Comfortable, casual, and above all, reliable, moccasins have been an everyday favourite for centuries.
The charm and appeal of moccasins has rapidly spread around the globe, so we’re taking a closer look at this popular shoe to learn more about its origins and the interesting history behind its design.
What Are Moccasins?
The origin of the moccasin lies with the Native Americans. Occupying the North American continent since 10,000 B.C, the vast continent’s varying climate made it necessary for them to find protection for their feet. Necessity being the mother of invention, the slipper-like moccasin was created.
Being a resourceful people, the Native Americans found a way to transform the unused remains from their hunting catches into footwear. Moccasins were originally made from the tough, inedible skin of deer, moose, elk, or buffalo and then stitched together with the animal’s sinew: the tendons or ligaments.
Moccasins were built to be durable so they could withstand long periods of travelling, while also being comfortable for the wearer. The leather would mould to the shape of the wearers’ foot and the sole allowed them to feel the ground beneath their feet without the risk of cuts or scrapes.
How Were Moccasins Made?
In their most basic form, moccasins had leather soles which were brought up around the sides of the foot and sewn along a central seam. A U-shaped piece of leather would be added to the front of the shoe, while another piece was added to the back to serve as a cuff.
The weight of the leather was crucial. Too light and the moccasins would not withstand everyday wear; too heavy and they would be impossible to sew by hand. Today, in modern designs, a leather weight of about 3-4 oz. is standard.
Holes were punched through the leather with an awl (a small pointed tool made of bone) and then sewn with sinew using a specific stitching technique coined ‘whipstitch’. Stitching was done while the shoe was inside out so that it was hidden, but knots were left on the outside ensure maximum comfort for the wearer. Sometimes a welt was added along the seam to hide it and reinforce the moccasin’s strength.
Moccasins were first designed with unique surrounding environments in mind, leading different tribes to have different designs. The Eastern Woodland Indians of North America resided in what is now known as states like Tennessee and Kentucky. They designed moccasins with soft soles and constructed each shoe from a single piece of leather. These were ideal for walking on the ground covered with leaves, pine needles and other foliage found in those areas.
Western tribes from areas like Arizona and California crafted moccasins with harder soles made from rawhide. The thicker hide was more difficult to sew, but the Moccasins were sturdier and protected their feet from cacti and jagged rocks. Sometimes they had a turned-up toe to stop sharp objects from injuring the foot.
Different Moccasin Designs
It wasn’t just the cut and construction of the moccasins that differed — decorations varied too. Although some were left plain, many featured beautifully intricate beading, fringing, and paints to stunning effect.
Moccasin patterns were subtly different in nearly every tribe, and the Native American people could often tell each other's tribal affiliation simply from the design of their shoes and sometimes even from the footprints they left behind.
Generally, everyday moccasins were more likely to be simple, while moccasins worn for special occasions like marriage ceremonies were often completely covered in beads, right down to the soles.
Other adaptations made use of rabbit fur or sheepskin lining for warmth. These types of moccasins were then attached to a pair of leggings to create the illusion of a boot. Often, they sewed on decorative panels that could be removed and attached to another pair once those shoes were worn down. Some moccasins featured a trail of fringing (known as a duster) added to the back to get rid of footprints.
Today, the basic concept of the moccasin has remained popular and is seen as a more casual shoe. It’s not uncommon to spot shoe hybrids that have taken inspiration from the Native American design, much like ankle boots with fringing, for example.
The design for moccasins is relatively similar and most are still crafted from leather. Perhaps the biggest change is colour — dyes are now widely available so they are made in a variety of different shades, including chic, contemporary styles like Minnetonka’s white penny moccasin.
Some moccasins have a fur or faux-fur lining and are designed to be used as slippers, their comfortable design making them ideal for this purpose.
With such a wide variety of styles, there’s a moccasin out there for everyone. Looking at the craftsmanship that goes into their design, it’s clear to see why moccasins continue to grace the feet of people around the globe.