Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Moccasin boot hybrids - old meets new (traditional buckskin woodland footwear, with a modern twist..)



This is an article I wrote for a magazine around this time last year, re-posted for those who haven't yet seen it, anyone who has expressed an interest in how they were made having seen them on a course or on my social media images and anyone who likes looking at bluebells!
As an amateur designer and maker of home-made clothing and equipment, my holy grail has always been footwear. To look at a modern pair of training shoes for example, with a view to replicating them befuddles my brain beyond belief. Even a standard pair of leather boots seems to combine an unbelievable number of highly developed skills to stitch, shape and join the leather, rubber and metal in order to make something we all take for granted. 

The humble pair of boots has to fulfil an extraordinary task for which they are not given enough credit. They must be light in weight to ease the load for your weary legs but at the same time, strong enough to support our feeble 21stcentury feet. They must also be flexible to allow the twenty six bones and one hundred or so muscles, ligaments and tendons in each foot and ankle to flex, contract and expand freely. They must have a flexible but hardwearing sole to cope with the incredibly tough and unforgiving modern surfaces we are all expected to walk around on. Not only that but we prefer them to have a certain amount of cushioning and often require some insulation, waterproofing and breathability too. In short, we’re all wearing a pair of little miracles on our feet!

Surely then, to make one’s own footwear for the woods is a skill reserved for only an elite minority, the chosen few, a special kind of craftsman?

“Cobblers!” I exclaimed and set about researching the subject (that joke surely deserves an award of some kind…). I took my research right back to basics, to a time when nobody even knew what a Vibram sole was and tools and materials could be made rather than bought. After all, the sort of footwear I wanted to make would be for using only in the woods. I wanted a degree of protection for walking through spiky, stinging foliage and also from the elements. At the same time I wanted them to be extremely light weight, flexible and noise free underfoot.  When I’m out in the woods on my own I like to pad about as quietly and as stealthily as possible. It’s amazing what you see and hear when you aren’t crashing through the undergrowth in a pair of clumpy boots.
As I read every piece of literature I could find on the subject of traditional footwear I was astounded by the variation between cultures and environments. One quite disappointing truth that cropped up repeatedly was that back in the day, in relatively warm temperate environments most of us didn’t wear boots of any kind for much of the time. Even where some kind of footwear should really have been necessary due to the local flora and fauna, people just went without whenever they could. We were obviously tougher back then (well our feet were anyway) and with traditional materials wearing out pretty quick when worn as foot wear, to go barefoot was probably the preferred option. For someone who can’t walk across a pebbly beach barefoot without yelping and whining, this clearly wasn’t going to be an option.

While reading (well, looking at the pictures…) one type of traditional footwear had caught my eye more than once. The buckskin moccasin was, and still is renowned the world over for quietness, flexibility and just feeling closer to nature. Ellsworth Jaeger in his book ‘Wildwood Wisdom’ tells us that “moccasins are the best natural footwear that has ever been devised. The moccasined foot can feel it’s way along the trail and are light and warm at night. Moccasined feet are like the pads of animals”.  Jim Riggs author of the Blue Mountain Buckskin manual says quite simply “buckskin moccasins give you magic feet!” and who are we to argue with that.

Another advantage of this wonder footwear is that the fabric used to make traditional moccasins is born of the land itself. Buckskin is a material manufactured from animal hides (mainly deer species) thereby making good use of a natural resource and by-product of hunting for meat. To make buckskin is a fairly lengthy process, a subject in it’s own right. In a nutshell, the hide must first be scraped to remove any flesh, soaked in a lye solution of wood ash and water for several days then scraped to remove the top layer of skin along with the hair or fur. After a good rinsing the hide is scraped again to remove any membrane still clinging onto the flesh side then a solution of brains and warm water is massaged well into the fibres (whole eggs or pure soap and neat’s foot oil will also do the job). This oily solution is left to penetrate the hide for as long as possible, usually overnight, then firmly wrung out by twisting the hide around a wooden pole until it feels clammy rather than wet. The skin is then manipulated and stretched until dry, softened further by working the fibres over a slightly abrasive surface. Finally the now soft buckskin is force smoked over a punky fire to help preserve and keep it soft as well as colour it to the desired shade from a light tan to a rich brown. This fantastic fabric is virtually windproof and showerproof, retains some warmth when wet, is quiet in use, comfortable to wear, tough (quite literally as old boots) and very easy to make into clothing and equipment.

There were many designs of moccasin depending on where in the world the wearer lived. Some had hard soles made from thick rawhide to give a degree of protection from thorns and others kept the hair on for insulation. For the most part a soft sole seemed to be common place. As I had no desire to stay true to any particular tribal group or historical period I was happy to ‘mix and match’ where possible, even incorporating some modern ideas to hopefully tailor an existing design to my own British woodland environment. My first modern improvement would be a sewn in tongue to prevent grit and other debris finding it’s way inside through the laces. Also, the sole needed some attention for several reasons. Firstly, the sole of a traditional moccasin has a very limited lifespan, even when used only in the woods. Secondly, buckskin is also not really designed to be waterproofed (it’s just too breathable and flexible) and thirdly, in damp conditions buckskin can feel ‘slimy’ therefore making the soles incredibly slick and likely to put you on your backside without warning. My proposed solution was to add a thin, grippy rubber sole somehow. Lastly, many traditional designs had a very simple lacing system, basically a length of buckskin thonging to wrap around the lower leg several times and tie off. I wanted proper parachute cord laces and lacing tabs to pull the moccasins in tight and give me a better fit. With all this in mind I took some inspiration from Ellsworth Jaeger’s book which has several excellent moccasin designs and plenty of moccasin related information. The illustrations are quite cartoony and there is one character who frequently pops up in full buckskin garb, wearing a natty little pair of pucker toe moccasin/boot hybrids. His little cartoony feet became the inspiration behind my new footwear.

Scissors, saddlers needles, artificial sinew, awl, blunt pincers and rubber thimbles are all you need

The wonder fabric – buckskin
An animal hide, being a natural product has an inconsistent thickness. Some areas need to be stronger such as the area around the neck, the haunches and along the ridge of the back. The side flanks and underbelly are slightly thinner and therefore softer. These different qualities can be used to our advantage and incorporated into a clothing design. For example, moccasin soles need to be strong and thick but the uppers and tongue are better made from the thinner areas. When marking out a pattern it’s good to arrange the different pieces with all of this in mind. Also, some hides are generally thicker than others. The difference in thickness between a winter hide and a summer hide is notable but there is also a thickness variation between male and female and even different deer species. Roe deer will give the crafts person a thin and small hide, Muntjac is smaller still but quite thick, Red deer although much larger has quite an obvious thickness variation between the neck and flank area and also has a more open fibre structure making it wear quicker. Across the pond, Moose is the preferred choice of hide for making buckskin moccasins but we don’t have many in Wiltshire! I have found that winter Fallow deer hide will give a good thickness combined with a pretty good size, certainly suitable enough for making a pair of moccasin boots.

A well smoked buckskin showing the typical variation in thickness and strength

I based the bare bones of my design around the ‘pucker toe’ moccasin worn by the woodland tribes of North America. There are other, simpler designs that I had made before such as the side fold ‘mitten’ moccasin but I liked the way the puckering lifted up any stitching to the top of the foot, well away from ground level where it might leak or wear more quickly. I had also decided to use a liquid rubber mixed with shredded sticky rubber granules to paint a hard wearing, grippy sole onto the moccasins and I quite liked the idea of being able to extend this waterproof surface up the sides slightly and seal the stitching on the heel tab. Although in theory, buckskin costs nothing in monetary terms, it is priceless to the person who has just made it so not wanting to end up with a ruined buckskin, my initial attempt was to be made using calico stitched together with wool and a darning needle. Using this method, I could get the fit just right with the added advantage of being able to take the prototype moccasin apart and use it as a working pattern. After playing around with the puckering method and adding uppers and a sewn in ‘bellows’ tongue I felt confident enough to mark out my first moccasin on a nice, thick fallow buckskin and cut out the five pieces that would form it’s basic structure.

Pucker toe moccasin pieces showing foot placement. A-foot section. B – vamp tongue. C – upper. D – bellows tongue wings
It probably comes as no surprise to learn that there are also many methods of stitching buckskin. For rough and ready garments, an oversized running stitch or whip stitch using buckskin thonging is quick and effective. The fibres in buckskin ‘knit’ together quite nicely when joined in this way, with no need for hems. As the material is so thick, each stitch hole must first be made using a sharp awl. This isn’t as time consuming as it sounds once you get in a rhythm. The buckskin thonging even becomes it’s own needle by twisting one end into a point with licked fingers. Being a show off I decided to keep my stitching small and neat for maximum weatherproofing opting for sinew as a thread and a modern size 18 saddlers needle rather than a traditional bone or antler version. Highly weatherproof skin garments that were traditionally sewn using sinew are truly amazing. Sinew, again being a natural product, has it’s limitations. Although incredibly strong for it’s size, sinew only comes in short lengths so must be joined or twisted into thin cordage. Luckily there is a modern alternative in the form of synthetic sinew which comes on a huge roll. Hurrah!
Running stitch using buckskin thonging

Whip stitch using buckskin thonging

Punching holes through two thicknesses of buckskin using an awl, for fine stitching using artificial sinew

Using a pair of blunt pincers to help push and pull the needle through

My attempts at neat puckering weren’t quite as good as planned. It’s a difficult technique to master as you can see from the images, especially with thick buckskin. Each stich on the tongue vamp (B) corresponds with a wider spaced partner on the front foot section (A). As the stitching is pulled tight, the foot section ’puckers’ up to make the toe box. At this stage the moccasins were beginning to take shape but also looking worringly like a pair of granny slippers! The vamp, now stitched in place extends to form the tongue and soft, thin ‘wings’ (D) were sewn onto the sides of this for joining to the upper (C) later, forming a ‘bellows’ tongue. It’s worth pointing out here that due to the thickness of the fallow hide, I had soaked the buckskin to make it easier to crimp and sew the puckering. Even with pre-made awl holes, the needle proved difficult to push through two thicknesses of hide so a pair of blunt pincers proved invaluable.

Pucker toe stitching technique
Toe section finished and 'puckered up'

  While the foot section was still damp I pushed my foot inside to get a good fit before marking the correct position of the heel tab and stitching it together. Buckskin will stretch when damp so make your moccasins slightly small while the individual pieces are still dry. Once the moccasins are completely stitched soak them in water for a short while, plunge your feet within, lace them up and wear them until they dry again. In theory, they will stretch and mould to your exact foot shape!

Heel tab completed and uppers stitched into position

Upper added with bellows tongue and lace tabs

With the heel tab stitched in position the upper was then joined to the foot section with an overlapping seam and running stitch. Lastly, the tongue wings were stitched to the upper incorporating looped tabs for threading the parachute cord laces through. Both moccasins were soaked, stretched and worn until dry as previously mentioned. Magic feet here we come!
After a couple of experiments with ‘shoe goo’ and rubber flakes painted onto buckskin scraps, I felt confident enough to begin waving the paintbrush around threateningly near my precious new footwear. To help the rubber goo adhere to the buckskin surface I ‘roughed’ up the soles with coarse sandpaper and slapped the mixture on while it was still malleable and tacky. The goo starts to solidify quickly so the rubber flakes were patted into the pungent coating as soon as it was in position immediately giving a matt, textured finish. Warning – liquid rubber has pretty toxic fumes. Don’t do this with the shed windows shut or you’ll start to see pixies dancing around the room, possibly being encouraged by a singing unicorn wearing a fez!

Rubber paint, rubber flakes and roughened sole

Applying liquid rubber and rubber flakes in the workshop


The finished rubber sole - grippy and waterproof

 Having worn my woodland moccasin/boot hybrids several times in the last twelve months I must say that they certainly bring you closer to nature. The detail of the woodland floor can be felt with every step! The small packable size makes them perfect as back up footwear or for silently padding around camp. I’ve been using a selection of home-made buckskin equipment for several years now, knife sheaths, pouches and various bags and looking down at my moccasined feet I’m starting to think the fashion might be spreading. Will I get away with the trousers too? I think I just might…

Completed moccasin/boot hybrids airing in the wood smoke of a campfire