Saturday, 29 November 2014

Russian Winter: The Days of Felt Boots

‘Instead of giving me presents, why don’t you repair my valenki?” a girl asks her sweetheart in a Russian folk song.

What was this valenki, more precious to the people of Old Russia than any gift?
Valenki (plural) are traditional Russian felt boots. In bitterly cold weather, they successfully compete with modern hi-tech footwear. In wintertime, many Russian towns celebrate the Valenki Day to pay respect to these excellent winter boots.

The technology of making valenki came to Russia from Asian steppes where they were worn by nomads. Although valenki are considered traditional Russian shoes, they became widespread in Russia less than two hundred years ago.

The making of valenki is very time consuming, complicated, and requires special skills. In the beginning, sheep’s wool is cleaned and mashed by hand or with special tools, then put into salt water, and only then formed up to needed size and shape. After the boots were made, they were put into a warm stove “to breathe.” The process of making the boots had some secrets known only to professionals.

Valenki in the old style that Russian people have worn for hundreds of years

For a long time, valenki were considered the best winter gift: feet in them simply cannot get cold. When worn, they take the form of a foot very fast, and the material absorbs moisture. With the right care, a person can wear them their whole life and give them to their children and even their grandchildren.

In the last century, valenki were thought of as old-fashioned but recently they have become popular again. In every Russian shoe store, there are several types of valenki: short and long ones, high-heeled, with rubber sole to walk on a wet snow, for everyday wear and for special occasions, in different colours, with applications and embroidery, and even with lace.

Russian designers have brought valenki to the high fashion shows, working with traditional as well as with modern materials.

Modern valenki with embroidery

If you plan to travel to Moscow, visit a Valenki museum where you can learn much more about them and see hundreds of exquisite examples of this unique Russian footwear.

How to choose valenki
Buy valenki one size bigger than your foot size. They have to be worn with a woolen sock with some room for air. When wet and dried, valenki might shrink. When choosing, look carefully on the valenki: they have to be without stitches. If they do not have rubber sole, you can wear them only on dry snow.

How to care for valenki:
Wear valenki only if the temperature outside is less than -10C; they do not like wet snow. To wear them longer, ask a shoe maker to put the second sole on them.
After returning home, brush valenki to clean them from snow (usually with a mitten or a broom) and let them dry (do not dry them on a heater because they can shrink or become stiff). If valenki are dirty, use a special soap solution to clean them or give them to dry cleaners.

How to store valenki:
Dry valenki thoroughly, put one or two moth balls inside, stick some newspapers into them tightly to absorb moisture and protect them from deformation, then put valenki into a plastic shopping bag and knot the bag tightly. In summer months, take valenki out couple of times and let them sit outside for an hour.

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