Making Traditional Mukluks

Hand made mukluksThese 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 buying 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.

What Are Mukluks?

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. 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.

Mukluk Design

The design adopted by many people for snowshoeing mukluks seems to be a modern upgrade of the winter moccasin of the north 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 hide where it didn’t affect function. This “classic” design has settled on a hide 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 like 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) and use them in the cold I guarantee you’ll be astonished at how good they are. The 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 pac 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 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 on a wilderness trip.

Make Your Own Mukluks

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 a 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 round your foot or from the pattern.

Hand stitched mukluk cut ready for sewing

The vamp is whip stitched to the foot for an inch or so at the “back” 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.

Sewing Hand Stitched Mukluks

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 was difficult with the thick felt but they really do the job! They’re sized by drawing round your foot and measuring your calf for the tops (taking into account extra room for long johns, wool trousers etc).

Hand stitched mukluks and felt liners

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.

Hand stitched mukluk sewn to gaiter

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 kit we use. Is it really better or just easier to manufacture in quantity? Hmmmm.

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.

 


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* Just for the record I have an affiliate account with Amazon and may even earn enough to buy a curly wurly or something if you happen to buy anything.

Nick Gallop

Nick has spent years studying bushcraft and wilderness skills both formally and less formally. He's passionate about wilderness travel by traditional means and employing traditional skills to conquer modern problems.

Comments

  1. In another blogging coincidence Le loup just posted this
    http://woodsrunnersdiary.blogspot.com/2010/02/more-on-moccasin-patterns.html
    Cheers
    SBW

  2. Thanks SBW. Moccasin-tastic! Le Loup’s post gives some different ideas to play with.
    All these patterns and instructions addle my brain! If you find this a problem then you can probably get acceptable results by applying some common sense and just having a go.

  3. Great post! I want to make a pair now.
    I use a pair of Tingley hi-top over shoes on sheepskin moccasins with surprising success when its cold damp conditions. I should think it would work well with mukluks too. Not my original idea though. I got the idea from “Cache Lake Country” by John J. Rowlands.

  4. Ah, Cache Lake Country. Funnily enough just got it back out a few days ago after a while on the shelf. What a great book!
    Yep, the overshoe thing would work although I wouldn’t be surprised if it is possible to simply wear the overshoe instead of the mukluk with the liner, insole and socks.
    Are the Tingley overshoes good?

  5. I love this post! I’m going to go out and build me a pair. But I have to ask, are they really water proof and effective? thanks for the great blog!
    Dallin

  6. Hi Dallin,
    No, they’re not waterproof. They’re designed for cold-dry so ideal for below freezing temperatures on snow. In this environment they’re more than effective!
    In the far north the more waterproof version was made using sealskin.
    Of course if you wanted a pair of moccasins for stalking or something you could use waterproof socks underneath.

  7. Awesome, Nick, simply fantastic. On the last tour with the six mates of mine, one lady had a pair mukluks and traditional snowshoes. She was very happy with the mukluks, and she had warm feet all the time. I myself had a double pair of lambwool slippers for camp, and they were perfect – light, warm, and kept my feet dry. I think I also will give the mukluks a try if I can organize the materials.
    Also much thanks for the link to the book! I was speaking with Don Kevilus from Four Dog Stove two weeks back, and he recommended me that book, but I couldn’t recall it – glad I found it now.

  8. Hey Hendrik!
    For conditions like those in Finland right now this is ideal. The felt I got for making the liners is awesome too. It’s 10mm thick. They make great slippers on their own!
    I’ll be making some more soon so I’ll try to give some info on where to obtain the materials etc.
    Snow walkers companion is a great book. Packed full of information. Thoroughly recommended.

  9. Thanks Nick, I just ordered the book =) 10 mm felt is great stuff, people wear it as city shoes here (with a rubber sole, though). Looking forward to the book, the knowledge should come in handy when I leave for a trip in two weeks!

  10. Good post Nick, and thanks for the plug SBW.
    Regards, Le Loup.

  11. I know this is about making them, but where can I purchase some?

  12. Hi Chad.

    Hmmm. It might be tough finding traditionally made ones. If you Google it you tend to find ‘fashion’ mukluks.

    Having said that, Steger over in Minnesota- http://www.mukluks.com/ – make a sort of modernised version of them.

    Let me know if you really wanted the traditional sort as I know someone in Canada who may be able to make some for you.

    Nick

  13. Hi,

    Really like the tutorial. Interested in where you got the patterned trim from?
    Can you point me in the right direction to get some?

    Thanks

    Conrad

  14. Hi Conrad,

    The fancy trim was from Deb’s Lace And Trims – a mecca for the outdoorsman ;-)

    Nick

  15. Im curious what is on the bottom for traction? Plain leather would be slippery?

  16. Hi Ron.

    If I hadn’t tried them I suppose I’d wonder that too!

    They are just plain leather underneath but in my experience you remain pretty sure footed. Of course in deeper snow would be used with snow shoes.

    I’ve got a pair here and (pretty lo-tech test!) I can’t push them across the surface of my desk when I put some weight on them. The moose hide has quite a strong grain which seems to provide some good friction.

    Hope this helps!

  17. great post, thank you! In researching hides I’m curious to know if anyone has an opinion on using a commercially tanned moose hide with the fur intact. I would put the fur on the inside with the smooth side facing out and still use the felt liner inside on top of the fur. I would imagine it would make them even warmer. Any thoughts or potential issues with the fur still being on?

  18. Thanks for posting this; last night I finished making a pair of mukluks based off the information you provided. I had wanted a pair of solid boots as mine were worn out but I don’t have the dollars to put down for a pair of Stegers. I used my local bartering group to trade for the leather and my mother had a big bin of felted wool.
    The only improvement I need to make is to double insulate the bottom of the booties. I put them on last night and went outside; we’ve got artic temps here right now (northern WI) and while my legs and tops of my feet were very toasty, the bottoms of my feet could feel the cold.
    Other than that – great job and thank you again!
    Peace

    Tessa

  19. Matt,
    (sorry so late in the response to your post) Up here, in Fairbanks, we have a few moose. The hair-on idea is good, but I would recommend the hair on the outside for traction. Caribou is used this way by some, as is seal (caribou is probably easier to get ahold of).
    Good luck and THANKS to Nick for sharing!
    Art

  20. I was curious about the top around the legs. What are the ties attached to? And at the top it looks as if the there is a pull tight system and then tied? Could you fill in a little more about how they are wrapped and held in place around the legs?

  21. Nick Gallop says:

    Hi Mindy

    Good Question!

    The top of the gaiter is hemmed and has a cord in it to make a pull cord and tie.

    The gaiter is held to the leg by a long piece of fabric which criss crosses around the leg and ties at the top. Ideally this is joined to the leather part of the mukluk so it keeps the whole thing in position on your foot and leg but without being too tight.

    As I said above, I didn’t have time to add the fixing to the leather as I was in a hurry to use this pair and they still worked fine. The gaiter ‘tie’ was simply a long strip of the gaiter material – maybe 1″ wide and long enough to criss cross up to the top of the gaiter.

    Hope this helps. I’m planning to revisit this project and make a fuller tutorial this year so watch this space :-)

    Nick

  22. I’m trying to gather material for making these boots, but I cannot find 10 mm wool felt anywhere. Though I’m far from Cornwall (US), I did check their site but there is no information on ordering felt.

  23. Nick Gallop says:

    Hi Josefina,

    As I said in the article, my friend Tim makes yurts and happened to give me an offcut of the felt he uses to line them so I didn’t have to find any.

    Just as well as, yes, it looks slightly tricky to find!

    I found a few places that sell it but it seems very expensive. I guess you have some options though:

    Find some army surplus mukluk liners.

    Find a commercially available inner boot for modern footwear. Like http://www.sorel.com/Liners.html

    If you like the idea of handcrafting all of this you could try and make some felt.

    Hope this helps :-)
    Nick

  24. Absolutely great mukluks! Your instructions are pretty good, too.

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