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Birchbark Shoes and Beyond: The Legacy of Novgorod Shoemakers

Russian reindeer leather is among the most luxurious leather in the world. It is sought-after due to its rugged appearance, strength and practicality.

Novgorod shoemakers invented four main kinds of shoes. They had a close relationship with artisans and the market was typical during this time. The shoes were wide and symmetrical at the front, and had narrow heels.

Traditional Russian footwear

Valenki (also also known as volnushechki, vykhodki, pimy or katanki) are hefty, wool-filled winter boots that are the norm for Russian soldiers and police on the streets. These tough boots that literally mean “made by felting” are the Russian legacy of the Mongol tribes and were once so expensive that they covered the feet of the tsars and empresses.

Valenkis made by hand are extremely robust, but they require an enormous amount of time and effort. Craftsmen roll and form the felt into the shape of a boot, and then transfer it to the steam bath, where it is repeatedly dipped in hot water to shrink. The process takes a long time and a single pair of valenkis can be priced at hundreds of dollars.

Despite their high cost The traditional boots remain popular throughout Russia’s long history of winters. Over the past two decades, they’ve lost their popularity as people prefer lighter, more waterproof footwear.

Yet, many young Russians are rekindling their fondness for the traditional shoes. The twins from Moscow Olga and Galina Shantseva for instance, design birchbark shoes which are decorated with Soviet-era artwork, making them popular among artists of the young generation. Additionally an Russian-made brand called valenki is beginning to gain traction in the international market. It remains to be seen whether these boots will be able to gain more fans and a wider audience, but they’re enjoying a fashion resurgence in Russia.

Ancient Russian leather shoes

A thorough study of archeological evidence, ethnographic and written sources helps to trace the development of shoe styles in the early Rus’. The large number of footwear made of leather found during the excavations from different periods of Novgorod’s time indicates that shoemakers from all categories were involved in the production of footwear for both the artisanal and nobility classes.

In the countryside there were people who wore Lapti soft shoes made from thin bark from trees. Birch was a popular option. They were secured with rawhide laces that passed through the side slits on the soles and wound around the feet. Also, they were worn over stockings and windings.

The oldest Russian boots are made from reindeer hide, with their distinctive pattern of the hatch grain, embossed by hand. The most desirable Russian reindeer hide is processed by a machine to make it strong and durable. The most luxurious reindeer leather is often compared to it, however it is softer and thus more suitable for making shoes.

The first felt boots were known as valenki. This name derives from the method of making them. Felt was compressed with the aid of a specific tool known as “valenka”. The wooden block is flat and has multiple holes, on which the wool was rolled. In Russia the method is known as “valyat”, which means rolling. After a certain time felt boots were constructed from other materials as well. For extra insulation they could be filled with hay or animal hair. The quarter of the heel would then be sturdier using layers of leather or birchbark the lining.

Medieval Russian shoe designs

The medieval Russian leather shoes were based on the birchbark peasant’s shoe. They were worn with stockings, or nogavits, and windings, or obmotok. The shoe’s closure was achieved by means of long strings called obory that passing through the sides of the lapti and tied around the laces. The shoes also featured a sole made of Larch bark or fir. The footwear was extremely comfortable and durable.

To produce a product that was of superior quality, the craftsman had to possess a high level of skill. It’s not too surprising to see so many fragments from the type of shoe found in archeological layers dating to the 10th to 13th century.

The First Novgorod Chronicle states that there were separate groups of shoemakers and leatherworkers at the time. It is confirmed that only someone with an atelier at which they made footwear could be called a shoemaker.

One of the most well-known types of Russian leather shoes was bakhily (also called bredni, brodni, butyli and the ostashi) male working and hunting boots constructed of soft leather. These were jackboots, with high tops reaching the knees or the thighs. These boots were very durable and were worn by people in the woods for lengthy periods of time. These boots were also worn by fishermen and hunters.

giay tay nam

Soviet-era Russian footwear

The Soviet period witnessed a decline in traditional Russian shoemaking because an influx of new artisans preferred modern footwear imported from Western countries. The decline of traditional Russian shoe craftsmanship was the result of various factors like an absence of interest by youngsters for hand-crafted goods, increased availability of factory made shoes and a shift in preferences.

During this period, the footwear of choice was galoshes. These boots were made from felt and worn with otherĀ giay tay nam to guard against ice and snow, in addition to keeping the feet of the wearer warm. The pieces of leather were placed on top of each other and joined, then sewed with blind or hidden stitching.

Footwear crafted from bast (birch bark) was also common and was particularly prevalent in the Kazan Khanate (1438-1552), which had inherited the culture, traditions and crafts after Mongol conquest. These were similar to regular boots but with shorter bootlegs. There were no linings. The boots were secured with long strings called obory which passed through the side of the lapti and were wound around the legs.

The 14th century saw Novgorod’s artisans were specialized in shoes with shorter, straight-sided bootlegs. These were called golenishcha, or golenicha. Their lengths were 17-22 cm. Archeological excavations of this period’s layers have revealed the presence of iron adszes [3] that were used to clear the flesh of skin and subcutaneous tissue.