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We made our own shoes
Emma Winka
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The following material was provided by Emma Winka. Emma was born near the Swedish village of Tärnaby in southern Lapland. The area is heavily influenced by Sámi culture.

I think that it was about 1933 or so that someone came around to the villages there selling rubber boots and after that it didn't take long before just about everyone went around wearing rubber boots. But before that everyone made their own shoes.

It wasn't that each person sewed their own shoes. In a village of about 30 people there were maybe two or three people that did the actual sewing. Sewing shoes is a pretty tricky thing and to be good at it, you have to know how to do it and practice a lot. With all the different things you need to do it took two or three days to make a pair of shoes. So just a few did the actual sewing. But every family had animals; cows or reindeer, so getting the skins was something that nearly every family did. Then there were all the other things that went into a shoe - the thread, slicing reindeer tendons into thread, oils, going over the mountains into Norway to get oils so you could waterproof the shoes, all sorts of stuff like that. So just about everyone was involved in making shoes, doing some things themselves and then trading or buying from others in order to get the rest done.

We had four different kinds of shoes. Two kinds, Lapp shoes and harn shoes (härnskor) were for the winter when it was real cold. The other kinds, flatwater (flatvatten or kängskor) and gosika shoes were for the spring and summer. I don't know where those names came from or what they mean. They must be real old names.

The winter shoes were made from hide that still had the hair on. That made the shoes warmer and the hair on the bottom made the shoes less slippery in the snow. That's why winter shoes were sewn a bit differently than the summer shoes. On a winter shoe there was a seam across the bottom of the sole. The hair on the front part of the sole pointed back and the hair on the back of the sole pointed front. That way the shoes got a good grip when you walked in the snow and you didn't slip. There was another difference between the winter shoes and the spring-summer shoes. The winter shoes had a little point at the toe that stuck up. All the winter shoes except shoes for very small children had that little point that stuck up. That point was to help hold skis to your foot if you went skiing. Skis in those days had bindings that were like loops and if you had shoes with a little point that stuck up at the toe, that loop-binding wouldn't slip off.

The harn shoes were very rare. They weren't very attractive. They were sewn from the hide from a reindeer's face. And the hide from a reindeer's head is full of lots of little holes that have to be patched. So even new harn shoes were full of patches. They were hard to sew too because the skin on a reindeer's face is the toughest hide on the whole reindeer. A lot of times that face hide was used for the bottom part of other kinds of shoes. But in a harn shoe the entire shoe was made of harn hide, and that made for really tough shoes. Mostly old men wore that kind of shoe.

To make winter shoes you always took the hides of animals that had been killed in the fall. For winter shoes you wanted that hair to stay on the hide and in the fall the animal was getting ready for winter and his hair was stuck in real good. If you had had taken a hide from an animal that had been slaughtered in the spring when he was getting ready to shed his winter hair, the hair sat real loose and would come off the hide real easy.

To keep the hair on the hide for winter shoes you couldn't tan the hide all the way through. You could just partially tan the inside of the hide. To do that you made a mash of boiled bark and after you had finished scraping the fat off the inside of the hide you spread that mash out over the back side of the hide and then folded it over and let it soak in a while. They used the bark from alder, sallow or birch. What kind of bark you used changed the color some. Alder was popular because it gave a nice brown color to the hide. Sallow and birch gave more of a beige color.

They sewed the shoes with a kind of thread made of the leg tendons from reindeer. When they are fresh, the tendons are about two or three centimeters wide anything from twenty to forty centimeters long, something like short pieces of ribbon. When you make thread out of a tendon like that you have to keep it real wet and then pull it apart into very thin strands. You have to try to get each strand the same width. You mash the strands a bit with your teeth to soften them up. To make the strands into a long thread you have to overlap the ends of the short pieces of tendon and mash down lightly with your teeth to get them to stick together. After you get a real long thread you fold it double so that none of the seams or joints are next to each other and then you twist the double strands together. One of the ends of the thread should be pointed so that when the thread is dry, you have a hard pointed end to use as a needle. Except for that sharp end, you rub fat into the thread before you use it so make it softer.

When you were finished sewing a new pair of winter shoes you had to rub the insides with whale oil and pine tar to keep the hide soft and flexible.

Flatwater and gosika shoes were spring and summer shoes. But the gosika shoes were for a bit colder time of the year than the flatwater. The only difference I can think of is what they were made of. The flatwater shoes were made from the tanned hide of a cow's face, that is, the face and the neck behind the ears. The hide for flatwater shoes was completely tanned. The whole hide was soaked in water for a while so the hair fell out then it was completely soaked in a bark solution.

The gosika shoes were made of the hide from a cow's shins. The hide was just half-tanned on the backside like the winter shoes. They had a bit more of a reddish color, too.

Flatwater and gosika shoes were spring and summer shoes, particularly the flatwater shoes. And shoes like that should be watertight. People did everything they could to keep water from getting into flatwater and gosika shoes. They were very careful about sewing the seams. They rubbed pine tar on the inside. They brought in whale oil from Norway to coat the inside of the shoe. The flatwater shoes didn't have any hair on the outside so you could rub both the inside and the outside with pine tar and whale oil to get them extra watertight. They rubbed the shoes with linseed oil they also bought in Norway. That made a shoe even more waterproof but if you used too much linseed oil the leather got stiff. But in those days there was nothing you could really do to make a shoe waterproof. Flatwater and gosika shoes never really did what you wanted out of a spring and summer shoe. All spring, all summer, your feet were always at least a bit damp.

Of all the different kinds of shoes the Lapp shoes were the most popular and well liked. They looked nice; beautiful actually, if they were well made, and they did everything that you would like to have in a winter shoe. They weren't slippery and they kept your feet nice and warm. They did everything a shoe should do and they did that as good as any modern shoe. The only bad thing about the winter Lapp shoes was you couldn't let them get wet much. If they were wet a period of time the hair fell out and you started slipping in the snow.

None of our shoes had shoelaces. You put your pants down over the shoes then you wrapped the pant legs to the shoes using bands. For everyday use you used leather bands and when you wanted to look good, for church or something, you used woven cloth bands, a lot of the time in red and white.

You couldn't just use socks with shoes like we had. Socks weren't warm enough and our shoes weren't made in precise sizes. You had to have something that filled out the extra space. Instead of socks we used what we called "shoe hay."

Shoe hay was dried and combed sedge grass. Mostly, you used bladder sledge but if you had to you could use bottle sedge. Both kinds are pretty much the same. Sedge grass grows where it is damp and soggy, in mountain bogs, around pools and small ponds up in the mountains. Sometimes it grows like out in the water, but then you'd have to have a boat to get it.

Sedge grass is a grass about 80 centimeters long. Up at the tips it has very sharp edges. It doesn't grow in big fields, just in tussocks here and there. Because it grows in such a spotty way, here and there, collecting it is kind of a specialized activity. You have to keep your eyes open when you're out and when you saw some you had to remember where it was so you could come back in August when it was time to cut it. My mother collected shoe hay sometimes but mostly we bought it from a couple that lived over in Västansjö - Nicke Samuelsson and Anna Israelsson. They specialized in shoe hay.

We mostly bought shoe hay from them but because my mother sometimes prepared it too, I know how they did it. You cut the sedge in fall-summer, beginning of August when it was starting to die and turn darker. After you cut it and bring it home you use a thing that looks like a short wooden board with a lot of rather small nails pounded into the middle third of the board so the nails stuck out the other side.

You hold that board in your lap with the nails pointing up and you take a bundle of grass and sort of throw it down on the nails and then you pull the grass through the nails, splitting it, making it finer, and scraping off the sharp edges at the tip. Then you took something that looked like a meat fork or maybe like a kind of paintbrush except that it had two rows of sharp, rather small nails sticking out instead of bristles. They used that to finish combing out the grass and make it really fine.

After that you took a bundle of grass that was about 15 to 20 centimeters thick at the end where the grass was thickest and tapering off a bit towards the other end where the thin tips of the grass were. To make a bundle like that hold together you used a special knot or braid starting at the end of the bundle where the thin upper tips of the grass was. I don't think there's anyone alive today who knows how to twist that special knot. A bundle of shoe grass twisted up like that was called a "tot".

We bought about 30 tots every winter from Nicke and Anna over in Västansjö. That was enough to carry our family through the winter months.

You had to keep the tots in some kind of unheated shed away from the sun or up under the eaves of a roof because you didn't want it to get wet but you didn't want it to get too dry either because then it got brittle and broke up when you used it. Oh, that shoe hay was so soft and fine!

When you used the shoe hay you took one of those tots inside the house for a day or so to get it to exactly the right humidity.

How much of the shoe hay you needed depended on how big your shoes were compared to your feet. But you took as much as you needed and pushed it down into your shoe and pushed it around to make something like a little mouse nest down in your shoe, and you tried to get it spread all around inside the shoe so even you could. If the shoe hay was too thinly packed somewhere, that's where the cold could would get in. My mother was real good at getting it evenly packed all around on the inside of the shoe.

She'd pack our shoes with shoe hay and then we'd stick our feet down into the shoes then she'd often ask us if the hay was nice and even - no lumps or thin places anywhere. But, you know if you ask a kid a question like that he can concentrate on his feet and almost always feel a place where it was uneven. Then she'd take the shoe off and do it again. And kids using shoe hay had to learn to control their toes, too. A kid couldn't let his toes wiggle around or else he might dig a hole in the shoe hay with his toe and then there'd be just thin leather between his foot and the snow and ice.

At night you took the shoe hay out of the shoe and spread it out on the floor, under the bed or along the wall, to dry out. After about a week the shoe hay was too broken up and compact to use anymore and you had to throw it away and get some more.

A shoe filled with fresh shoe hay sure was warm.

I think that's about all I remember about our shoes. All that was a long time ago and it pretty much all came to an end in the early 30's when the rubber boots came.

Emma Winka



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