European peasant footwear

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Bosnian opanci-oputaši

Bulgarian tsarvouli

Croatian opanky

Traditional shoes from Finnish Karelia

Macedonian opanci

Polish opanci

Serbian opanak

Serbian kosmajski opanak

Macedonian opanci, Skopje

Macedonian opanci, Struga

Italian

Romanian opinci, Maramures

Romanian opinci, Maramures

Bulgarian opinci, Vidin

Romanian opinci, Banat

Bulgarian obiele

Footwear worn by the inhabitants of a pre industrial society had to be made from natural materials which were readily available such as wood, leather or bark. The earliest types of footwear were made by each household for their own needs. By the 18th or 19th century many villages had a specialist craftsmen who made footwear for most of the village.  Industrial and urban shoemakers took over this craft at some point between the mid 18th to early 20th century depending on the location in Europe, and subsequently fashion footwear took over and was mass produced in factories.

Traditional outdoor footwear falls into 4 main categories depending on the material used and the form of construction:

  1. Sandals made from a single piece of leather or hide which were held on the foot by narrow leather ties or strings bound round the ankles.
  2. Sandals made from strips of bark and held on the foot by strings, called bast shoes  - found mainly in north eastern Europe and ex USSR countries.
  3. Clogs with a wooden sole and a leather upper - found in parts of west and north west Europe, Lithuania. UK, France, Netherlands
  4. Wooden clogs / sabots made of a single piece of wood that is hollowed out - found in the Netherlands, Baltic States, Denmark

In addition to these types of traditional outdoor footwear, slippers made of felt, or knitted wool were often worn indoors.

Factory made footwear fell into 2 main categories:

  1. Leather shoes
  2. Boots

Leather peasant sandals

Peasant sandals made from leather were worn throughout central Europe and the Balkans until the introduction of factory made footwear. The oldest forms of peasant sandals were made from a single piece of raw untanned leather (sheep, pig or oxskin). This was gathered to fit round the foot by threading a string made of hemp or a narrow leather lace along the edges of the leather and pulling this up to make pleats round the edge. This 'lace' then was wound round the leg often over a foot wrap or thick sock, and tied round the calf. Evidence for the existence of this style of footwear has been found in the form of clay models of feet, for example one was found at Turdaş, in Romanian dating from around 2500 BC, and from remnants of leather found in 9th – 10th century AD archaeological digs in Novgorod, Slovakia.

The styles of these sandals varied from region to region, and over time. The most basic style was that described above, although there were many regional variations in the exact methods of winding the laces or cords across the foot and up the leg. Over time various embellishments developed. The two pieces of leather were folded in at the front and joined with a row of stitching. This join could be either in the centre of the front or else towards one side.  This formed an enclosed front part of the sandal, hence giving more protection from the weather. In parts of Romania and central Serbia a longer piece of leather was used so the font folds could be joined to make a high curved peak at the front (called a gurgui in Romanian).  In some areas a tongue or 'T-Strap' was added which was a separate piece of leather joined to upper end of the front seam.  This T-strap has a slit in it so a cord could be passed through it to tie the sandal to the foot. From the early 20th century another second strip of leather was used to make a strap across the foot, which was passed through a buckle joined to the side of the sandal.

More recently, in some areas sandals were decorated with patterns stamped into the leather, or with metals studs , and extra decorative straps were added, for example in Slovakia, Poland, and parts of Romania

In the western Balkans a separate upper was added to the sandals. In Bosnia the upper was made from thin string, in Serbia and Croatia from very narrow strips of leather.

Peasant sandals were replaced by modern style shoes initially in urban areas from the early to mid 19th century, then gradually in villages from the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. After World War 1 in most places these were replaced by commercially produced footwear, although they still continued to be worn in rural areas, especially by shepherds. Peasant sandals could still be seen in villages in Macedonian near Lake Ohrid in 1980s and are still worn in some remote rural areas in Romania today.

Bast Shoes - Lapcie

Bast shoes called lapcie or lapti, were made of plaited strips of the inner bark (bast) of lindin trees, or from birch bark, which was shaped to fit the foot using a wooden foot shaped last. These were found mainly in north and eastern Europe, in Russia, Ukraine, Finland, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and parts of Poland. Wooden lasts have been found which can be dated to prehistoric times which shows the ancient origin of this type of footwear.  These shoes were still worn in rural areas until the beginning of the 20th century and are now sold as tourist souvenirs or worn by folklore performance groups.

There were two styles of bast shoes, one with low sides, the other with higher sides. These shoes were made every summer and were worn over foot cloths, fastened by cords or leather laces threaded through holes, criss-crossed over the instep and wound around the ankle or leg. They were worn mainly by men, and were considered sign of poverty in Russia, with the term lapti being used as a derogatory term for 'cheap and short-lived footwear and uneducated people'.

Bast shoes were found only as far west as the middle of Estonia. West of this there is no knowledge of using bark for making shoes or utensils.

Traditional footwear with wooden soles and a leather upper

The earliest know version of this type of shoe was called a Galloche or Gaulish shoe. Shoes with wooden sole & leather upper were recorded in England by the historian Strutt in 10th century. These developed into pattens which were made of a  wooden sole raised above ground by iron rings or wooden cross pieces and were worn by the wealthy in bad weather. These were recorded between 1415 and the end of the 19th century. In 1725 Samuel Defoe commented on the social distinction which had arisen between the lower classes people wearing clogs and the upper classes wearing pattens. In 1455 a petition was sent from members of the craft of patten makers in London to the king concerning the use of  timber aspe for clogs and pattens.

It is not know when clogs with leather uppers and wooden soles were first introduced into the north west of England but by the beginning of the industrial revolution in 1750 these were known to be worn. They were also worn by factory & farm workers in Wales & Scotland, north east England and Cornwall. 19th century industrialisation meant that clog wearing became more prominent as clogs were a strong cheap, weatherproof footwear for wear by factory workers. Clogs are still worn in England and Wales for folk and morris dancing.


The wooden sole was made from alder or occasionally sycamore, birch, or willow wood was used. The wood was cut into lengths called blocks. The sole was then shaped using a clogger’s stock knife by a ‘bodger’ ( a woodworker). The wooden blocks were left to dry & season in stacks for up to 9 months and then was taken to the clog workshop. The blocks were then shaped by hand to prepare the clog soles for joining to the leather uppers. This process was done by machine from around mid 18th century. Cloggers bought hides from merchants. Clog uppers were cut out of leather using patterns made of zinc, tin or cardboard. Once the upper was cut and stitched it was put on the last for 48 hours to form it into shape. It was sewn with wax hempen thread through holes punched in the leather. Finally a strip of leather, or copper called the welt, worting or rand was attached to the clog between the sole and the upper to make the clog waterproof. Laces were made of thin strips of leather or buckles were attached to a strap made of a wider piece of leather. Finally rubber soles or irons may be added to the wooden soles to prevent wear on the soles.

Wooden clogs (sabots) made of a single piece of wood

Solid wooden clogs, made of a piece of hollowed out wood are frequently associated with the Netherlands, but they were also worn elsewhere in northern Europe, from France to the Baltic states such as Lithuania.

Thanks to Bill Bolen whose questions about T-strap sandals led to me writing this page.

References

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© Eliznik2006, First issue Jun-06