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Plains Hard-Sole Moccasins

The Indians of the Plains wear this hard-sole moccasin which was developed as protection from the hard, and sometimes rocky, ground of the prairie that is their home. Normally constructed of soft tanned elk or buckskin uppers and supple, but tough rawhide soles, they represent one of the most highly refined forms of Native American footwear ever developed. This popular style of moccasin is both comfortable and durable for dancing, or everyday wear.

Many styles of construction, decoration, and other more subtle variations, such as tongue style, exist from tribe to tribe. Many times these subtle differences even exist within the same tribe, between various craaft workers. Since Cheyenne moccasin makers have for years been the acknowledged masters of the art, I have chosen to present the typical Cheyenne style of cut and construction.

If you prefer to make another tribal style, I suggest first hand research of old photographs and museum examples in order to produce accurately styled and decorated moccasins. There are many excellent books available with good photos and proper identification of footwear. Some of these include: A Persistent Vision-Conn, Quill and Beadwork of the Western Sioux-Lyford, Blackfeet Crafts-Ewers, Crow Indian Beadwork-Wildschutt and Ewers, Circles of the World-Conn, The Arapaho-Kroeber, Hau Kola!-Hail, and American Indian Art-Feder, as well as many others. There are also a number of excellent 35mm slides and photos available from some of the major museums which house large collections of American Indian material, such as The Museum of the American Indian in New York City and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Materials Required

Buckskin, 2 pieces approximately 11" X 12" each
Soles, Rawhide or Latigo
Shoestrings (leather thongs)

For the uppers, smoked, brain-tanned buckskin is the preferred material, but smoked Kootenai-tan is an excellent second choice. See my links page for Indian craft trading companies that supply brain-tanned buckskin. The next choice is commercially tanned buckskin, which has been widely used for some time. When selecting a hide, choose one that's not too thick, as these are too difficult to bead on, but that is soft and stretchable and doesn't tend to tear. Soles should be made of rawhide as it will outlast any other material, but, a good second choice would be a heavy harness leather or oil tanned latigo. When selecting leather and laying out patterns, try to ensure that the material for each moccasin has the same skin thickness and quality. This results in a nice, evenly matched pair of moccasins.

Step 1. First, draw an outline of your foot on a large piece of paper. Heavy butcher paper or a grocery bag works well for this. Stand with both feet even and your weight evenly distributed. This is easier and more accurate if you have someone help by making the outline for you. Keep pencil upright and draw your sole pattern as shown in Fig 1, approximately 1/4" to 3/8" longer than your foot. If you do not plan to wear socks with your moccasins, make the sole pattern approximately the same length as your foot. Usually part of the small toes and the protrudence on the inside of your foot just behind the big toe is ignored when drawing the sole pattern, and the inside line is almost perfectly straight. In this way the moccasins will form to your foot and ensure a snug fit. Make a centerline lengthwise down the pattern as shown in Fig 2.

A common tendency when first beginning to make moccasins is to cut the sole too wide. I recommend cutting just inside the outline of the sole on both sides. However, this does not apply to the length of the sole! I suggest that you use the general shape of the sole pattern shown in Fig 1 as a guide for drawing yours. Of course, this will vary somewhat with the individual's foot shape.

Step 2. In order to develop a proper upper pattern for your foot, cut a thin strip of paper and measure across your arch at the point where you would tie a shoestring. measure from the floor across the arch to the floor on the opposite side as shown in Figure 3. Find the middle of this measurement, place this point on the centerline, and transfer the dimension to your pattern.

Draw the pattern for the moccasin upper as follows: outline the toe area 1/4" to 1/2" out from the sole pattern. If the moccasins are to be fully beaded, allow 1/2" to 3/4". After you draw around the toe, make a straight line through the points for the arch measurement (Fig 4). Normally, the line of the arch measurement runs through the very center of the upper. Continue the pattern at least 1" - 2" past the heel. See Fig 2.

Starting at the heel, cut the pattern up the center line to the arch measurement (Fig 4). At this point, make a perpendicular cut 2-1/4" in total length (1-1/8" on each side of the center line). The resulting cut forms a tall "T".

Step 3. Cut out the entire upper pattern and transfer it to your leather, including the T-cut as shown in Fig 4. Turn the pattern over and do the same for the other foot. Be sure to mark the center point at the toe on your leather.

Step 4. Cut out the sole portion of the pattern, transfer it to the rawhide or sole leather, and cut out the soles. Again, be sure to cut one right and one left by turning the pattern over. Then mark the center point at each toe. Note: the smooth side of the sole leather will be on the outside of the moccasin. When using real rawhide, the hair side will be outside.

Step 5. Any decoration which is to be done to the uppers should be applied now. See my page for instructions on doing lazy stitch beadwork. The beading should be applied starting 3/8" in from the edge, and at an angle perpendicular to this edge. This allows 3/16" between the beadwork lane and sole, and 3/16" which is used in the whip stitch for added strength of the seam. The accompanying diagrams below show typical bead row layouts. After the beadwork is completed, you are ready to attach the upper to the sole by sewing inside-out. The decorative part will be face down while sewing as shown in Fig 5.

Step 6. Beginning sometime prior to 1900, a welt was sometimes added between the sole and upper of Cheyenne moccasins. Use of the welt was especially common in Southern Cheyenne mocs after 1900, due to the influence of Reese Kincaid, an early Indian trader at Mohonk Lodge in Colony, Oklahoma. This welt proctects the stitches and helps keep out dirt, thereby contributing to the life of the mocccasin. If a welt is desired (and I recommend using one), cut a 1/4" strip of buckskin that is long enough to go around your foot and slightly overlap in the back. Be sure you save enough soft, upper leather for tongues and tie strings.

Step 7. Before sewing, thoroughly soften the leather sole by bending it, concentrating especially on the toe area. This is more essential when using genuine rawhide than when using commercially tanned leather such as latigo, but should be done regardless of the material used. Now dampen the edge of the sole all the way around, and using the dull backside of a closed pair of scissors, scrape the edges very hard as shown in Fig 6. This is an old Indian trick and tends to thicken the edge, making sewing easier.

Step 8. Simulated sinew is included for all sewing other than beading. Cut a 3 foot length and split it in two, then roll it on your leg to make it round. Align the center points on the sole, upper, and welt as shown in Fig 7. Begin at this point and sew half-way down one side, then do the same on the other side. Use a whip-stitch as shown in Figs 5 and 7, keeping your stitches very close together. The best Cheyenne mocs are sewn with stitches that are approximately 1/16" apart, maximum. This gives a very fine appearance and makes the moccasin quite strong. Sewing is facilitated by first piercing a hole in the rawhide with a thin awl. Pull each stitch very tight so that the welt and upper are snug against the sole.

Step 9. After sewing completely around the sole, turn the moccasin right-side-out. Begin by pushing in at the toe and continue by pulling the heel flaps towards the toe. When using very thick, stiff soles, it may be easier if the sole is dampened with a wet cloth for a time. Avoid getting water on the uppers, especially if using brain-tanned buckskin! This is normally not necessary when using commercially tanned soles. Next, try on the moccasins. Be very careful not to tear the upper while turning. Take your time and work the sole through the moccasin.

Step 10. Now mark the leather at the heel, where any excess needs to be removed. An easy method is to simply put on the moccasin, hold the leather in place, and crease both pieces of the buckskin up the back of the heel with your fingernail. See Fig 8 for a detail view of this step. Cut just outside your fingernail mark to remove the excess leather. This may or may not be necessary, but most often is. Overlap the two ends of the welt, then sew up the back using a whip-stitch or baseball stitch. The method of sewing the heel seam is shown in Fig 9. For moccasins that are fully beaded with fully beaded flaps, the flaps should be cut to a shorter height as shown in Fig 10. Partially beaded moccasin uppers are never trimmed this way.

Step 11. Cut two tongues, using one of the styles shown in "basic patterns", above. Figure 11 shows the method of attaching the tongues to the moccasisns with a whip-stitch. Fig 12 shows the most common Cheyenne method of attaching the tongue, by creating a "false" welt. Cut two thongs long enough for laces, pierce small slits, then lace up your moccasins. Two methods of lacing are shown in Fig 10. If necessary, the sole welt can now be trimmed to make it even, so fold it down over the edge of the sole and cut it off even with the ground as shown in Fig 13.

Important Note: One of the most traditional finishing touches for Cheyenne mocccasins is the two little "tails" found at the base of the heel. These are formed from the two ends of the welt, but on moccasins made without a welt, they are sewn on as an addition. Your moccasins are now ready to wear!

Construction and bead work instruction for making a pair of Lakota plains Indian Moccasins. With Benjamin Sitting Bull And Charlie Laroux

Lakota moccasins from the 1800s:

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