There are Sheepskin Boots and then there are “sheepskin boots!"
One only has to type “sheepskin boots" into any major search engine to be inundated with what seems like hundreds of retailers - all of whom are only too anxious to relieve you of your hard earned cash in return for a pair of sheepskin boots. But with so many different brands to choose from how do you know you are making the right choice? There seems to be every type of boot on offer, in every price bracket - from those costing as little as a few pounds all the way up to the top branded makes costing a few hundred pounds per pair. How can you be sure that you are getting value for your money and does quality really matter when buying a pair of sheepskin boots?
To answer these questions we need to start at the very beginning of the sheepskin boot making process - that is we need to start with the sheep!
High quality sheepskin boot manufacturers use the skins from Merino sheep which are universally regarded as providing the best quality wool and skins. The Australian geography and environmental conditions are uniquely suited to rearing Merino sheep of the highest quality and this is why the best sheepskin boots are made using only genuine Australian Merino sheepskins. The hides from Merino sheep tend to be thicker and more durable and the wool itself is very dense with excellent shape retaining properties. They therefore lend themselves very well to the manufacture of boots with their ability to endure wear and tear whilst at the same time keeping their shape and good looks for many years.
Sheepskin, also known as shearling fleece, is actually a fur - it has leather skin on one side and wool fur on the other. The sheepskin wool is embedded into the leather and because it is attached to the skin real sheepskin does not shed, pull out or wear off. Sheepskin wool is soft, resilient and naturally thermostatic - the wool fibres are hollow and capable of absorbing up to 30% of their own weight in moisture without feeling wet to the touch. The fibres wick moisture away, enabling it to evaporate through the leather outer and this natural “breathing" ability ensures that your feet remain comfortable and dry whatever the weather.
Similarly during cold weather the sheepskin fibres trap the heat of your body inside the boot thereby providing excellent insulation whilst at the same time the free flow of air between your feet and the sheepskin eliminates any clamminess.
Real sheepskin has many wonderful properties. For example did you know that it is non-static, flame resistant, wind proof and that the leather side is naturally water resistant? It also drapes beautifully and will return to its constituent shape - this means that over time your sheepskin boots will mould themselves to the shape of your foot offering you a customised fit. And as if that were not enough, the high naturally occurring lanolin content in the wool acts as a moisturiser so you can even moisturise your feet as you walk!
The Making of the Boot
Another factor to consider when choosing sheepskin boots is the actual process of converting a sheep's skin into a workable boot making material. This is a much more involved process than most people realise! First the sheepskin has to be trimmed and washed to remove the dirt. It is then put through a fleshing machine which cuts off the flesh and fat. Next stop is a detergent bath which removes any remaining dirt and fat after which the skin is pickled in a pre-tan bath - this expands the skin and turns it into leather. The skin is then refleshed to clean the leather one more time before the final tanning process where tanning agents are added to allow the skin to become washable and heat stable. The skin is then tested for shrinkage, put through a sammy machine which presses out the excess moisture and improves the skin's shape, dried again, then dry cleaned with white spirit before being spun and hung out to dry. The next step is to dye the skin in a bath of dye to which has been added acids which allow the dye to fix to the wool fibres, then the skin is given a final rinse, sammied and hung once again to dry. Once dry the skin is buffed to clean the back and improve the appearance and the wool is combed and sheared to a uniform length. The combing and shearing process can be repeated many times until the desired effect is reached. Then, and only then, are the sheepskins ready to be made into boots!
Are Man Made Alternatives Better?
Man is a competitive beast and likes nothing more than trying to go one better than mother nature by tinkering with her treasures and trying to improve them. Indeed there are many occasions when man-made fabrics make for a much better product than anything found in the natural world. Take ski wear for example - the massive strides made in the manufacture of lightweight, breathable yet waterproof clothing has revolutionised the ski wear market. Now you can stay out all day in layers of moisture wicking undergarments, lightweight fleece sweaters, and Gore Tex coats and pants which have been specially designed to keep you warm, dry and comfortable no matter what the weather or how many times you fall over!
However, Man does not always know best! Especially when it comes to sheepskin boots! Cheaper types of sheepskin boots are made using a layer of wool or synthetic fleece material which has been glued onto pig or cow hide. This is then brushed up and is often loose enough to be pulled away from the backing which enables it to wear away when the boots are worn. This synthetic sheepskin does not breathe and results in the unpleasant sweaty feet problem of cheap boots. It is impossible to copy synthetically the astounding list of natural qualities found in real sheepskin but unfortunately these cheap boots are often marketed as “Sheepskin Boots".
So as you can see real sheepskin is a marvellous product - just ask any sheep! Don't accept pale imitations - insist on high quality sheepskin boots and they will be an investment which you can enjoy year after year. Manufacturers of quality sheepskin boots will be happy to tell you where their sheepskins come from - it is only the man-made sheepskin boot manufacturers who will be evasive with this information.
So, Bottom Line?
Yes! Quality does matter when buying sheepskin boots. You don't have to buy the most expensive make of boot but you do need to be sure of where the makers got their sheepskins from. If you want real quality and value for money then invest in a pair of boots made from genuine Australian Merino sheepskin and you will be able to enjoy them for many years to come.
(c)2005. Sue Madelin is the owner of The Snug Stop , purveyor of finest quality Australian Merino sheepskin boots, and a huge fan of her many pairs of Warmbat sheepskin boots. http://www.snugstop.com