Having over the past number of years taken an interest in the various traditional options for footwear I thought it would be a good to go back to the earliest known records of shoes and test out their functionality today in our current environment.
For many people the subject of traditional footwear often evokes buckskin moccasins of the First Nation peoples of North America. Although there is a wide range of different, and beautiful moccasin designs, they are not the only type of primitive footwear employed by indigenous peoples. Equally many of the buckskin footwear of First Nation peoples are suited to a very different climate to that experienced in the UK. In Britain and western Europe, having a much wetter climate than that of continental America, we find ourselves needing to solve some different problems when producing protection for the foot.
The result of this, is that buckskin footwear, although comfortable and functional, does not withstand the prolonged wet conditions typically encountered here in Britain. The main problem that this poses to the user of traditional footwear is that with all the time and effort that goes into producing their home-tanned buckskin, then the complex tailoring involved to produce the moccasins, they are likely to wear easily in wet conditions. With all the effort invested in their production, you do not want to see them wear out in the first week of use in a wet September. There is evidence that in historical times, people across Northern and Western Europe often favoured a more simple yet functional approach to the protection of the foot. Examples of this can be seen in Ireland and Scotland were we see the Pampootie and Cuaran footwear, shown in image 1, still being documented up until the 1950s, with similar styles present in both Iceland and Norway.
People on the Western Isle of Aran in Ireland still wearing traditional Pampootie’s
in the 1950s produced from simple piece of cow hide (George Picklow Image Collection)
Many of these designs where typically made from rawhide, often with the hair left on for additional grip, and were intended to be used wet to ensure that the shoe gave sufficient movement and comfort. Although the idea of walking around in continuously wet footwear does not seem like an appealing or sensible option to us nowadays, for people with little access to ‘waterproof’ materials from which to produce their shoes there were limited options available. So a design that works through embracing wet conditions was one of the few practical options left to them. This gives a significant advantage to those wishing to make functional yet simple foot covering without the investment of vast amounts of effort as all that is required is two adequate pieces of leather or hide to cover the user’s feet.
This prevalence for ‘one piece’ leather shoes across much of Northern and Western Europe is also reflected in many parts of the Caucasus where several styles of footwear of traditional costume reflect this. It is also the location where the oldest know leather shoe has been found in a cave in Armenia. This find, which has been dated to around 5,500 years old, looks surprisingly similar in design to those used in Scotland and Ireland until the 20th Century. This for me illustrates the staying power of a design that is tried and tested for both the environments in which it has been used and the ease of construction for the crafts persons involved.
I first encountered and experience this sort of footwear in 2014 when on a course in Norway with Patrick McGlinchey of Backwoods Survival. Throughout this course Torjus Gaaren demonstrated the ease with which these shoes can be created with raw moose hide and described its advantage over moccasins in the wet Norwegian environment. I continued to wear these shoes for the duration of the course and found that they were both comfortable and functional in the wet, rocky and often frosty environment of Southern Norway in late September.
Following my experience in Norway, I have made various styles of footwear from a variety of different processed leathers. The study around the 5,500 year old Armenian find, have identified the shoes as being made from oil tanned Cow, with many of the recent examples being produced from raw hide. In my opinion this shows adaptation of a design to a variety of different environments. Oil tanned leather for dryer environments in south eastern Europe and raw hide to overcome the cool wet conditions of further north and west. After rooting around in my leather supplies I found some excess buckskin that I thought would be suitable to recreate this oldest of know shoes in order to put them to the test in 2016. What I found was that these are a simple shoe to make with very minimal tailoring or sewing skill required to produce a functional garment.
The first thing to do is to draw a capital D shape around the foot, leaving enough excess so that either side meet on the top of the foot. This is best left slightly large if you are unsure so that you can trim to fit once the pattern has been cut out.
Once you are happy with the size penciled on to the material simply cut along the working line. Wanting to keep the project ‘true to form’ I opted cut out the pattern using some flint blades, scissors would be the modern alternative.
Once you have cut out the foot shapes its a case of using an awl to punch holes along the edge of the pattern which will hold the lacing. For this I used a bone awl to make the initial holes which were then enlarged using a moose auxiliary bone. These I spaced out every inch or so along the length of both shoes.
Cutting the lacing out I used the remaining buckskin, utilising the thickest parts of the hide so as not to have too much stretch in the lace. Small microliths enabled the lacing to be cut easily as long as the hide was held taught. I found that using my foot to secure the buckskin to the floor made this a much easier job.
Once I had all the lacing I needed I started to to lace up the shoe, starting at the front centre of the shoe and crisscrossing towards the ankle, creating a seam that runs up the top centre of the foot. Continue lacing until the length of the foot is covered, at which point we measure out where the heel seam will be located.
To do this I simply marked with a pencil where the two seams came together behind my heel and then punched the holes with the awl just beyond this to allow for taking in if needed.
Luckily for me I was on the button both times and didn’t need to alter either of the heels. It is important to note that it is best to make footwear of this kind snug to allow for stretch in use. If you don’t then the end result after their first use in the wet is that you are walking around looking like Coco the Clown. Equally if you intend to wear large woolen socks underneath- advisable in colder weather and traditionally what was done in Ireland- you need to factor this in during the tailoring.
Once you are happy with the fit, cut off the excess at the back of the shoes and lace the back using the same crisscross method used on the front. Once you have done this, continue to thread the lace around the ankle seam to the back by simply threading the lace through either side of the shoe opening. This will help to secure the shoe around the foot in use.
And there you have it: a 30 minute pair of shoes which can be made entirely from green hide or raw hide which removes the need of labour intensive leather production, though processed and cured hides can also be used. I have found that these simple shoes work perfectly well in providing the protection needed from stones and thorns while out in the woods. They also provide the user with a garment that has taken limited investment in time and therefore something that will cause no devastation should, and when, they wear out.
Anyone interested in making themselves traditional footwear could do a lot worse than to pick this design. Although they may lack the romance and glamour of fully-fledged moccasins they will serve you just as well.
George Picklow Image Collectio: