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Reconstructing Fishtail Sandals

photo of fishtail sandals
Sandals from Rustler Hills sites. Left: Bottom and top surfaces of two child's sandals found in Granado Cave. Right: Woven fishtail sandals from Shelby Brooks Cave (after Jackson 1934: 33) and Caldwell Shelter (after Tanner 1949: Plate XIX).

Eight fishtail sandals were recovered from Granado Cave. All of the sandals are constructed entirely of narrow-leaf yucca leaves. They are all of the same type, known by archeologists as "fishtail sandals," the only type of sandals found in the Rustler Hills. Similar specimens have been found in the two Caldwell shelters, the McAlpin Caves, and at Brooks Cave.

The widths of the sandals from Granado Cave range from 1.5 to 3.5 inches (4.2 to 9.1 cm). Interestingly, most of the sandals were made for small feet, probably for children or even infants. No sandals were found that would appear large enough to fit an adult foot, even considering that these people may have had small feet, which is not supported by skeletal studies. Sandals appear to have been made primarily for children, whose feet had not yet toughened and become insensitive to the hot desert land. Historic accounts support this argument, as they indicate that people went barefoot. However, adults may have also sometimes worn sandals.

The sandals vary in shape from the characteristic fishtail form to sandals that have a wider, square-toe shape. All were constructed in the same manner.

The Reconstruction

In order to demonstrate the motor skills involved and the versatility of Yucca elata as a raw material, archeologist Donny Hamilton replicated the construction of the sandals. From a single crown of yucca leaves, one pair of adult-sized sandals and one pair of child-sized sandals could be constructed.

An adult sandal required 58 yucca leaves. The two warp bundles consisted of six leaves each (12 leaves) with an additional two leaves placed on each of the warps to form the side straps (4 leaves). The weft consisted of 14 bundles of 3 leaves (42 leaves), for a total of 116 for the pair.

The warp bundle of the child's sandal consisted of five leaves each (10 leaves). Two leaves were required to make the side straps (4 leaves) and eight weft bundles of 2 leaves each (16 leaves) were used. A total of 32 leaves were required for one child's sandal, or 64 for a pair.

The toe loop was secured over the second toe, and there is not a "left" or "right" side. The toes project slightly over the ends of the sandal, but this was not found to be bothersome to the wearer.

step 1
1: The warps are formed into two bundles of six yucca leaves each.
step 2
2: The bundled warps are crossed to form the characteristic "fishtail" that will become the heel of the sandal.
step 3
3: Estimating the required length of the sandal.
step 4
4: The bundles are tied together to form the heel of the sandal; the bases of the leaves are alternated from side to side.
step 5
5: The wefts are criss-crossed over the warps in a figure-8 pattern.
step 6
6: Pushing the wefts down to compact the base.
step 7
7: Midway down the sandal two extra leaves are inserted on each side; they will be used to form the side straps.
step 8
8: Checking the size of the sandal base.
step 9
9: The toe ring is formed by knotting together two wefts.
step 10
10: The side straps are tied together across the top of the foot and then joined to the toe ring.
step 11
11: The toe ring is placed over the second toe, not the big toe as in modern sandals.
step 12
12: The bases of the leaves are trimmed when the sandal is completed.
step 14
13: The finished children's and adult sandals.