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Making Mukluks: The Satisfaction of Warm Toes

Sep 12, 2011

by Linzee McCray

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

In these waning days of summer, when a sleeveless shirt and sandals are still comfortable, it’s hard to conjure images of bitter cold. But in just 90 days, a lot of us will be pulling on our winter coats and trying to keep our fingers and toes toasty.

As much as I hate to acknowledge those days ahead, I thought about it earlier this month on a visit to Ely, Minnesota, which abuts the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA)­­. This million-plus acres of restricted logging, mining, and motorized access was set aside in 1979 for canoeists, campers, and dogsled enthusiasts, and the town has built its economy around catering to their needs. There I asked resident Patti Steger how she tolerates living where average winter temperatures are below freezing for months at a time and often dip below zero. She assured me that anyone can enjoy winter, as long as they’re dressed for it.

Patti should know — she’s lived in Ely for more than 30 years and makes her living bringing warmth to the toes of townspeople and those in cold climates worldwide. She’s the owner of Steger Mukluks, a company that she started in her home in 1985. Today, Steger Mukluks sells between 8,000 and 10,000 pairs of moose hide mukluks annually.

Patti Steger

Patti on the 1983 expedition to the Northwest Territories.

Patti came to Ely from her native Wisconsin in the late 1970s, after meeting explorer Will Steger. They married and lived in a rustic cabin with no running water on a lake outside of town. The property was accessible only by foot and canoe. Will was planning the first of what would eventually be five expeditions — traveling to the North Pole, carrying all his supplies by dogsled. On this first trip, Will and his five co-adventurers outfitted themselves, crafting dogsleds and gathering gear at Army surplus and Goodwill stores. Patti, who in Wisconsin had had a business sewing motorcycle saddlebags and canvas chairs, stitched anoraks, parkas, windpants, tents and dogsled bags, booties, and harnesses. To test them in Arctic-like conditions, they traveled in 1983 to the Northwest Territories of Canada, and in Yellowknife Patti learned to make kamiks — sealskin boots — from an Inuit woman. When she returned to Ely, Patti switched her focus to mukluks — boots of smoked moose hide — made in the style of Northern Cree Indians. Mukluks are lightweight and much warmer than winter boots with stiff soles, according to Patti.

“You know how you shake your hands if your fingers are cold to get circulation going?” she asks. “The flexible soles of mukluks let your feet roll and rotate, which triggers circulation. I haven’t had cold feet since I started making them.”

Patti wasn’t the only Northern Minnesotan looking for a way to maintain warm toes.

“When I first started offering mukluks to people I’d measure their feet and make them one at a time, with leather they’d bring me,” she says. “I never thought people would buy so many pairs, and try as I might, I couldn’t keep up — they’d sell so fast.”

Patti wanted to expand, but first she had to figure out a way to put her mukluks into production without losing any of their effectiveness.

Linzee McCray

A Steger Mukluks employee stitches fur to mukluk uppers.

“The quality had to remain high and they had to be made the right way,” says Patti. In 1987 she opened her first storefront. Today, she’s in her third location, and in addition to her shop she oversees a factory where mukluks are still stitched by hand. Though Patti no longer sews, she designs the mukluks.

“There’s nothing that’s been designed in a vacuum,” she says. “I always reach out to people, I’m always trying to fill a need.” A recent example is Camuks, mukluks designed for hunting. “I had a friend who hunts and was wearing 20-year-old mukluks and he kept asking me to make them,” she says. “I was resistant at first, but there must have been a need, because they’re doing well.”

Patti’s designs have evolved over the years, and she’s made modifications for style as well as comfort and warmth. “At first I had short and tall boots in three or four colors and women asked if we could make them more stylish,” she says. The result is mukluks that combine moose hide lowers with uppers that incorporate handmade braid, faux fur, colorful boiled wool, and fringe.

Linzee McCray

A display of finished mukluks

As a business owner, Patti’s committed to the environment, but she’s also a pragmatist.

“I buy a lot of wool, cotton, and leather, and I try to use as many American-made, natural, and organic fibers as possible,” she says. “But you have to make decisions and choices.” She’s also committed to Ely and employs 35 full and part-time employees in an isolated town where good jobs are challenging to find. She’s renovated an empty building on the town’s main street to house her shop, and although she and Will Steger are no longer married, they remain close friends. Steger Mukluks has both sponsored and outfitted Will’s subsequent expeditions.

Watching her business grow has been gratifying for Patti — she supplies mukluks to the Danish Sirius Patrol, Harrison Ford and James Taylor own pairs, and people all over the U.S. and the world buy them through her website (Minnesotans are her best clients, followed by Wisconsinites and Alaskans). But contributing to her customer’s quality of life is what drives Patti.

“People tell me ‘I never had warm feet til I got mukluks,’ and I never get tired of hearing that,” says Patti, who used to teach winter survival courses. “Knowing that they have confidence that their feet will be warm and comfortable is a huge reward.”

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2 Featured Comments

  • blainedesign

    blainedesign said 5 years ago Featured

    It is so interesting that part of the mukluks' effectiveness is due to the action of the foot inside the shoe -- a perfect example of the brilliance of traditional design. Thank you!

  • JennasRedRhino

    JennasRedRhino said 5 years ago Featured

    One of the elective classes I took in high school was "Skin Sewing"; classes like this are one of the few advantages of growing up in rural Alaska. The teacher allowed me to make mukluks, and in our region the soles are made of oogruk (bearded seal). This stuff is hard when dry, and you have to soak it before you can sew the upper boot on. Patti's boots are much more practical. The soles look like they are slip resistant (oogruk is super slippery) and water resistant and my mukluks were just a tad bit stinky.... did I mention that urine is a component in traditional tanning processes?

50 comments

  • VintageEyeFashion

    VintageEyeFashion said 5 years ago

    Fabulous story! My toes are warm just reading this! :)

  • madebynanna

    madebynanna said 5 years ago

    Beautiful cozy boots!!

  • MariaElena

    MariaElena said 5 years ago

    Ihave a pair and they are the warmest boots I own, i highly recommend them , and they are beautiful to wear/ Ely is also home to Wintergreen Northern wear, that makes beautiful and amazing anoraks. http://www.wintergreennorthernwear.com/

  • rebourne

    rebourne said 5 years ago

    Super awesome! Inspiring woman who knows her business and craft very well. I spent two weeks canoeing and portaging the Boundary Waters as a teenage girl. It was so intense and awesome. Ely was a cute little town!

  • SweetandDandyVintage

    SweetandDandyVintage said 5 years ago

    Beautiful story...beautiful boots! I'm a total sucker for mukluks!! I wish you much continued success!

  • beliz82

    beliz82 said 5 years ago

    Beautiful boots and great story Thank you for sharing :)

  • blueeyedartist

    blueeyedartist said 5 years ago

    I live in northern Bemidji, MN where it's winter six months out of the year.. What I wouldn't give for a pair of those mukluks! Great story! :)

  • scarletbegonia11

    scarletbegonia11 said 5 years ago

    amazing story! Now, how do I find her shop/mukluks?!

  • AntwarePottery

    AntwarePottery said 5 years ago

    Somehow this article had me wondering about the meaning of handmade. I suppose me garments designed and subcontracted by privately own company in LA and sewn in some unidentified sweat shop had been hand designed an individually assembled by hand (with the use of sewing machine).

  • paramountvintage

    paramountvintage said 5 years ago

    one of my favorite winter boots. what a great article!!!

  • anotherghostquilts

    anotherghostquilts said 5 years ago

    Linzee, fascinating! I've always loved mukluks. Will have to buy a pair! Thanks for the great story.

  • sparrowgrey

    sparrowgrey said 5 years ago

    Love those boots; and such a wonderful story behind them.

  • blainedesign

    blainedesign said 5 years ago Featured

    It is so interesting that part of the mukluks' effectiveness is due to the action of the foot inside the shoe -- a perfect example of the brilliance of traditional design. Thank you!

  • yukonron

    yukonron said 5 years ago

    I am on my second pair of Steger mukluks, having worn out the first. I wouldn't live in Alaska without them!

  • AvianInspirations

    AvianInspirations said 5 years ago

    Very cool! Anyone that takes joy in warm feet is A-Okay by me!

  • myvintagecrush

    myvintagecrush said 5 years ago

    mmmm, coziness!

  • yukonron

    yukonron said 5 years ago

    Scarlet Begonia 11, you can check out their website here: http://www.mukluks.com/ They have a pdf catalog you can download, or you can request a print catalog. They have always been very helpful and friendly over the phone, as well.

  • bhangtiez

    bhangtiez said 5 years ago

    Great story! They look soooo cozy!

  • MegansMenagerie

    MegansMenagerie said 5 years ago

    Beautiful winter boots! They look so warm and cozy!

  • Colettesboutique

    Colettesboutique said 5 years ago

    What a great story! Love those boots!

  • TheHappyPapaya

    TheHappyPapaya said 5 years ago

    I have to say that the icicles hanging down from her eyes and eye lashes make me think that even if the rest of her is warm, her face sure looks cold! But those boots do look inviting. If I were ever going to live somewhere with harsh winters, I'd get me some of those; not those ugly uggs that seem to be so common.

  • TwinkleStarCrafts

    TwinkleStarCrafts said 5 years ago

    Wonderful! The original Uggs but done so much better!

  • steinschmuckdesign

    steinschmuckdesign said 5 years ago

    wish I could get a Pair, I am always freezing in Winter!

  • TheIDconnection

    TheIDconnection said 5 years ago

    Your boots look so warm! I want some :)

  • Mclovebuddy

    Mclovebuddy said 5 years ago

    love those. their perfect for up north near the boundary waters and international falls where the arctic winds sweep down from the north pole across the few thousand lakes. i love portaging and canoeing there in the summer. it's beyond beautiful there.

  • soule

    soule said 5 years ago

    I want a pair now!

  • VLliam

    VLliam said 5 years ago

    Absolutely beautiful boots and a terrific story.

  • breadandroses2

    breadandroses2 said 5 years ago

    These are fabulous boots but I am not at all ready to think winter yet! Hat's off to the brave souls of the north country. Thank you so much for adding my scarf to your picks!

  • SunnyDayDiggs

    SunnyDayDiggs said 5 years ago

    Indeed.., Mukluks are a MUST in the northwoods !!!!

  • Officeboy01

    Officeboy01 said 5 years ago

    I can only imagine how warm that boot will keep you. Nothing is as bad as cold feet. I not ready for winter yet, still to hot to think about the cold.

  • Officeboy01

    Officeboy01 said 5 years ago

    The tree on the next article is huge. Hard to believe the way man has to destroy environment there are trees that can still grow that large. All in the name of profit.

  • tiltomorrow

    tiltomorrow said 5 years ago

    Wow, I really like these boots. Would really keep you warm and cozy. I wonder if i could ever have a pair of boots like these?

  • PattiTrostle

    PattiTrostle said 5 years ago

    Love the boots. Great article. Love the collection.

  • MadeinMogotes

    MadeinMogotes said 5 years ago

    Lookin' cozy!

  • fbstudiovt

    fbstudiovt said 5 years ago

    Hooray for Patti! Living in northern Vermont, I totally get the fact that winter is great if you're dressed for it. For the first 8 years or so that I lived up here, I refused to give up my cute high heeled boots and adorable thin wool trench coats with no hats because they messed up my hair. And then my husband said the smartest thing I'd ever heard - I'm cuter with a hat than I am without ears after I lose them to frostbite. Now I wear thick boots, heavy jackets (still funky and vintage, but seriously warm) and lined pants. Heck, I've even embraced carhartts! And you know what else I've embraced? Winter. So rock Patti, and thanks for making winter enjoyable for a whole lot of folks!

  • kathrynNORDSTROM

    kathrynNORDSTROM said 5 years ago

    I drooled over her catalog last year... Need to save up for a pair to go along with my Sorels :)!

  • Iammie

    Iammie said 5 years ago

    Gorgeous! But we don't have a chance to wear them here in such a hot weather in Thailand.

  • TrulyJulie

    TrulyJulie said 5 years ago

    So interesting and just amazing. I have always loved the mukluk style! Thanks.

  • dekoprojects

    dekoprojects said 5 years ago

    I prefer these mukluks without any unnecessary additions. Those with fur are just ridiculous.

  • MsSquid

    MsSquid said 5 years ago

    Sad that you focus on a Caucasian American woman who makes them, as opposed to the people who first created Mukluks.

  • stepbackink

    stepbackink said 5 years ago

    What a wonderful article. I will buy a pair, my feet freezes in the winter because we are out everyday looking for vintage items in all winter wet and cold weather conditions :)

  • exclusivelyhannah

    exclusivelyhannah said 5 years ago

    I totally want a pair!! they sound so dreamy warm!!

  • BanglewoodSupplies

    BanglewoodSupplies said 5 years ago

    Love the boots!

  • LittleWrenPottery

    LittleWrenPottery said 5 years ago

    Yikes looks cold! A good pair of shoes is one of the best ways to get through winter. brr...

  • IndiiRocks

    IndiiRocks said 5 years ago

    incredibly warm looking and stylish!!! surely better than uggs!!!

  • Zalavintage

    Zalavintage said 5 years ago

    Brrrr.... makes me think of walking in cozy slippers warmed by a crackling fire

  • TheScarfTree

    TheScarfTree said 5 years ago

    Amazing and they look so well made and looks like they will perform the needed job on the coldest winter days! All the best to Patti and her business! (Not sure how she keeps up with the demand)! Thanks for sharing your story!

  • JennasRedRhino

    JennasRedRhino said 5 years ago Featured

    One of the elective classes I took in high school was "Skin Sewing"; classes like this are one of the few advantages of growing up in rural Alaska. The teacher allowed me to make mukluks, and in our region the soles are made of oogruk (bearded seal). This stuff is hard when dry, and you have to soak it before you can sew the upper boot on. Patti's boots are much more practical. The soles look like they are slip resistant (oogruk is super slippery) and water resistant and my mukluks were just a tad bit stinky.... did I mention that urine is a component in traditional tanning processes?

  • moccasinsandmukluks

    moccasinsandmukluks said 5 years ago

    Yes, making mukluks and hand made foot wear it one of the most rewarding crafts. Mine are hand made in the traditional native way. I love what I do, and how they make people feel. Good to see there are others out there who feel the same way, too.

  • stavti

    stavti said 5 years ago

    Are this beautiful boots also good for city winter? I am in NYC, and need boots that will be very warm but also with good traction. I need a bit more info before buying them. I will appreciate your answer. Thanks!

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