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?
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)
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):
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!
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:
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:
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:
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!