For centuries, Siberia has been the traditional home to numerous indigenous groups including the Nenets, Evens, Evenki, and Chukchi. In many of these communities, reindeer husbandry was historically an important economic and cultural practice. In addition to their valuable meat, reindeer provide warm furs which are crucial in an environment where temperatures can drop as low as – 50 degrees Celsius. The Siberian boots featured in our exhibit, Art and Innovation: Arctic Footwear form the Bata Shoe Museum Collection, are all made from reindeer fur, and feature a wide variety of cuts, colors and styles, illustrating the creativity and cultural diversity of this region.
This pair of Khanty boots features felted strips sewn into the seam, as well as wool pompoms just below the knee. Image © 2016 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada (Photo: Ron Wood)
Reindeer skins were often harvested in the late summer or the early fall, just as their coats started to thicken. In the spring, these coats were quite thin and filled with holes made by flies whereas in the winter, they were too thick and bulky to be of use when sewing clothing.
After they were harvested, these skins were mechanically and chemically treated before sewing. This process made the skins soft and flexible, impermeable to water, and resistant to decomposition. Though the method with which these reindeer skins were prepared could vary greatly between different communities throughout Siberia, the general process shared similar steps. Using a variety of different techniques and tools, these skins were repeatedly dried, scraped and softened until ready.
This pair of Evens boots feature colorful beaded cuffs. Image © 2016 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada (Photo: Ron Wood)
Assorted types of reindeer skins were useful for making different types of boots, or different parts of the same boot. For example, thinner reindeer skins were ideal to create inner boots that could be layered. In addition, the leg skins of reindeer were often used to create tall boots, as they were the ideal shape to create the center front and back panels of boot shafts. Often, the skins found between the toes of a reindeer were innovatively used to create boot soles. These thick and coarse hairs splayed out in different directions, creating lots of traction, and ensuring the wearer wouldn’t slip.
These Chukchi boots feature thick, furry soles made of reindeer toe-skins. Image © 2016 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada (Photo: Ron Wood)
Most reindeer-skin boots, particularly those reserved for special occasions, featured some form of decoration. These designs were an important form of visual communication. The use and placement of certain patterns and materials could reveal a great deal of information about the boot maker or wearer, including their gender, marital status, regional or local identity as well as personal tastes. In addition, certain patterns and embellishments could function as spiritual markers, and convey information about different belief systems. Common forms of embellishment include beaded panels, strips of different textiles, hair and skin embroidery, and decorations made out of contrasting pieces of light and dark reindeer skin.
Though reindeer skins were used for bootmaking across Siberia, there is tremendous diversity in the cuts, colors, shapes, sewing styles, decorative techniques, and fashions in footwear from this region. This is not only true within Siberia, but throughout the arctic region.