What does it mean to make shoes by hand? There are many steps to making a pair of shoes, here’s the quick overview. If you’d like some guided instruction, consider registering for a shoemaking workshop.
I design and draw the patterns by hand. I cut the leather by hand and sew the welts and soles by hand. I use a sewing machine to sew uppers. I shape the shoe on the last by hand and shape the heels by hand and finish them on a sander. 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 for handmade shoes.
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.
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.
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.