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Ojibwa moccasins: center seam/vamp.

In previous articles I have described two early Northern Cree moccasins made in the "simple vamp" type. This is a footwear type ideally suited for the rigors of subarctic conditions. A little bit farther south these same Cree people and a number of their neighbors had developed a more form-fitting moccasin type which I call "center seam/vamp", in that it has a longitudinal seam reaching from near or just beneath the toes, back to a small curving vamp piece (Fig. 1).


The exacting demands of pre-contact native clothing, a consequence of often harsh environment, emphasized extremely efficient use and protection. However, with the advent of European manufactured tools and materials received in trade, nature's burdens were sometimes alleviated and the footwear type now under discussion reached far to the north and west. Its most valued feature is simply superior comfort. This form-fitting Center Seam/Vamp moccasin thus became not only a reasonable choice, but often a preferred one. It did not always necessarily supplant existing forms, just added a second one to local footwear tradition. There is some evidence that this specific footwear idea was invented more than once in different parts of the continent. Also, there are some fairly exotic variations on the basic type, but for this article I shall concentrate on the most common form as found in the Northeastern regions.


A consistent feature seen in the center seam/vamp moccasin is the series of pleats or puckers where the body of the moccasin is joined to the vamp piece. This is a natural result of gathering the long edge of the bottom portion (the body) to the smaller circumference of the vamp. The heel area is easily formed with a vertical seam. In many early examples the bottom of the heel seam protruded in a point, a condition resulting from the natural rounded shape of the wearer's own heel trying to fit into the oblique angle appearing at the bottom of this seam. Eventually, this mildly awkward point was eliminated with a modest amount of tailoring; a lateral seam joining the vertical one at the very bottom of the heel (Fig. 2).

On some specimens, the vamp pleats are random, sometimes bulky, while in others they are quite precise. Much of the fine pleating encountered on moccasins of this region is simply a product of many years of experience in working brain tanned hide. The women shoemakers arranged the miniscule folds of hide required with nothing more than a trained eye for space and dimension (Fig. 3). Excellent examples of this moccasin type are decorated with a beaded vamp and collar, and the two variations best represented in the northern region are the geometrically beaded ones from the Dakota and Saulteaux Ojibwa on the one hand, and the floral beaded ones of the Great Lakes Ojibwa on the other. In this article I concentrate on the latter.



In one variation of this moccasin type, the pleats surrounding the vamp piece are so even and precise, one would suspect some unprecedented device or technique has been brought to bear. In fact, a very special technique is indeed involved, a draw string. The introduction of a cord of sinew or thread in a running stitch along the edge of the bottom piece (the moccasin body) through carefully measured equidistant holes, which is then pulled up towards the ankle and secured with a knot, produces a near perfect array of pleats. This however, is a complex subject deserving an entire article of its own, so I shall limit myself to the most frequently encountered center seam/vamp moccasin type. Other than the use of the draw string system, several methods contributed to well positioned vamp pleats; wetting the edge of the hide where it is to join the vamp while forming these little folds is one such. The slight stretching of this moistened area allows for great uniformity in shaping the pleats and helps maintain them when dry.

The Ojibwa moccasins which I feature here are a fine example of the type under discussion and are a part of the magnificent collection of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. These moccasins represent a late 19th and early 20th century style wherein such footwear was made strictly for dress up occasions, to be seen and admired, worn to dances and on formal occasions. They have no upturned cuff to protect the lower leg, but rather a purely decorative variation on the down turned cuff or collar. In this type the cuff is actually sewn on slightly above the level of the moccasin itself as is noticeable in Figure 1.

The vamp and cuff are multi layered. That is to say they consist of several layers of cloth alone, or of cloth covering underlying hide. The example here has a surface of velvet over which a floral overlay beaded pattern is applied. Silk ribbon borders the cuff and serves as the tie string as well. Dark velvet was widely employed in all parts of reservation period Ojibwa formal attire, dresses, shirts, leggings, even bags. Many Ojibwa moccasin vamps and cuffs are solidly beaded and present great beauty. However, I chose these more modestly decorated ones because of their combination of expert construction and fine appearance. They are of particular interest to me because an almost identical pair is in the collections of the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, catalogue number R 1898.1.

I have little doubt that both pairs of moccasins were made by the same woman. The specific beadwork styles appearing on Ojibwa material in different parts of their wide range often differs significantly from place to place. Sometimes the design elements are the same or similar, but are rendered differently. To my eye, the floral designs on these moccasins share some features with the Potawotomi of Michigan and Wisconsin, yet the outline of the blossoms themselves are not that different from Ojibwa moccasins of Northern Minnesota and Manitoba. Compare, for example, the floral beadwork applied to the Minnesota/Manitoba moccasins shown in Figure 4. These too are from the Bata Museum collection, catalogue # P81.0177.
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Author:Sager, David
Publication:Whispering Wind
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2007
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