and it means something.
As I mentioned, I knew, going in, that a sheepskin bag should be played on a regular basis. Since I have a rather aggressive travel schedule at work, I am not always able to play daily. This is something I will need to work out if I want to continue to play sheepskin.
Going in, I feared what was required to play a sheepskin bag. I, like many pipers, was afraid of the care and ongoing maintenance that I would be forced into if I wanted my bagpipes to operate efficiently. What I learned though, is that my fears were unjustified. The ongoing maintenance is not a big deal. You just have to play. Seasoning is a simple task and constant testing for airtightness is a necessary habit to have. After you've seasoned a few times, it is easy do efficiently and quickly. What I did learn after tying in a sheepskin bag was, perhaps, one of the most important lessons that I have learned recently: The bag, no matter the material, needs to be tested for airtightness, always. That is the foundation of playing an efficient bagpipe and producing great sound.