Siberian clodhoppers

 Handmade woollen shoes against freakishly cold weather  03/27/2013, 13:12
Siberian clodhoppers
Photography by Alexander Bendukov

The secrets of the warmest winter footwear are hidden behind a high fence. Two huge Central Asian Sheepdogs guard several small wooden houses. Sometimes girls come here in their Lexus or Porsches to order «pretty, white» valenki, as the boots are known in Russian. Sib.fm’s correspondent spent a day in the workshop where they are «rolled» in the traditional way.

Ivan Lapin has blue eyes. He wears valenki all winter, even when he goes to restaurants. Just three years ago he was in the car business.

Valenki are traditional Russian winter boots made of wool felt. In the Urals and Western Siberia they are sometimes known as pimy

«In 2008, I lost everything and went to the wholesale market to see some friends who were selling valenki from Omsk. I asked if I could do a bit of selling for them and took their valenki to market,» says the craftsman. «Old women came and bought them, then brought them back. They were women’s boots, then turned into children’s — they shrank 3 sizes. I phoned the wholesale market and asked the guys ’What should I do?’ They replied, ’Nothing. That’s what valenki are like these days’.

One granny said in passing that ’in the old days people use to roll valenki in villages’. These conversations caught my attention. I thought that I’d buy some hand-rolled boots somewhere in the countryside and sell them on, to the joy of old ladies. I drove all around Siberia looking for them, but it turned out that no one rolls in the traditional way any more.

I found some old men in the Altai Region who still knew a thing or two. I worked for one of them as a farmhand, lived in the barn, looked after his cattle, and he taught me how to roll valenki in my free time. In fact, I’m still learning now.»

2 thousand roubles ($65) — the price of Ivan Lapin’s valenki

White valenki embroidered with coloured thread stand on the table next to us.

«They’re from the first year. I wouldn’t bother with ones like these any more, they’re not rolled properly. Squeeze the sole and it starts to bend,» Ivan shows us. «The ones we make now are stronger.»

Lapin manages 42 people. Wool is bought and processed in the Altai Mountains. The rough material for the boots is prepared here in Yeltsovka and the Maslyaninsky District. In the near future, Ivan wants to open two more workshops in the Chulymsky and Cherepanovsky Districts.

«All sorts of people came here to work. One girl was terrified of touching the wool. She said, ’What, you don’t wash it?’ Who washes it?! How are you supposed to explain that? Has she never seen sheep?» Nadyezhda Yakimova from Cherepanovo has been working here since August. She saw an ad in a local newspaper and decided to take the job. She sleeps here too, in a small room with two beds and a water cooler. She learnt the ropes quickly. Now she prepares rough valenki. «I worry every time I lay out the wool. It needs to be even so all the boots are the same. Spreading it out is the worst part. Rolling it later is child’s play,» adds Nadyezhda.

An outline is drawn on a long wooden table in black marker. Nadyezha lays out the wool on it. It takes one kilogram of soft wool to make one boot. If there isn’t enough wool in places, the boot will be rejected at the next stage of manufacturing.

«You know, it’s boring here, of course. The whole day on your own. On the other hand, it’s quiet and nobody bothers you. You can just get on with it,» says Nadia while working.

Each of the women can prepare material for five valenki and 15 slippers a day. In summer, they mostly make the latter. Last month, Nadia earned 27,000 roubles ($875) making these rough pieces.

170 thousand pairs of boots are produced by the Omsk Felt Footwear Plant

After Ivan checks their work on the thin areas that can be unsafe during the rolling process, they add more wool; a large cloth is spread out on the table. The wool is moistened with hot water and Nadia very carefully starts to shape the future valenki using a mould. They end up with a huge, plain wool sock. It will be further worked on in the next workshop, the steam-room.

Cats occasionally run into the room, which is filled with steam and tools, in search of warmth. Our «sock» is brought here and placed in hot water for 10-15 minutes. Then it is pushed onto the block and the «rolling» begins. The boot takes its shape over 40 minutes. Now it just has to be dried out.

«If you phone reception at the Omsk factory and ask them how much they buy wool for, they’ll say: ’Twelve roubles’. If you ask, ’What type of wool?’ they’ll laugh and reply, ’What difference does it make? We use it to make valenki’. But it makes huge difference to me, because I use it to make valenki! Valenki are a living thing,» says Lapin.

«Working with chemicals is a lot simpler. You can use any old hair: the hide of a cow, moulted fur, from dead animals. Everything joins together in the acid, but those valenki will never keep you warm. They have to be made without acid so that every single fibre stays alive. We’ve all got used to the fact that our feet get cold, but that’s not right.»

Ministers of the regional government often buy Ivan Lapin’s boots as presents. Last year, Gazprom Neft, one of the largest oil companies in Russia, made a big order for the holiday season.

Read this story
in Russian

«One day a couple came to see me about valenki: ’We’re going to send them to our son in Moscow’. ’Who’s your son?’ I ask. They answer, ’Aleksandr Pushnoi’ (musician and TV presenter).

One grandmother recently phoned and said, ’Ivan, give me my money back for the valenki. They’re too warm, I can’t walk in them!’ Now that’s the most important recognition.»

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