Class gives students chance to learn ancient art of boot, shoemaking

Jon Jaehnig/For the Gazette The workshop was taught by Johani Mannisto and Air Tylli, both third-generation cobblers who teach the trade in Finland.

The Lapland boot and shoemaking class at the Finnish American Heritage Center in Hancock came to a close on Wednesday. During the eight-day workshop, ten students learned how to make “Lapland Boots.”

The tall leather boots with pointed toes were popular in Finland during the period that Finnish immigrants came to the Upper Peninsula. The pointed toes, which allowed the boots to be easily worn with Finnish-style cross country skis, quickly became a sign of Finnish identity.

Many areas with high Finnish representation became known as “Shoepack Allies” – an anglicized version of “Suupaksit,” the Finnish word for “shoes.”

“We landed on this boot project because it’s a very visible sign of Finnish identity,” said Jim Kurtti, Director of the Finnish American Heritage Center. “Long ago, a lot of people made boots like these at home in these areas.”

Since then, the art has been almost lost.

Jon Jaehnig/For the Gazette A concluding eight-day workshop at the Finnish American Heritage Center saw ten students from the local community to hand-make a style of boot that was popular among the Finnish during the first arrival of Finnish immigrants to the Copper Country.

“When we offered the class, we wondered if we would have any interest but we ended up having full enrollment,” said Kurtti.

The class was taught by Johani Mannisto and Ari Tylli, Finnish cobblers who may be the last people in the world teaching this method of shoemaking. They work full time as cobblers in Finland.

“It has come from my grandfather. He was a shoemaker and my father was a shoemaker,” said Mannisto.

Mannisto and Tylli have been professional instructors in the art for the last ten years. While they sometimes travel to Sweden to teach, this event was their first overseas class.

“I have learned about these people; that there is a certain demand for this type of boot. There is a certain demand among the Finnish Heritage people,” said Mannisto. While students learning to make the shoe take eight full days to learn the craft, Mannisto and Tylli could complete one pair each within two days.

Mannisto teaches a traditional method of making the boot that would have been employed in the eighteenth century. The method uses seven square feet of leather, hand stitching, and uses wooden pegs instead of glue to hold the sole to the shoe.

“You can’t say that [the boots] will last forever but they will last a lifetime,” said Mannisto. “They will wear down but they will never break.”

Becka Hoekstra, one of the students who took the class, hopes to put that to the test.

“I’d like to wear them around, as long as they fit,” said Hoekstra.

Hoekstra heard about the class in the Finnish American Reporter and was interested in learning the craft as a testament to her own Finnish heritage.

“We measured, but you’re never going to know for sure until you put them on,” she said.

Hoekstra also said that after the class she would like to try to make another pair out of a softer leather. That is the kind of dedication that the class instructors would like to see.

“The whole thing is to bring the traditional Nordic arts to our area and develop our own folk artists – tradition bearers,” said Kurtti.

The Lapland boot and shoemaking class was a part of the Finnish American Heritage Center’s Finnish American Folk School, and was supported by a grant from the Margret Cargill Foundation.