Following winter fashion
[b]This years’ frosts have beaten all records, pushing people to recall the traditions of their forefathers and wear felt boots [/b]The only company manufacturing such footwear — Smilovichi Walk Mill — is working seven days a week to fulfil demand, since this has increased 15-fold on last winter. By mid-January, the company had sold its entire four-month stock, which had remained unsold just a couple of months ago. Today, the factory is working around the clock, loading dozens of trucks daily. It’s not just Belarusians buying the boots; orders are arriving from Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Sweden. In fact, between 30 and 70 percent of products are exported (depending on the season).
The only company manufacturing such footwear — Smilovichi Walk Mill — is working seven days a week to fulfil demand, since this has increased 15-fold on last winter. By mid-January, the company had sold its entire four-month stock, which had remained unsold just a couple of months ago. Today, the factory is working around the clock, loading dozens of trucks daily. It’s not just Belarusians buying the boots; orders are arriving from Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Sweden. In fact, between 30 and 70 percent of products are exported (depending on the season).
Hand-made work. Smilovichi has been making felt boots for over 85 years, using the same techniques of many years ago: there are 36 operations and, although some are mechanised (wool washing and combing) many still require handwork. However, the results are amazing; the lambs’ wool boots are ecologically friendly and keep feet warm even at temperatures of minus 30 degrees. The boots worn by our grandmothers were heavy, crude and grey, with rubber soles, but today’s modern Smilovichi-made felt boots come in a range of attractive designs. In fact, there are over 20 models of valenki — from simple versions to stylish fur-edged boots with appliquй decorations and polyurethane soles — even fashionable city ladies love to wear them.
Five years ago, the factory primarily produced boots for those employed in the oil and gas industry, as well as constructors and railway workers. Crude wool was used, in addition to obsolete production methods. However, the situation has gradually changed, with an Italian businessman involved in re-equipping the factory. He loves the exotic footwear so much that he has gladly contributed to its perfection. Now, the company has a modern line, attaching thermo-elastic soles. The four new machines have eased workers’ jobs while considerably cutting electricity consumption.
Meanwhile, the company’s range has enlarged beyond all expectation, with calf length and ankle versions, for men, women and children, in dark and light colours. Director Vasily Saban has been working with the business for two decades and admits that they experimented with new designs cautiously. The company worried that new models wouldn’t find customers. Accordingly, in 2008, just 2,000 new models were manufactured; however, all were sold. Last year, 170,000 boots were produced, of which, 30 percent were new models, each reaping 30 percent profits. “Demand has never been as great as it is this winter,” admits Mr. Saban, adding, “We’re seeing orders two weeks ahead — with prepayment! Winter will end but we won’t stop production; we’ll start preparing for the next cold season. Taking into account present demand, we’ll be able to produce more. The factory’s capacity is to manufacture up to 200,000 pairs of felt boots annually.”
Sheepskin worth processing. Obtaining the raw sheep’s wool is the company’s major problem now, since it needs to import from Dagestan, Central Asia and Belgium, with only 5 percent produced domestically. The only farm involved in sheep breeding in the country is Konyukhi co-operative (in the Lyakhovichi district).
Mr. Saban stresses that his factory would naturally choose Belarusian wool if it were available. Besides being of good quality, transportation costs are lower, which would reduce raw material cost by 40 percent. However, sheep are rarely bred in Belarus. In 1980, 400,000 sheep were being raised; today, this figure stands at a mere 6,000. Another 50,000 are bred by private farmers and villagers.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Food believes it’s economically unfeasible to breed sheep and a leading research officer at the laboratory of sheep and horse breeding at the National Academy of Sciences’ Scientific-Practical Centre of Animal Breeding, Piotr Drobyshevsky, confirms this with figures. Konyukhi owns pedigree sheep and sells wool at Br3,500 per kilo but spends about Br12,000 on food to receive this kilo. Previously, profit from selling mutton and wool was almost equal; now, wool provides no more than 7 percent of sheep farmers’ income.
The Smilovichi factory, like other Belarusian light industry producers working with sheep’s wool, is obliged to purchase it from abroad. Every year, up to 4,000 tonnes of wool is imported — worth $16m. Konyukhi’s 5,000-6,000 tonnes of raw material is, of course, inadequate. Specialists say that farmers and villagers could potentially occupy this market niche. Owners of private flocks note that these animals are easy to feed and house and enjoy our flat country. Mr. Saban — who’s been breeding sheep at home for 13 years — agrees. His flock now numbers 40 and the family uses their meat and wool — given to the company free of charge. “It’s possible to purchase good quality raw materials in Belarus,” he believes. “The wool we buy from Konyukhi is of good quality, being like that of merinos — perfect for manufacturing felt boots, as well as pillows and blankets. All these products enjoy good demand. Modern customers want ecologically friendly, natural materials — as confirmed by present demand.”
Apart from making felt boots, the factory is now preparing for an international exhibition in Stockholm. It hopes to receive new orders and ideas from the event, since Swedish buyers are sure to make suggestions for the next season. Winters in Sweden are snowy and frosty, so Belarusian felt boots are ideal.
By Lilia Khlystun