Valenki – The original Russian footwear. However, it didn’t emerge in Russia as long ago as people think – it only emerged in the 18th century – but quickly gained popularity. It was invented in the Yroslavl and Nizhni Novgorod provinces, which were called pimy at that time. The handicraft received the name of pimokatstvo, the craftsmen were called katali and stiraly, according to their functions.
Valenki is a winter footwear with high boot tops of wool felt. Its convenient, and, in particular, insulative properties were widely appreciated, which is not surprising given the severity of Russian winters. Ordinary people and royals alike would not refuse a pair of felt boots during severe frosts.
The making of traditional valenki is an incredibly time-consuming and unhealthy process. In the beginning, sheep wool (cow and horse wool sometimes was used) was manually pinched into small pieces, then the wool was "beaten" to separate fiber and clean out dirt. Then the wool was laid out on wet canvas and flattened with a wooden rolling pin to produce felt.
The resulting felt was soaked in a weak solution of sulfuric acid, boiled in cauldrons, rubbed on a special ribbed board and beaten with a stick. The resulting boot, greatly reduced in size, was put on a boot tree and left in an oven to dry. For smoothness, the finished boots were treated with pumice stone.
Sometimes village girls chose their future husbands depending on their felt boots’ quality and condition. If a guy wore valenki (they were not cheap) and they were not torn, the guy was considered a good match.
Nowadays, valenki are made in Elets, where the handicraft arrived 200 years ago. A boot felting factory operates there. It produces all kinds of valenki imaginable: traditional gray, black or white, painted in different colors, decorated with lace, embroidered with thread and beads. The product range also includes souvenirs.
Felt boots of gray (dyed or not dyed black) wool were considered the most durable, and those of bright, sun-bleached, bleached with chalk or milk and whitewashed were the most beautiful, but less suitable for everyday wear.
Valenki production has not been forgotten in the Prokopyevsk district of the Kemerovo Oblast, in Kineshma of the Ivanovo Oblast. The Yaroslavl boot felting factory operates in the city of Yaroslavl.
There are even valenki museums in Kineshma, Moscow and Myshkin!