January 01, 2019

A Winter's Tale (mostly about valenki)

A Winter's Tale (mostly about valenki)
Asya Lisina

For us out here in the country, winter is always a joy. Because, well, there’s snow, and snow’s always better than rain. Then, when the hut’s all covered with snow, it’ll be warmer, like under a blanket. Minus twenty outside, the sun’s shining like mad, throwing blue shadows across the white snow. Thin tails of smoke drift upward from the chimneys, like someone’s sitting in the stove with a cigarette and blowing the smoke up into the sky, a sure sign of a cold snap. In winter, no surprise here, everybody stays home – except the small fry. They have a blast, careering down all the hills, whooping it up, and shrieking. They ride their little sleds and those who don’t have sleds slide right on their behinds. And then there are all the dogs – even they’re having fun.

But you have to dress special in winter. See, if you’re in a city, there’s subways and there’s cars, so you could go barefoot or run around in your undies, there’s no way you’re going to freeze. Not in the country, though. Stick your nose out there, and you’re done, it’s darn near frozen off. The gals bundle themselves up in shawls. The one underneath is an ordinary cotton print and the one on top is a thin knit. For workaday life, either brown or gray, but for days off or to go to the club, a bleached, crocheted affair. No villager in living memory has ever worn a fur coat. Sheepskin jackets, yes. But they’re heavy on the shoulders, which is fine for somebody on guard duty, where you’re standing in one spot, or for a policeman. But our folks keep it simple – a quilted jacket and away you go.

Valenki are something else altogether. In Russia, those felt boots are as near as you can get to the number-one footwear, after regular leather boots. The old ’uns who used to roll the felt for valenki were held in high honor. You need a sheep’s fleece, but only from the spring shearing, and you have to prepare it just right. First you have to lay the whole thing out and give it a good eyeballing, let your experienced fingers feel what kind of fleece it is. Thick or poor and paltry? Then it goes on the wool carder. To this day there are still some barnlike outbuildings with comb-looking things installed inside. You put the fleece on it, and that doohickey rakes it through, taking out all sorts of debris, and you end up with a sheet of wool. That’s peeled off the carder, formed into a loose tube, and taken to the workshop. There they spread it flat on a table, divide it into equal pieces (one for the left foot, one for the right), and they stretch the wool out just so and then start beating it with a stick to make the wool cling together. That’s called “fulling,” which is valyat in Russian, and that’s likely where the word valenki comes from.

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