The Sami are an indigenous peoples of northern Europe whose traditional homeland, known as Sápmi, includes parts of Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia. In 1999, on behalf of the Bata Shoe Museum Foundation, researchers Jill Oakes and Rick Riewe travelled to these regions in order to collect Sami footwear, as well as learn about bootmaking technology. During their field research, they worked alongside bootmakers to learn about the diversity of traditional footwear from across Sápmi. In doing so, they acquired about 170 artifacts for the museum. Several special highlight pieces from this collection are currently on view in our exhibition Art and Innovation: Traditional Arctic Footwear from the Bata Shoe Museum Collection.
Tall, waterproof boots worn by Mettans Persson. Purnu, Sweden. Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum © 2016 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada
Traditional Sami footwear was often made of reindeer skins and colorful textiles, producing distinctive boots that were both fashionable and warm. The incorporation of textiles into clothing and footwear production has quite a long history in Sami culture due to their close proximity with other European communities. Though textiles originated south of the Arctic Circle, Sami seamstresses creatively adapted these materials into their crafts, creating unique and distinctively Sami clothing and footwear. Textiles most often appeared on boots through the woven ties that helped to bind the boot shaft to the leg. These ties were often intricately designed, and could feature either geometric or curvilinear motifs. These colorful straps could provide a great deal of information about the wearer, including their regional identity, gender, as well as marital and social status.
White reindeer-skin boots with colorful, woven ties. Aiddejavre, Norway. Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum © 2016 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada
A distinctive feature of many Sami boots is their upturned toes. It has been suggested that this toe helped to ‘kick-off’ snow when walking in the wintery climate. In addition, it has been said that the curled toes were helpful in affixing boots to skis, as they could be slipped under lashings to ensure a secure fit. Travelling across ice and snow presented many challenges, and many features of Sami boot design respond to the often harsh arctic environment.
Dark reindeer-skin boots with textile cuff. Vuotso, Finland © 2016 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada
Boot soles were another feature of footwear that demonstrated the technological innovation of bootmakers in response to the environment. Many boot soles were made of two or more pieces of reindeer skin that were sewn with the nap of the fur facing in different directions, providing much needed traction for winter wear. For wear in wet conditions, including the summer and along the coasts, boots were made of dehaired reindeer skin that was smoked and tanned for water repellency.
Ellen Marit Eria Solbakke making boots. Kautokeino. Photo by Jill Oakes © 2016 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada
Over the course of the 20th century, many Sami communities united to create strong local and transnational organizations to push for greater political and socioeconomic opportunities. Sami traditional dress, including reindeer skin boots, was used to help proclaim cultural identity. Many contemporary Sami wear their national dress, called Gakti, during special occasions and holidays to celebrate their cultural heritage.
Jill Oakes learning to make boot ties. Jokkmokk, Sweden. Photo by Rick Riewe © 2016 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada