Indigenous people in all parts of the far North developed similar winter footwear to cope with extreme cold and snow. All are made high enough to keep snow out and roomy enough for plenty of insulation.
The exact design, materials, and embellishments vary by local conditions and what was available. Originally, all were made from animal hide using fur or plant material as insulation.
Apparently, the name mukluk comes from “maklak”, the Yupik people of Alaska’s name for the bearded seal. This article describes my first attempt at making traditional mukluks.
My thoughts on the evolution of indigenous technology are largely based on the discussions and theories one inevitably has when making and using it. When you start living with things you can really start to appreciate how they were done for real.
I should point out before we go any further that my historical knowledge of this stuff is pretty limited so don’t take it as gospel.
These days mukluk is used to describe a wide range of footwear loosely based on the style – much of it less functional fashion-led footwear. However, there are still people making and selling mukluks intended for snowshoeing and use outdoors.
If you intend to buy mukluks to actually use then double-check with the supplier that they’re suitable. Buying a pair of mukluks is fine but even if you don’t have much experience with needle and thread it’s pretty easy to make yourself a pair as I’ll demonstrate.
The design adopted by many people for snowshoeing mukluks seems to be a modern upgrade of the winter moccasin of the northern woods of North America. The modern bit is canvas which may not sound that modern but context is everything!
As woven fabrics were traded across the Americas I guess they were used in place of hiding where it didn’t affect function. This “classic” design has settled on a hidden foot (styled and constructed like a moccasin) with a gaiter made from canvas. The hide of choice here is smoke-tanned moose hide because of its strength and longevity.
The explorer Mike Horn recounts how the Norwegian polar explorer Børge Ousland tells him that in the arctic your hand should fit in your glove as a car fits in a garage. This also applies to footwear. In cold weather, the last thing you want is tight or restrictive footwear which compromises the air-trapping ability of the insulation.
The foot is made large enough to accommodate probably two pairs of wool socks plus a liner of wool or felt with a felt insole. I say probably as this can all be varied according to personal preference – the joys of making your own kit.
None of this sounds too radical but if you try making traditional mukluks (or even buy some) in the cold I guarantee you’ll be astonished at how good they are. The absolutely key difference between these and modern boots is breathability.
Once your feet are damp – which happens surprisingly often in “normal” footwear – the insulative properties of whatever’s between you and the cold are compromised.
As the wool insulation and untreated hide breathe extremely well there is no build-up of moisture and so no cold feet. Of course, if the hide gets wet its breathability is reduced. For this reason, they’re at their best in cold-dry environments.
Many modern boots such as rubber pad boots just aren’t that practical on multi-day trips in cold weather. Anyone who’s worn boots like these for a whole day knows how much moisture is trapped in the liners and probably their socks by the end of the day.
Drying these takes a very reliable even heat source (hence the invention of crazy things like electric boot driers). Traditional mukluks just don’t need the same sort of drying. More like airing – much more achievable in a wilderness setting.
Hopefully, you’re sold on these by now so here’s a quick step-by-step to show you how easy it is to make some. For more depth, I suggest getting hold of The Snow Walker’s Companion by Garrett and Alexandra Conover* which has detailed instructions and patterns.
I don’t think there could be a much simpler way to make footwear. The foot is simply two pieces – the foot (the larger piece) and the vamp (the smaller piece). I tacked these together to keep everything in kilter while stitching. Sizing can be done by eye and a bit of drawing around your foot or from the pattern.
The vamp is whip stitched to the foot for an inch or so at the “back” and then the foot part is puckered and stitched to the vamp to give the curve in the toe. This is where I deviated from the instructions. By the third go at the Conover puckering method, my leather resembled a pin cushion! A more simple but probably less strong stitch was improvised.
The liners were made from 10mm felt. This was kindly provided by my good friend Tim at Yurtworks in Cornwall. Apparently, this felt is used to line yurts and is also used for boot liners in Mongolia. These look slightly rough and ready as getting the stitches tight were difficult with the thick felt but they do the job! They’re sized by drawing around your foot and measuring your calf for the tops (taking into account extra room for long johns, wool trousers etc).
The next step is to make the gaiter. Unfortunately, there are no photos of this. It was snowing hard outside and I was desperate to get them finished by the morning so photography went out the window!
Basically, the gaiter is a conical shape sized to fit the calf at the top and the top of the moccasin at the bottom. they’re hemmed at the top where holes are made for a drawcord to keep the snow out. When complete they’re whip-stitched to the moccasin.
The gaiters are fastened loosely to the legs with long ties which are criss-crossed up the leg. A method of joining these to the foot part is desirable so as to give a “pull” on the foot. I have yet to add this feature so just improvised using a long strip of the gaiter material.
After some field testing, I can honestly say this is probably the most comfortable footwear I’ve ever worn. It’s a bizarre thing to be walking outside and feeling like you’re wearing just socks – compared to modern boots there is virtually no weight to them.
Warmth-wise I was thoroughly impressed. They’re certainly the warmest thing I’ve ever worn. Things like this really do make you step back and think about all the modern kits we use. Is it really better or just easier to manufacture in quantity? Hmmm.
If you’re feeling adventurous I’d urge you to have a go at making a pair. If not mukluks, the same construction methods can be used to make yourself a pair of slippers, camp shoes, or some practical stalking shoes. A stylish addition to any shoe rack! If you have a go I’d love to hear how you get on.