Conover pattern winter moccasins.
This blog leads on from an earlier post by Danny on Winter Boot Liners and again takes inspiration from the excellent winter camping text book The Snow Walkers Companion by Garret and Alexandra Conover. Where the Conover’s book provides a scaled down pattern and fairly simplistic instruction this blog hopes to show a little of the detail involved in each step of the manufacture photo by photo.
Before you even think about making moccasins you will need to acquire or better still make some smoked buckskin for the foot wrap and then get hold of some canvas for the gaiter part of the footwear. In terms of thread you will want something along the lines of wax cotton, linen or as in the following example artificial sinew (sold as Dacron by bow making suppliers).
Figure out the size of moccasin required obviously taking into account the size of your feet and less obviously the fact that buckskin will stretch slightly after use and remember for this particular winter attire you will be wearing a minimum of three woollen socks plus a duffle cloth boot liner (see blog by Danny).
Scale up the moccasin pattern provided in the appendix section of the Snow Walkers Companion by using the suggested % increases and then adding or subtracting an inch here and there depending on your foot size. There are essentially two pieces of buckskin to cut – the vamp (sits on top of your foot) and the sole which will wrap around the back of your heel and attach to the canvas gaiter.
Tacking vamp to sole.
Tack the vamp to the sole by running thread from the centre toe end of the sole through the centre toe end of the vamp, up the vamp, through and back out both sole and vamp, before angling the thread at 90 degrees and tacking the vamp to the sole at the side of the pattern pieces.
Beginning the pucker toe design.
You now have a choice to begin the pucker stitch from the centre of the moccasin toe out to one side and then repeat on the other or starting at one side and puckering round the toe and finishing at the other side. Both give good results but you may find if you lack pucker size consistency your puckers start at asymmetrical places on the vamp in the finished footwear. This makes little difference other than the seething internal OCD driven rage of someone who likes things to look neat – hence I started in the middle and worked to the edges.
Symmetrical (…ish) puckers creating toe box.
It is worth practicing a couple of pucker stitches on two scrap pieces of material before going at the moccasin so you can get to grips with the ratio of sole edge to vamp edge material consumed with each stitch – the Conover’s give a good detailed description of the stitch used to make these puckers and some good line illustrations too.
Finishing attachment of vamp to sole using whip stitch.
As the puckering progresses you will come to the point where the sole edge equals the vamp edge in length (as more of the sole than the vamp is taken up per stitch) leading up to where the tacking thread secures one to the other. At this point you switch from the pucker stitch to a much simpler whipping stitch – seen here above as the white edging along the edge joining the puckers to where the sole and vamp are separate.
Marking up where heel of foot comes to – including all woollen sock layers.
Look carefully at the above photo to see the fairly common method of where to cut tabs to form the heel section of moccasins – at this stage it is only pencilled in and appears as a letter M on its side to the rear of the moccasin (left hand side).
Beginning heel stitching.
Once the heel tabs are cut you are able to fold both sides of the heel one over the other as shown here before stitching firmly in place – back stitch is recommended, but saddle stitch would also work very well.
Stitching heel tab.
The final stage of creating the moccasin heel is to fold up the semi circular tab of buckskin over the top of the previously stitched seems. Here you will be stitching through a triple thickness of potentially quite thick leather so you will find an awl, stout needle and pair of pliers very useful.
Creation of canvas gaiter with decorative tape.
The gaiter section of these moccasins is far simpler and quicker to make especially if you have a sewing machine armed with some denim needles. Scale up the Conover pattern appropriately, cut your canvas allowing for seams – here a flat felled seam has been created leaving no raw edge exposed to prevent fraying.
As these particular moccasins were going to Sweden for some field testing it made sense to try and fit in with the locals and Nordic cotton tape was added for decoration – note the angle change (above photo) on the decorative tape, this is the part of the gaiter which attaches over the buckskin vamp, the seem will be at the rear of the gaiter when worn.
Attaching shoe to gaiter.
With both the buckskin shoe and the canvas gaiter inverted begin attaching one to the other using a tightly spaced whipping stitch. It is worth noting that where one side of buckskin may be more desirable visually on the outside of a garment, in winter moccasins it makes little difference long term as the ‘tram lines’ of scraped tissue clearly seen above will be worn smooth by the abrasive action of the snow and ice.
Stitching in tongues onto inverted moccasins.
With both gaiters attached and with the moccasins still inverted one of the last steps is to secure the tongue section of the vamp to the gaiter to keep it out of the way of the foot as it slips into the footwear. Again backstitch or saddle stitch will work well, try and keep the stitches small and evenly spaced.
Reinforcing tie holes.
The final stage here shows sewing button holes at the top of the canvas gaiter where the top edge has been folded over to create a tube of canvas through which to thread the tie string. Nothing more complicated here than lots and lots of very closely spaced stitching around where the string will enter/ exit the canvas before then slicing a hole in the middle.
Here the tie string is installed and the fold of canvas pinned over the top before sewing into place.
There are of course many variations on a theme throughout this process and part of the fun with these crafts is improvising solutions where things don’t quite turn out as per instructions or substituting materials one for another or even omitting/ including features to suit the item exactly to your requirements or expected conditions to be encountered.
Once you have your moccasins and boot liners you need only to source some woollen socks (more on clothing choice for the North to follow in future blogs) and you have a comfortable, light weight, reliable, easy to fix and maintain system of keeping your feet dry and therefore toasty warm!
Suiting up at minus 18.
Ultimately this system works as it overcomes the three main problems with human feet. Firstly your feet are extremities and therefore in extreme cold your core deems them as superfluous to your survival and will shunt blood away from them if you become significantly cooled – dangerous.
Secondly you put every last bit of your body weight, clothing weight and pack weight directly ontop of them, compressing the fine blood vessels and constricting circulation.
Thirdly your feet sweat a significant amount through a 24 hour period making whatever you put over them damp to wet. Wet materials will loose heat significantly quicker than dry.
All of these problems are compounded when we stuff our feet into a modern pair of boots which can be laced up too tight further reducing blood flow and preventing insulating pockets of air. The boot material may incorporate a water proof barrier, preventing water vapour evolved from the foot from escaping your insulation layers which then condenses and cools significantly in extreme low temperatures. Lastly the inflexibility of modern winter boots with rigid soles (not including climbing boots which require this) prevent the foot from moving so that all the tissue, muscle and blood in the foot is relatively static.
With a pair of magical fairy shoes (winter moccasins) however, so long as the conditions qualify as ‘dry cold’ (more on this to come), you will have fully breathable layers in the truest sense that there is no water proof barrier preventing evolved sweat from the foot escaping. At around minus 5 degrees and lower you will see a frosting develop on the buckskin of your moccasin which is vapour breathed out through your socks to the outside of the moccasin where it freezes. This is simply brushed away. In short, unless you go through the lake ice or the temperature reaches thaw conditions you will have DRY and therefore WARM feet.
Your feet inside winter moccasins are wrapped in up to 4 layers of soft very breathable wool which does not constrict the flesh of the foot in any way and further more as you walk your entire foot flexes, bends and stretches as there is no solid structure to the footwear. Your foot begins to work exactly as it evolved to do and this continual movement has a warming effect just as rubbing and manipulating cold hands does – it shunts blood around your foot.
Mors Kochanski is also credited to putting out theory on the merits of wearing three thick pairs of thick wool socks inside winter footwear and should you go in the water, simply remove the boot and walk around in your socks. Initially water is allowed to drain out the socks, more water is squashed out by the mechanical action of walking around and lastly the very dry snow is able to wick water away from the outer sock.
In extreme cold the outer sock will freeze solid like a boot and I had this exact experience when I found a marsh through the snow with my foot. The water had no time to soak through into my socks as I immediately withdrew my foot and then the surface water on the moccasin froze solid as the ambient temperature was around minus 18 degrees Celsius.
Left – readily flexible buckskin. Right case hardened ice boot.
My foot remained dry and warm for the remainder of the day the only noticeable difference being a significantly less flexible moccasin!
Lastly in this blog I want to show the link in traditional foot wear to the use of traditional Ojibwa style snow shoes. The bindings shown in the following photo are from lamp wick and tied simply in a matter of minutes. Once tied the two loops are set on the shoe and it is possible to twist each foot in and out without exposing hands to untie knots and fiddle with frozen lamp wick. This Indian hitch is covered in detail in the relevant chapter of The Snow Walkers Companion and has been used extensively by the authors over the years on extended wilderness snow shoe expeditions.
Ojibwa pattern snow shoe (inspiration from Gil Gilpatrick’s Building snow shoes) with lamp wick Indian hitch.
This style of traditional binding compliments the winter moccasin perfectly as it slightly depresses the material around the foot (without being constrictive) and so has way more friction grip than if the same binding was used on a modern plastic boot or wellington where more slippage of the binding was experienced on the warmer days where we could not use the moccasin.
So there you have it, a very old solution to a very old problem inspired by the Conover’s and brought to you afresh here from a personal skills building trip to Sweden this January. My next blog hopes to out line the process used to create our own Ojibwa pattern snow shoes.