Experimental Archeology: “Scythian” Felt Booties and Stockings of the Pazyryk Altai

My passion in the SCA is the study and reconstruction of Pazyryk Altai material grave goods. The Pazyryk Altai culture was located in the Altai mountains in around 450 BC, and is often referred to as “Scythian”. They were a nomadic herding culture, with no written language. This presents some challenges to the study of this culture, and over the twenty-plus years that I have been studying “the Scythians,” more and more resources have become available. This presentation will show my process along the path of making a more period appropriate felt bootie, and the current evolution of my bootie creation.

The Altai is located where China, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Russia meet.

I first fell in love with these Pazyryk booties in 1998, when PBS aired Nova’s “Ice Mummies- Siberian Ice Maiden.” After watching it when it aired, I ordered a VHS tape from PBS. While I was waiting for it to arrive, I made my first pair of felt booties. These were 3D felted with pre-dyed wool roving. Mistress Sigrid tutored me through the felting process on a cold winter day in her garage. I took them home and covered them with gold colored plaques and embroidery. here they are today, after 20 years of wear. I do not wear them anymore, but have kept them, because they show my progress.

The VHS tape of The Ice Maiden documantary arrived, and I proceeded to wear it out re-watching it. I realized that while I had made a cool looking pair of felt booties, their construction was all wrong. It was not until 2005 that Polosmak published her finds, and it was few years after that before I was able to obtain a copy of her book, “Costume and Textiles in the Pazyryk Altai”. Khalja gifted it to me as a thank you for making her laureling outfit in 2011. It was published in Russian, so I had some great new photos to look at, but not much more in terms of accessible information. I approached friends to translate the book, but that never materialized. Finally, Google translate technology developed enough that I was able to take photos of text and translate it little by little.

Meanwhile, I began my experiments in bootie making, crafting several pairs of booties for SCA friends for special occasions. these were all creative interpretations of extant booties, made to include SCA specific symbolism. I made incised leather soles for them to allow the wearers to wear them at events without being scared of ruining them.

As I began to translate Polosmak’s book, the COVID Pandemic hit, and we were isolated in our homes. I had people asking me about how to make booties, and would I please make some videos. I started my “Sheep to shoe” video series on my YouTube channel. My daughter was my camera woman and co-conspirator. For the duct tape pattern-making video, we Zoomed with Baroness Constance so that she could ask questions as we progressed. These videos are not super professional, but they do the job. They cover my felting process, and making a duct tape pattern off of your foot. The playlist can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLahktjDAnMos6yyrv0S-8LiFRJHVRk48x

Once these videos were made, it was time for me to return to the Polosmak book, and figure out which booties I wanted to re-create. I chose two, because, well, more is better, right? The first was the pair of booties that the Ice Maiden wore. They are white felt thigh-high booties with a red sole and red appliqued designs around the mouth of the upper. They also have an oblique braided cord covering the seam between the upper and the vamp.

After getting the duct tape onto my foot, I drew seam lines on the tape where you can see seam lines in the photos above. I opted to make the uppers out of one piece, rather than add the appliqued strip to the top later. In order to create a wide enough toe box to pleat onto the sole, I had to get creative with how I cut open the toe piece of the duct tape. Time to trace the duct tape pattern onto butcher paper for a reusable pattern.

See photos below for details.

With that done, it was time to cut into some felt. I cut the vamp and uppers out of white felt, which left me scraps to dye and make the red soles and applique pieces. I used store bought Rit dye to do that. I had it in the house, and wanted to use what I had on hand, because, pandemic.

The first step was to sew the back seam of the vamp up. I used woolen thread that I spun on a drop spindle. Next was to sew the sole onto the vamp. This was also done using handspun wool.

For the pleating of the toe box, sinew was used in the extant piece. I used a heavy duty upholstery thread to do the pleating because it was sturdy enough and it was what I had on hand. I used the handspun to tack the pleats onto the toe of the bootie.

I need to weave the oblique plait and sew it down along the seam between the upper and the vamp, and these booties will be finished.

Time for the second set of booties!! For these, I wanted to tackle one of the colorful and intricate appliqued stockings featured in the Polosmak book.

Photo of the extant stocking from Natalya Polosmak’s “Costume and Textile in the Pazyryk Altai”

I followed the same process outlined above for these booties. The major difference in process of these booties is that once the applique is sewn down, each piece will be surrounded by stem stitch embroidery in wool, and decorated with chain stitch embroidery in wool.

These booties are still in progress. I need to finish the appliques and embroidery, attach the vamps to the uppers, sew the upper seam shut, and cover the vamp to upper seam in a woven band. (I also will need to weave that band.) I suspect it will likely take me a year or so to finish these, as there will be hundreds of hours of work involved in these last steps.

In closing, I hope that you enjoyed this peek into my creative process, and I am excited to talk about this with anyone that has any questions. Thanks for checking out my Atheneum presentation!!

Achaxe, OL An Tir


Citations

  1. Polosmak, Natalia “Costume and Textiles of The Pazyryk Altai” Infolio Publishing, 2005
  2. Rudenko, Sergei I. “Frozon Tombs of Siberia, The Pazyryk Burials of Iron-Age Horsemen” University of California Press, 1970
  3. Nova, ” Ice Mummies- Siberian Ice Maiden” 1998

9 Replies to “Experimental Archeology: “Scythian” Felt Booties and Stockings of the Pazyryk Altai”

  1. How comfortable do the boots feel with the pleating gathered under the toes or near the ball of the foot? I imagine it’s either not noticeable at all or VERY noticeable when you walk…

    1. I don’t notice it at all. but I haven’t worn them for extended perios of time yet. I know that Duchess Miranda has almost worn the soles through on hers, so they must be fairly comfy.

  2. That is fascinating work! How much color information did Polosmak’s book give you on the original shades of wool applique used for the second set of booties? I can see a yellow cast on the image–but were they dyeing the base wool color along with using colorful applique bits?

    1. I think the base wool on all of the felt booties that have been found and published is white and undyed. There is info on dyes and dye plants in the Polosmak book.

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