There are many steps to making a pair of shoes, and many ways to get there. I mostly use a “traditional” technique of hand sewn construction, but I make shoes using “cement” construction techniques as well. I like to incorporate methods that work, are appropriate to my client’s requests and contribute to a first quality shoe – traditional or not. While machines feature in many parts of the shoemaking process, what I make are considered handmade shoes. Here is the quick overview. If you’d like to learn to make shoes yourself, consider registering for a shoemaking workshop.
I modify lasts for a custom fit, design and draw the patterns, mark and cut the leather for the uppers, sew the uppers, shape the shoe uppers on the last, sew the welts and soles on by hand and finally shape and finish the heels and soles. I want to share some information about materials, then move on to describe the process.
About the Materials
A shoe can be either a dry clean healthy environment for your foot or mold trap. The difference is in the materials. The shoe components for my shoes are always made from vegetable tanned leather. For example, the insole, toe box, heel counters and liners will always be made from vegetable tanned leather. I purchase vegetable tanned upper leather from Italian tanners who produce some of the finest leather in the world.
Why care about vegetable tanning? Vegetable tanned leather takes longer to produce and is more expensive when finely finished, but it is also one of the oldest methods of tanning leather. Vegetable tanning soaks hides in a tea made from tree leaves and/or bark. Chestnut and oak are very commonly used. Even if the sustainability of this ancient process doesn’t motivate your shoe purchase, or the fact that the German soling leather I use is from one of the cleanest tanneries in the world doesn’t influence you, consider this: after careful washing and neutralizing, there are still residual tannins in vegetable tanned leather. Those tannins can kill mold, fungus, mildew, etc. and help to keep the shoe smelling great even after years of continuous wear. Vegetable tanned leather also absorbs moisture so your feet stay dry inside the shoe. My vegetable tanned leather shoes will give your conscience and your feet a lot to feel good about.
Exotic chrome tanned leathers are used by special request, only. The European Union has made a concerted effort to cut down the use of chrome in tanning leather. Most of the glues used for shoe repair and construction in the US were banned some time ago in the EU. I use water based glues where possible.
Your health is as important as mine. In limiting my exposure to toxic materials, I limit yours too.
The design and the upper
Each last comes in a different size. A new design and pattern are created for every shoe. A design can be drawn directly on the last. A profile of the last is made from paper and the design re-created on it. The profile with the design becomes the template for the pieces of the shoe upper in flat space. The upper is made of the outside leather (also referred to as upper leather) and the liner. Below is a template and pattern that I drew first by hand, then scanned and recreated using the open source vector drawing program Inkscape.
The insole and lasting
Whether the upper is welted or cemented to it, the insole holds the entire shoe together. The vegetable tanned insole is formed to the bottom of the last while wet. When dry, it will be trimmed and set with holes so the upper can easily be sewn to it, or left as is for cement construction. A nice thick leather insole absorbs moisture during wear and takes on the impression of your foot over time. Tannins are at work here too in helping to eliminate unwanted mold and bacteria. Note that the upper has been temporarily set with staples and not nailed, as is often done “traditionally.” Staples are easier to set (using a pneumatic or a hand sprung stapler), easy to remove and much less wear on the lasts.
Untrimmed insole on last. Insole with holes set. Upper pulled and ready for lasting. Welting in progress.
Soling and building the heel
The welt is sewn from the instep to the outside starting and stopping roughly where the heel will begin. A metal shank is glued on and the gaps filled with cork. The sole is glued on, stitched to the welt and sanded where the heel will be built. The handmade shoe is ready for heels which will make it complete.
Handmade shoe with shank applied, extra upper trimmed, evened out with cork. Soling and heel caps. Sole attached. Rough heel first layer.