While reading (well, looking at the pictures…) one type of traditional footwear had caught my eye more than once. The buckskin moccasin was, and still is renowned the world over for quietness, flexibility and just feeling closer to nature. Ellsworth Jaeger in his book ‘Wildwood Wisdom’ tells us that “moccasins are the best natural footwear that has ever been devised. The moccasined foot can feel it’s way along the trail and are light and warm at night. Moccasined feet are like the pads of animals”. Jim Riggs author of the Blue Mountain Buckskin manual says quite simply “buckskin moccasins give you magic feet!” and who are we to argue with that.
There were many designs of moccasin depending on where in the world the wearer lived. Some had hard soles made from thick rawhide to give a degree of protection from thorns and others kept the hair on for insulation. For the most part a soft sole seemed to be common place. As I had no desire to stay true to any particular tribal group or historical period I was happy to ‘mix and match’ where possible, even incorporating some modern ideas to hopefully tailor an existing design to my own British woodland environment. My first modern improvement would be a sewn in tongue to prevent grit and other debris finding it’s way inside through the laces. Also, the sole needed some attention for several reasons. Firstly, the sole of a traditional moccasin has a very limited lifespan, even when used only in the woods. Secondly, buckskin is also not really designed to be waterproofed (it’s just too breathable and flexible) and thirdly, in damp conditions buckskin can feel ‘slimy’ therefore making the soles incredibly slick and likely to put you on your backside without warning. My proposed solution was to add a thin, grippy rubber sole somehow. Lastly, many traditional designs had a very simple lacing system, basically a length of buckskin thonging to wrap around the lower leg several times and tie off. I wanted proper parachute cord laces and lacing tabs to pull the moccasins in tight and give me a better fit. With all this in mind I took some inspiration from Ellsworth Jaeger’s book which has several excellent moccasin designs and plenty of moccasin related information. The illustrations are quite cartoony and there is one character who frequently pops up in full buckskin garb, wearing a natty little pair of pucker toe moccasin/boot hybrids. His little cartoony feet became the inspiration behind my new footwear.
I based the bare bones of my design around the ‘pucker toe’ moccasin worn by the woodland tribes of North America. There are other, simpler designs that I had made before such as the side fold ‘mitten’ moccasin but I liked the way the puckering lifted up any stitching to the top of the foot, well away from ground level where it might leak or wear more quickly. I had also decided to use a liquid rubber mixed with shredded sticky rubber granules to paint a hard wearing, grippy sole onto the moccasins and I quite liked the idea of being able to extend this waterproof surface up the sides slightly and seal the stitching on the heel tab. Although in theory, buckskin costs nothing in monetary terms, it is priceless to the person who has just made it so not wanting to end up with a ruined buckskin, my initial attempt was to be made using calico stitched together with wool and a darning needle. Using this method, I could get the fit just right with the added advantage of being able to take the prototype moccasin apart and use it as a working pattern. After playing around with the puckering method and adding uppers and a sewn in ‘bellows’ tongue I felt confident enough to mark out my first moccasin on a nice, thick fallow buckskin and cut out the five pieces that would form it’s basic structure.
Pucker toe moccasin pieces showing foot placement. A-foot section. B – vamp tongue. C – upper. D – bellows tongue wings
My attempts at neat puckering weren’t quite as good as planned. It’s a difficult technique to master as you can see from the images, especially with thick buckskin. Each stich on the tongue vamp (B) corresponds with a wider spaced partner on the front foot section (A). As the stitching is pulled tight, the foot section ’puckers’ up to make the toe box. At this stage the moccasins were beginning to take shape but also looking worringly like a pair of granny slippers! The vamp, now stitched in place extends to form the tongue and soft, thin ‘wings’ (D) were sewn onto the sides of this for joining to the upper (C) later, forming a ‘bellows’ tongue. It’s worth pointing out here that due to the thickness of the fallow hide, I had soaked the buckskin to make it easier to crimp and sew the puckering. Even with pre-made awl holes, the needle proved difficult to push through two thicknesses of hide so a pair of blunt pincers proved invaluable.
Having worn my woodland moccasin/boot hybrids several times in the last twelve months I must say that they certainly bring you closer to nature. The detail of the woodland floor can be felt with every step! The small packable size makes them perfect as back up footwear or for silently padding around camp. I’ve been using a selection of home-made buckskin equipment for several years now, knife sheaths, pouches and various bags and looking down at my moccasined feet I’m starting to think the fashion might be spreading. Will I get away with the trousers too? I think I just might…