Take your tanned animal skins one step further by turning the leather into comfortable, durable footwear.
Story and photos by Dennis Biswell
For thousands of years, we’ve been using tanned animal skins to protect our feet. The oldest known leather footwear is a 5,500-year-old center-seam moccasin that was discovered in an Armenian cave. Perhaps the most famous ancient leather footwear is the 5,300-year-old pair found on the feet of Ötzi the Iceman. In 1991, his body and belongings were discovered emerging from a melting glacier in the Ötzal Alps on the Austrian-Italian border.
In the October/November 2016 issue, I described how to turn deerskins into leather. Now, I’ll explain how to use that leather to make a pair of lined side-seam moccasins. This style of moccasin has several advantages. The moccasins are made from one medium-sized deer hide. The style doesn’t place much stress on any of the seams, so deer leather is a perfect material to use. For sewing moccasins, you’ll only need to use one type of stitch, a whipstitch, which is easy to master. The finished product is attractive, comfortable, and warm. Whether this is your first project or you’re an experienced leather worker, follow these instructions to turn your deer leather into moccasins, and then you, too, can take a walk on the wild side!
Before you begin cutting and sewing your moccasins, here are a few tips:
• Always test a new pattern by first forming a pair of moccasins with felt or denim and your lining material. This way, you’ll be able to test the fit and practice sewing bulky material before cutting any of your home-tanned deerskin.
• Use the thicker leather from the neck, shoulders, back, or hips. Deer leather from the sides, belly, and legs is just too thin.
• The membrane side, or the sanded side of the leather that was next to the muscle, will become the inside of your moccasins. The grain side, or the smooth side of the leather, will form the outside of your moccasins.
Most of the items you’ll need should be available at either a hardware store or a craft and hobby store. Gather the following tools: lightweight work gloves; needle-nose pliers; hammer; ruler; pencils; matches or lighter; carpenter’s square; medium and small binder clips; latigo or leather lace; number 2 Glover’s needles; artificial sinew; scissors; leather shears; nontoxic, water-based contact cement; large sheets of craft paper (you can also substitute newsprint, butcher paper, or grocery sacks); a tin of mink oil or smooth leather conditioner; and lining material. For the lining, I prefer a khaki-colored fabric called sherpa suede, which looks like shearling. You can also use short-hair, hair-on tanned leather for the liner. Rabbit, muskrat, or sheared beaver make excellent liners. If you tanned the lining material, all the better!
Find a small round stone to use as a seam dresser. The best stone for this project is one that’s about the size of a chicken egg and has a round surface as well as a flat surface.
Finally, get your tanned deerskin and let’s step to it.
1. Make patterns.
Supplies: Craft paper, ruler, pencil, scissors.
These patterns can be used over and over. Label the patterns and put your name on them. After your family and friends see your moccasins, you’re going to get requests. Make individual patterns for each person.
Start by making a pattern for soles. If you’re going to wear socks with your moccasins, wear a thin pair when tracing your sole pattern. Lay the paper on the floor and step on the middle of it with your right foot. With your weight evenly distributed, have a friend trace around your foot. Repeat with your left foot.
Straighten the outline’s curves by laying a ruler on the outside edge of the big toe to the edge of the heel and drawing a straight line between them. Move the ruler to the other side of the outline and draw a straight line from just outside the little toe to the outside edge of the heel. Smooth the toe bumps by drawing an arched line that touches the top of each toe. Then, cut out the sole patterns.
Before starting your moccasin pattern, lay your right and left sole patterns on top of one another. If there’s less than a 3/8-inch difference in length and width between your sole patterns, you can make one moccasin pattern and use it for both feet. If there is more than a 3/8-inch difference, make a moccasin pattern for each foot.
Get a large sheet of paper at least 3 inches longer and four times wider than the sole pattern. Fold the paper in half lengthwise and crease it. Lay the inside of the right-foot sole pattern (big toe to heel) so it’s 3/4 inch to the right of the crease and the heel is 3/4 inch from the edge of the paper. Trace the sole pattern onto the paper.
Set the sole pattern aside and use the ruler to mark 3/4 inch beyond the big toe, middle toe, and little toe, and on the outside of the base of the little toe. Connect those dots by drawing an arched line from the crease through each mark. Stop at the mark on the outside of the little toe and use a ruler to draw a straight line to the edge of the paper at the heel. Cut along the line and, when finished, unfold the pattern.
You’ll make the tongue and ankle cuff patterns later.
2. Cut the leather and liner.
Supplies: Leather, lining, leather shears, scissors, moccasin pattern, pencil.
Lay the leather on a flat surface, membrane side up. Place your moccasin pattern on the leather and trace around the pattern. Move the pattern to another spot and repeat. Cut out the moccasins. Then, cut the lining.
3. Cement the liner and leather.
Supplies: Moccasins, lining, contact cement, binder clips.
Lay the moccasins on a flat surface, membrane side up, and then lay the liner, finished side up, on the moccasins. Check the edges to see how well they fit. If adjustments are needed, trim the liner.
When the edges are even, clip one side together. Fold the liner back from the unclipped side, apply cement, and stick the leather and liner together. Remove the clips and apply the contact cement to the entire surface of both the leather (membrane side) and the liner backing. Next, stick them together. You’ll want the entire surface of the liner to be cemented to the leather so the liner doesn’t pucker and shift when you wear the moccasins. Then, do the other half. Allow the cement to cure before moving to the next step.
4. Sew the moccasins.
Supplies: Moccasins, artificial sinew, number 2 Glover’s needle, binder clips, needle-nose pliers, gloves, matches or lighter, ruler, hammer, stone.
In this step, you’ll sew the moccasins with the finished side in, dress the seam, and then turn the finished side out so the seam is around the outside of the moccasins.
Lay the moccasins on the table with the liner side up and the toes or arched part facing away from you. Pick up the right-foot moccasin, fold the left half under the right half, line up the edges, and clip them together. Pick up the left-foot moccasin, fold the right half under the left half, line up the edges, and clip them together. If this is confusing, get a feel for the process first with felt or denim.
You’ll want more than enough sinew to sew the entire seam with one piece. If your feet are men’s size 12 or smaller, use 6-1/2 feet of sinew, and if they’re larger than size 12, use 7-1/2 feet of sinew.
Beginning where the seam meets the fold (closest to the big toe), whipstitch the seam, stopping at the corner at the outer edge of the heel. Tie off the sinew and dress the seam (see "Stitching Techniques"). Don’t sew the heel seam closed at this time. Turn the moccasin right side out by working the toe through the moccasin and out the open heel.
5. Form the foot hole.
Supplies: Leather shears, pencil, ruler.
Here’s what you’ll be doing in this step: cutting the hole for your foot at half the width of the moccasin and about half the length from heel to toe. After it’s cut, the foot hole will look like a capital T. You’ll have achieved the correct fit when your toes are close to the end and there is a 3/8- to 1/2-inch overlap at the back of the moccasin.
Place the right-foot moccasin on a flat surface so the toes are facing away and the seam is to your right. Gently push down on it to flatten it a bit. Measure the longest part of the length (middle toe to heel), divide that number by two, and write the final number down. Now, measure the width at the heel. Divide it by two and make a mark at that spot. Move the ruler a couple of inches toward the toe and make another mark at half the width. Line up the ruler on those two marks and, measuring from the heel, make a small mark at half the length. Draw a line from the heel to the half-length mark.
Cut the top layer of leather and liner along the line to about 1/2-inch short of the half-length mark. You’ll probably need to cut it a little more for the correct fit, but first you should test the fit and then cut more only if it’s necessary.
After the fit is right, make relief cuts by snipping at a right angle to the line about 1-inch in each direction. This will complete the capital T. Test the fit and make the relief cuts larger if necessary.
Place the left-foot moccasin so the toes are facing away from you and the seam is to your left and repeat the process.
6. Fashion the heel.
Supplies: number 2 Glover’s needle, sinew, lighter or matches, gloves, leather shears, contact cement, binder clips, hammer, stone.
Unspool 4 feet of sinew. This will be enough to sew the heel, tongue, and relief-cut sides. Clip the heel seam together. Starting from the top and sewing toward the sole, whipstitch the heel seam to 1 inch from the sole, tie it off, and dress. Next, make a 3/4-inch-long cut just below the knot and perpendicular to the seam. Be sure to cut both layers of leather. Fold down this flap, remove the liner, and round the corners. Then, cement this flap to the moccasin.
7. Finish the tongue and relief cut.
Supplies: Craft paper, scissors, number 2 Glover’s needle, sinew, lighter or matches, gloves, leather shears, contact cement, binder clips, ruler, carpenter’s square, pencil, leather, lining.
The tongue should be 4 inches tall and 3/4 inch wider than the relief cut. Measure and make the paper pattern. Transfer to the leather and liner and cut. Cement the liner to the membrane side of the leather. After the cement is cured, attach the tongue by slipping it into the moccasin with the liner side of the tongue against the moccasin liner (the liner should be sandwiched between leather). Position the tongue so there is equal overlap on both sides of the relief cut. Whipstitch the tongue to the moccasin. Next, whipstitch the edges of the relief cuts. Pull the tongue up and out of the moccasin and whipstitch around the three edges of the tongue.
8. Crafting the ankle cuff.
Supplies: Paper, scissors, number 2 Glover’s needle, sinew, lighter or matches, gloves, leather shears, ruler, carpenter’s square, binder clips, pencil, leather, hammer, stone.
Measure the length around the foot opening and add 1 inch. To form the cuff pattern, make a rectangle that’s this measurement wide by 4 inches tall. Transfer the pattern to the leather and cut.
I prefer the cuff with its membrane side out. I think it makes a nice contrast. Position the cuff around the foot opening with the membrane side out and each edge overlapping the relief cut by about 1/2 inch, and then clip it into place. Use 4-1/2 feet of sinew and whipstitch the cuff to the opening. Pull up the cuff and dress the seam.
9. Add finishing touches.
Supplies: number 2 Glover’s needle, sinew, leather laces, leather shears, binder clips, lighter or matches, gloves, hammer, stone, mink oil or smooth leather conditioner.
Turn down the cuffs so the lower edge just covers the cuff seam and clip them into place. There will be some overlap of the two sides of the cuff at the tongue. Cut away the overlap diagonally until a gap of about 1/2 inch remains between the two sides of the cuff. Cut 3 feet of leather laces. Thread the lace under the fold and clips. Leaving room to rethread a replacement lace, whipstitch closed the edges of the cuffs, next to the tongue. Rub mink oil or a smooth leather conditioner into the moccasins.
On long winter nights, when you’re relaxing by the fireplace, your feet feeling comfy and warm in your handmade moccasins, you can take pride in the fact that you’ve added another ability to your DIY skill set.
You can use several techniques to stitch leather. I prefer to wear a pair of lightweight gloves with reinforced fingertips. I then poke the needle through from the opposite side (with the point toward me), and after the needle is partway through, I use needle-nose pliers to pull the needle and sinew through. Others push the needle through so that they’re working the needle away from them. If you’re new to sewing leather, experiment to find what works best for you.
You’ll also need to master a whipstitch to tie and finish the seam. To begin, unspool the length of artificial sinew. Tie two half-hitches near one end, and, using the matches or lighter, singe the sinew up to the knot. Thread the needle by pulling only about 6 inches of sinew through the needle. You’ll be using a single strand for sewing. Hold the material you plan to sew with its edges facing you. Poke the needle through all layers of the material, about 1/8 to 3/16 of an inch from the edge, and pull the sinew tight to the knot. Bring the needle over the seam and poke it through all layers of the material, about 3/16 to 1/4 of an inch from the previous spot you poked the needle through. Poke the needle through the same side each time. Pull each stitch tight. Repeat until you’re a couple of stitches from the end of the seam. To tie off the end, poke the needle halfway through the material. Wrap the sinew around the sharp side of the needle three times. Pull the needle and sinew through the loops to make a knot, and pull it tight. Move to the next stitch and repeat. Remove the needle and tie a loose half-hitch in the sinew. Using the needle inside the loop of the half-hitch, work the knot down to the previous knot and pull it tight. Do this one more time. Cut the sinew about 1/4 inch from the knot and singe the sinew up to the knot. Dress the seam by holding a stone against the inside seam and gently tapping the outside of the seam with a hammer. Tap the entire length of the seam twice.