18 January 2008

Valenki (Russian Felt Boots/Slippers)

There was a really exciting exhibit here that I'm really excited to be able to tell you about. We had actually tried to go to it twice - first, we came down with that coldplague, then we did actually go there, walking quite a distance in -18C cold, only to find out that an exhibit that was set up for only 6 weeks had decided to close for more than 2 weeks in the middle of that time. Such is life.

The key point is that we finally made it there again, and they were open this time!

So what the heck am I talking about?

Valenki!

What the heck are valenki?

Traditional Russian felted boots (or slippers). These are truly felt, not fulling - they're not knitted, then shrunk. Raw wool is felted directly onto a foot-shaped mold using soap, water, and apparently a wooden washboard type thingy for agitation. Also (and this was news to me) the word can also be used for the kind of footwear made when wool is pressed into flat felt and then sewn together to form boots or slippers.

The wool in question is *very* rough - much rougher than any of the wool we would use for knitting. It feels like rug wool or perhaps rougher. It's very thick - the finished felt I saw was thicker than a quarter inch, but slightly less than a full centimeter (of course I measured - wouldn't you?).

The exhibit was put on by the "Museum of Russian Valenki" which has a website here (Russian language only, but there's an online gallery here). The exhibit I saw was in a different location than what is apparently their physical museum, and was very low on explanatory information, but at least they were really nice about letting me take pictures! And the one display showing tools was sufficient to confirm what little I did know about methods:

(as always, click for bigger)

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

There was also not a whole lot of actual old, "traditional" valenki. We were told that very few examples survive thanks to moths, etc. I should point out that Russian curators and archivists, in my experience, have a different idea of what's worth displaying and what isn't. I wouldn't be surprised at all if they had a ton of old valenki that were fascinating for their structure or for the techniques used, which they would never consider displaying either because they have a few moth holes or because they're not particularly heavily decorated. Sigh. Anyway. Here are the only examples of "old" valenki from the exhibit (no dates were offered):

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

This one appears to have been decorated with red yarn - my guess is that the boot itself was made through felting (not fulling) like the others, then the design was sewn/embroidered on with red yarn, then they were felted a little further. But I'm just guess from looking at it closely.

These are a cool idea!

Photobucket

The rest of the exhibit consisted of perfectly new valenki that were decorated in a variety of ways. I'll be honest - I thought nearly every single pair was hideously ugly. However, the techniques used to make or decorate them are fascinating. Take the basic idea of felting rough raw wool into a foot shape or fabric as common to all, on top of that base nearly every fiber technique I can think of was used in one way or another to elaborate on or decorate that basic idea:

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

In addition (actually it was probably the point of the exhibit), they had some other valenki available for sale. These were made at factories in other towns, and I absolutely plan on visiting those factory stores at some point (though it probably won't be soon). The ones they had here were very pricey, especially the (much prettier) handmade ones, and we just couldn't afford them right now. Maybe next time. Here are a pair of the very beautiful handmade ones:

Photobucket

We did buy a pair of the cheapest kind, which are machine-made and not as pretty, but the two very thick, hard, solid layers of felt for the soles are impressively sturdy and warm:

Photobucket

I'm obsessed with the search for ever thicker layers of wool to put between the soles of my feet and the cold floors of our apartment. I've been wearing these non-stop since we bought them, and I've very satisfied!

I'm out of gas now (after an afternoon of wrestling with the camera, photos, etc), but just wanted to say - thank you all for your wonderful comments and congratulations! There were various questions which I'm not ignoring (or rather, not planning to ignore forever) - will try to address some of those next time, along with some other fun things I have in mind....Anyway, you guys are the best, thank you!

19 comments:

Nichole D. said...

Wow, cool! It looks like a fun and interesting exhibit. How awesome that they let you take pictures! Thanks so much for sharing with us.

cheryallison said...

Very interesting and beautiful footwear. Thank you for sharing your pictures.

punkin said...

I have just found your blog and it is very inspiring. This post on the felted boots/slippers is fascinating. I have been thinking about starting a project similar to this.

EnnaVic said...

Awesome photos and interesting post - thanks for sharing your visit.

LadyLungDoc said...

I love the Disco Valenki! My Ukrainian grandparents used wore Valenki - I remember my mother and aunt joking about a pair of red Valenki meant to be worn inside rubber boots.

kate said...

This was interesting - I would have loved to see more examples of the old Valenki. Some of the newer ones were a bit garish.

Raveller said...

Thank you, Kate! About the first photo, under your text, "Here are the only examples of "old" valenki from the exhibit (no dates were offered):" I saw an identical pair in a photo in a book last week. They have that kind of cowboy boot heel. It was a photo taken by Ilf of Ilf and Petrov around the late twenties or early thirties. So, that must be what people wore then.
Also, there's a wikipedia article on valenki with photos that show that the felt part can be fit into a rubber galosh. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valenki

I love it! Stay warm, Helena

LizKnits said...

Just stopped by to today to see if you were back and I see you are! Big congrats on the job... welcome to academia. My advise is to find someone you can relate to and adopt them as your mentor. The first several years as a faculty member are tough and it helps alot to have someone to chat with.

Nettie said...

Those are fantastic! I especially love the house with all the details so perfect.

sandra said...

Just found you on Ravelry and found your photos very interesting, especially as Russia Today on satellite TV had a film about these recently.Keep blogging and knitting!Best wishes.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this great article. In December or November the Moscow Times had a big article about it too and it's now "in" to paint them and wear them on the dance floor. I was wondering how you can dance with boots like that. deborah

f. pea said...

ha! those are fabulous. i'm having a hard time picking favorites, but i did really like the ones with the dancing mice.

geraldine said...

it's great!!! i love the plane with the mice!!!!!!!

felting-maniac said...

I've just found your blog on Ravelry and it is very interesting!
This post about Valenki is great.

I'm Russian :) Where you from?

vi said...

thank you so much for these pictures

i too am obsessed with putting layers of felted wool between me and the cold floors.

i am knitting felted clogs and boots from the fiber trend patterns one after another

i started to research russian felted boots and found you

these pictures are an inspiration

vi

Gabrielle Marsden said...

holy felt! this is great stuff!
I wanna try to make some slippers now

Anonymous said...

Absolutely great report! Valenki are perfect winter footwear, believe me. By chance, I found a pair in Soviet style at www.rusclothing.com. And happy with it!

Erin said...

Seems like a great exhibit. You should get some russian hats to go with it!

Camilla said...

Wow this is really interesting! Where was this exhibit? Were all of those items Valenki?