Step into Valais
Does the world need another pair of wool shoes? Do I, for that matter? A quick glance at my closet and the answer is no. But I'm a sucker for a good story. And the story behind these is worth telling.
We begin in 2014, when a Swiss company called Baabuk (pronounced "baah-book") successfully funded a Kickstarter campaign to manufacture the perfect wool slippers—a campaign that predated Allbirds, by the way. Urban Wooler sneakers came soon after.
Unlike Allbirds and its super-soft New Zealand Merino, the Urban Woolers were made of a far less mainstream Portuguese Merino. The shoes were sourced, from sheep to scouring to fabric to finished sneaker, within a 500-kilometer radius of the Porto region of Portugal in an area that was once a hub for wool production. A regional specialty was a thick wool fabric called "burel" that was traditionally used for shepherds' cloaks. The Baabuk sneakers made contemporary use of that very same, very old burel fabric.
At a time when most of our clothing contains products from a casserole of countries, it was refreshing to see a company at least try to go local. So in 2018 I reviewed the shoes.
And then life interrupted and I forgot all about Baabuk.
A few weeks ago, a wool-loving Instagram friend sent me a link to these cute new wool shoes made of Valais Blacknose wool. Had I seen them? No, I had not. I quickly recognized the name of the company making these shoes—and I remembered that Baabuk was, in fact, a Swiss company.
While they had a few other things in their limited-edition Valais Blacknose promotion, including bags and hats, I was after the shoes. Apparently they'd done a Blacknose collection in 2019 that I missed. I wasn't going to miss it again.
The fabric is still made at the Burel factory in Manteigas, Portugal. But instead of Portuguese Merino, this limited run uses Swiss wool from a sheep whose fleece is not considered garment grade—but whose face is among the most adorable you'll find. (No affiliation with The Swiss Shepherdess.)
Here's a promotional video from Baabuk, complete with lots of cute Valais Blacknose sheep shots. You can find other videos and more background information on the collection here.
Now that the shoes have arrived, let's take a quick tour.
By touch, you'll notice right away that these are made of a more rugged grade of wool. Up close, the woven fabric reveals an occasional discoloration either from individual black fibers or clumps that got carded into the mix. It's all evidence that this came off a sheep with black coloring on the face, ears, and legs. But the predominant color is a creamy cloudy buttery white.
On the foot, the first thing you may notice is that they have a solid, relatively flat footbed. I know some people find the Allbirds a bit too squishy and gelatinous for their comfort. These have a smooth rubber sole and are firmly rooted on the ground.
The inside of the shoe and the insole are both lined with a dark heathered Merino woven fabric (presumably Portuguese, but I can't say for sure). The finer grade eliminates most prickle potential, should you choose to wear these without socks. I've had them on my feet for a few hours now and haven't felt a thing (except comfort).
Double stitching along either side of the foot and around the ankle opening add welcome structural reinforcement and prevents these from being too slipperlike. The stretch laces will be ideal for anyone who's tired of tying knots.
The black nubuck toe accent not only protects against scuffs but also serves as a charming design nod to the coloration of the sheep whose wool contributed to these shoes.
They're cute, they're unusual. Sure, they're a bit of a gimmick, but they're also good shoes. And they represent a vital kind of thinking outside the box that wool desperately needs right now.
We cannot live on croissants alone, the world cannot live on Merino alone, and the more intelligent ways we can use the annually discarded coats of all the other sheep in the world, the better planet we'll have in the end.
Where to buy: Baabuk
Made in Portugal of Swiss wool
I purchased these shoes online at the full retail price.