What’s in a boot?

A few things have been on my mind lately. Technology, Mastodon, Twitter, MOOCs, upcoming conference presentations, data, privacy, analytics, SPLOTs, open, research and backups. Gardening, drawing, kids, sleep, freedom, control, choice, culture and sewing. Swirling, swirling.

Today, as I thought about our expectations of technology, for it to work seamlessly and ubiquitously, for it to scale and without flaws, I started thinking about boots.

These are a couple of the winter boots, also called Sorels, still kicking around the garage today. With five kids, I have lost track of the number of these boots I have owned. Too many. And if you never wear anything but Sorels, they work. Your feet stay relatively warm and they are easy to slide into. I grew up wearing these boots and for the past 10 years my kids have been wearing iterations of these same boots.

Long, long ago I lived in the North (the really, really North). When you live in the North and you go to the store, you will find winter boots that look just like these ones. Same country, same boots.

But we wore something better, handmade kamiks and slippers, something that could not be bought in a store. Some of their benefits should be obvious from the picture below. They are hand-beaded, embroidered, hand-sewn, and far prettier.

Others differences are less obvious. Sorels are heavy and you trudge through the snow. Kamiks are light and allow you to run. Sorels fall off and get lost in snowbanks; kamiks are tied on. Kamiks can be worn inside, just shake off the snow and walk in without leaving ugly puddles behind. Kamik’s can have fur lining making them far warmer than their store-bought counterparts.

When my kids were two years old and put on their first pair of ‘real’ boots after a winter in kamiks, they needed several days to learn how to even walk again.

Two different kinds of Northern footwear. One commercially mass-produced, the other handmade. Kamiks were by far the more functional choice in the winter months. But not sold in stores.

All of those kamiks and slippers were made by women for their family members. Some of them have been passed down for several generations. Others were made by my mother-in-law and several pairs I made with her help.

The costs of materials to make a pair of kamiks is probably similar to the cost of a new pair of Sorels from the store. The added up-front costs of kamiks is in the labour of the women who make them; their value is in their longevity.


Boots from the store last for certain amount of time and then break or no longer fit. Then we throw them out or send them to a thrift store or give them away. We expect the manufacturer to meet our needs and when they don’t we move on. Their lifespan is short. We never expect to fix them. They are part of our disposable world. I’m sure I’ve bought at least two new pairs of boots every year for the past 10 years. (As I said earlier – too many)

Kamiks are treated differently. They too break down over time often getting holes in the soles or breaking at the seam. This type of damage is expected over time.









Seams are taken apart and resewn when possible. Soles are patched when the holes are small and replaced when needed. As the soles are replaced they can be made bigger to accommodate growing feet. Sometimes fur or bead work need to be repaired and replaced. As a result, the most labour intensive part of the footwear can last and be reused for many years, even generations. Although the work that went into it was not paid for with money, it is highly valued and appreciated and treated with respect.

Every pair of kamiks and slippers I have has a series of stories. I know who did the beadwork or embroidery and usually who or what inspired it. In the things I have sewn, I can show you the mistakes that I made and how we covered them up or built it into the design. If you look closely, you can see the beads that started a colour that have faded over the past 15 years. When I smell them I can remember going to buy the moosehide with my mother-in-law, how carefully she looked them over and how she chose the best one. It was expensive, but it was thicker so the soles would last longer.  The smell of the smoked hide filled the space as we sewed. We combined a local style of kamik and some techniques from a girl who was staying with us from a community closer to the Eastern Arctic, so we all learned together and created something new.

My four year-old daughter was then let lose in the snow to test them. The first iteration did not have laces. When that didn’t work, laces were added. Sewing was always both participatory and iterative process. My mother in-law who always cut patterns by eye told stories of her mother in law who could use her hands to size someone and then cut without any paper pattern at all (they didn’t have a lot of paper). It was an honour to participate in the sewing process.

I return to today’s conversations about technology that doesn’t do exactly what we want it to (and right now). A world where we express frustration about the privacy and control that is being taken away from us in exchange for tools that suffice (but are not good).  I think about the lies that we buy into. I wonder when / why technology became a product rather than a process. And why we continue to let that happen. I cringe at the hand-wringing and crave action.

I think about how much would be lost if Inuvialuit women put down their sewing needles and chose only to buy the clunky boots they sell in the stores, if they chose to believe that time spent sewing has no ‘real’ value: Stories, problem-solving, creativity, community-building, sharing and kids running fast in the snow.

I realize that I need to teach my daughters to sew.


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