When I first read the book Handmade Shoes for Men, I saw this picture: Der Leistenbauer (the last maker). I was struck at the time, and for many years to come, by the utter otherworldliness of the man, the tool and the activity. How was it that such a refined a beautiful shape was crudely hacked out of a piece of what appeared to be basically firewood?
While visiting the shop of Berluti in Les Rosiers-sur-Loire in April, I unexpectedly received a paroir (aka stock knife) as gift from Anthony Delos. (A famous shoemaker in his own right whose business was purchased by Berluti.) Stunned, I thought about that picture and I really wanted to find out what it is like to make a last using this tool. It was pretty rusty and I have no idea when it was used last, or when it was made. Using one of the polishing wheels on my finisher, I cleaned it up and sharpened it.
First I had to make a handle. Thanks to my friend Greg, I learned a bit about how to turn a piece of wood on a lathe and how to make a T handle. We used maple for the shaft and T, and copper pipe for the front of the haft. The T was fitted to the shaft in much the same way that a leg or spindle is fitted to a Windsor chair – tapered shaft to tapered hole. It was pinned, but also set with epoxy.
I decided to copy a last that I already had. Using rough outlines of the profile and the bottom pattern as guides. Going primarily by eye, I chopped away. After 2 days and about 10 hours of chopping, I was totally wiped out and figured I had gone about as far as someone would with that tool.
Throughout the carving process, I used my existing last to compare the shape and size, length and width, toe and heel spring. I did not use a profile gauge or take the dimensions too seriously.
My guess is that a last maker would put it in a vise and clean it up with a file and spoke shave. I sanded and did the final shaping on my finisher.
The heel height and toe spring looks right and the lengths are the same. I could have spent days working on it to get it exactly right. Ok, I did spent 3 days on it. I’m just going to stop and call it good.
Learning which cuts were hard and which were easy was very interesting. I would definitely mount the paroir on a lower table next time. I managed not to cut or otherwise injure myself. While my right hand was really tired and sore, I did not get any blisters. I’m quite happy with the shape of the handle, and ultimately with the last I carved totally from scratch.
In what became the follow up to my visit to Texprocess, I visited the Pfaff industrial machine showroom in Kaiserslautern, Germany. For years I have wanted to go there. You can’t see it from this picture, but all of the postbeds are just to the left of this view.
At the trade shows, you can often spend some time on the machines and speak with a sales rep who may or may not be able to answer some of your questions. Texprocess was totally secondary in priority for my visit to Europe this year, but since it was happening around the same time, I went to check it out. I learned a lot there. Still, the industrial showroom was what I was after. This is what Pfaff has to say about the showroom on their site:
Are you looking for information on the latest state of the arts?
Do you wish to consult one of our specialists, or perhaps just talk shop?
Experienced consultants, sewing mechanics, technical engineers, application engineers and organisation specialists are all ready to help you.
Yes, please! The representative from Pfaff who coordinated my visit, Axel Zangerle, has been with Pfaff for almost 50 years. To say he is knowledgeable about their machines is a bit of an understatement. Only recently returned to Kaiserslautern, where he grew up, Axel has spent a lot of his career working for Pfaff in various parts of Asia. As I had confirmed with Axel previously by email, if you want some time to yourself and also get some personal attention, make the effort to go to the showroom.
He set me up with Julia Weigerding-Domic, who worked with me while I went through a pile of samples that I had prepared. We tried different needles, different thread, and different machines. We didn’t go through all of the zillions of settings that are available these days, but I did learn some very important things about how these machines work and how much influence the speed of factory production and the repetition of mass production influences their character.
Making custom shoes, it’s unlikely I will ever get to make the same piece twice, let alone the same pair of shoes. On one pair of shoes, the left and right uppers are typically not two of the same, they are mirror images. These machines can stitch up to 3,500 stitches per minute! Sewing through leather at high speeds can really heat the needle and thus melt the thread. Most seams on shoes are short, and very curvy. We’re not making jeans, awnings or sails. Sewing one-of-a-kind uppers, we’re not sewing quite so fast or as long. Even so, if you put the pedal to the metal, look out! Turning down the max sewing speed was the first adjustment I made on each of these machine’s control panels. This is such a far cry from the old 3-phase 380V clutch motor days that used to characterize “industrial” machines.
Until very recently, all the moving parts on industrial postbed sewing machines were mechanically linked together and driven by one motor. Functions like presser foot lifting were handled with compressed air. Like the various CNC machines, there are now stepper motors everywhere. The latest postbed machines have dedicated electric motors for almost every moving thing – roller foot, roller feed wheel, presser foot lifter, stitch length, etc. This allows easier control of the speeds of all of those things. It’s not a change in the mechanics of sewing, but it is a change in the adjustment of it. The 878 from Durkopp/Adler even has an electronic motor and cam for thread tension. That is a new thing. Thread tension was always mechanical, never linked to a motor or compressed air. Adjusting the thread tension is always a bit fussy.
As I learned at the show, Durkopp/Adler and Pfaff are all part of the same company now, along with a few others. This means at the Pfaff industrial showroom, you can also try out the Durkopp/Adler machines. I found it very educational to have these machines side by side and discuss them with someone who has been in the business for a long time.
I’m not going to write up a review of the machines or make a buyer’s guide, but I will emphasize that I have read tons of spec sheets, spent time on the phone with reps, looked at the websites and videos and did not discover on my own what I was able to learn with Axel in the first hour of my visit. To be fair, much of what I learned really is in the brochures, but it doesn’t resonate until you sit down and do it yourself.
I will wrap up with an example of the different speed settings for top and bottom feeds. Why would anyone ever use this? I have seen reference to this even in the service manual for the old Pfaff 491/471 series which were discontinued in 2000. It’s an idea that been around for a while. Nobody I knew seemed to have any idea how this might be useful.
I learned from Axel that it’s a gathering function which creates additional curves, or distortion, depending on how you look at it. Julia showed me that it can also help mediate stitch length distortions on tight inside and outside curves. On oxford patterns, for example, where the quarters meet the vamp, it’s not completely flat and a bit of gathering is what you want. When flattened it out, the quarter facings overlap. The line where the quarters meet the vamp can be tricky. A lot depends on the shape of the last and the design of the pattern. A skilled person can get the shape they want at the time it’s sewn together even if the pattern wasn’t designed that way. Different top and bottom feed speeds can greatly facilitate this. With electronic controls, it’s very simple to set and switch to and from.
Thank you Axel, and Julia for making my visit worth the journey!
To get a handle on the state of the art in sewing machines, I visited Texprocess in Frankfurt, Germany. For some time I have been getting limited and inconsistent information about sewing machine models and capabilities for sewing shoe uppers from US based distributors and resellers. In the US there is no industrial machine showroom where you can test these machines in person. Pfaff and Durkopp/Adler, two of the biggest sewing machine manufacturers, have showrooms in Europe. Pfaff’s showroom is in Kaiserslautern, not far from Frankfurt where the show was held. I had initially hoped to see the show and the showroom in one visit. Among other things, I learned that Pfaff and Durkopp/Adler are all part of the same company (together with several others).
The very practical aspect of trade show, however, meant that all the machines and all the people would be at the show. It takes time to pack it all up, move it back, set it up, etc. One thing at a time. I was really only interested in the Pfaff and Durkopp/Adler machines, but since pretty much every sewing machine company would be there, it seemed like a good place to survey what’s available. I made a return visit to see the showroom a little over a week later.
My first impression was of a sea of blue suits. So many guys dressed in various, but mostly lighter shades, of blue. I don’t know yet what the attendance numbers really were, but they said it was their largest attendance ever. 2017, the previous show in Frankfurt had 13,000 attendees. Here’s how Texprocess presents itself:
Leading international trade fair for processing textile and flexible materials
At Texprocess, international exhibitors will present the latest machines, plants, processes and services for the manufacture of garments and textile and flexible materials in Frankfurt am Main. Techtextil, the leading international trade fair for technical textiles and nonwovens, takes place at the same time as Texprocess.
In the world of post bed sewing machines for shoe uppers, I saw many brands that I’d never heard of. Most looked almost exactly like either Pfaff or Durkopp/Adler machines. Some of these are in fact made from the head of one of those machines and then fitted out with different motors and controllers.
While the main focus of Texprocess was on the garment industry and textiles, shoes feature prominently with most major machine manufacturers having a dedicated section of their booth space for footwear. There are more comprehensive machine shows for footwear, but my focus on this show was for just the sewing of the uppers.
The amount of petroleum based material at the show gave me the impression that the oil industry completely dominates the garment world. Producers of sustainable, organic fiber materials are in tiny booths with “specialty” products. There is still a huge obsession with “high performance” and “technical” materials. Read that as athletics and the military. Despite evidence that people are more sedentary than ever, this industry would like us to believe we are all mountaineers, top athletes, in need of protection from explosives or chemical attack, or going to the moon.
It has been my goal for several years now to replace my nylon sewing thread with linen. I believe linen would make an appropriate replacement, but can not yet find a supplier. Despite the emphasis on sustainability at the show, new this year, I got only a few weak leads at the show and no actual thread. Linen is still widely used in the heavy sewing of shoe construction – insoles to outsoles, etc, but the lighter weight thread, lighter than would be used for construction, but not as light as you would use for a shirt, is not on display anywhere. (It might have been there, but I didn’t see linen thread for shirts either).
The highlight of the show for me was an exhibition that was not so directly related to the show. Compare the text of the description from the Texprocess website with the printed handout that was available in the exhibition area.
Curated by the Stijlinstituut Amsterdam and structurally implemented by Dutch architect firm Refunc, “Urban Living – City of the Future” is proving the Netherlands’ expertise in providing answers to current, social and global challenges associated with the urbanisation megatrend. Awaiting the visitors are exhibits from, amongst others, the textile upcycling pioneers DenimX, research institutes like the Hyperloop team from Delft Technical University (TU Delft), contributions from the Next Nature Network as well as independent representatives of the Dutch creative scene like textile architect Samira Boon.
In a cross-sector, collaborative and innovative way, the representatives of the Dutch creative industries will be presenting pioneering solutions to global challenges. Along these lines, they will be showing how a future urban narrative can be told from a Dutch point of view that also reflects the country’s own identity: open and transparent, bold and original, inclusive, multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary.
There were so many interesting things that the description above does not capture. Too much to discuss on those topics here. Keeping it on topic, there was a booth to make your own sunglasses out of recycled polypropylene flakes. The two Spanish graduates from ITU Delft staffing the booth both hate plastic. Why make more things out of plastic? One reason is to capture the plastic that is already out there. That stuff is not going away on its own. It can be turned into something people want and would use. Yes, this is related to making shoes!
Part of getting the fit right in making custom shoes is making vacuum forms to fit lasts to feet. A vacuum form is made of the lasts, I put the client’s feet inside these “glass slippers” so I can check the fit. In making the forms, a sufficient amount of extra material is required. Even when keeping the sheet and frame as small as possible, the amount of cut-off, or wasted material compared to the form itself is huge. This is the nature of vacuum forming.
In addition to making a pair of sunglasses (!) we talked about how to directly reuse the waste material to make new vacuum forms. This material is used not just by low volume small shoemakers like me, but is a staple of the orthopedic shoe industry, and the production of orthotics and prosthetics. Closing the loop on the use of plastic in these areas would hugely reduce the need for more new plastic. The longer term goal is getting plastic out of the loop completely. Plastic is forever. Once it’s been made it’s here to stay. We have to learn how to live with it responsibly even as we try to eliminate it wherever possible.
Lastly, a shout out to André Campos at ForEver | Portugal, a vendor at the show that in fact seems to be doing something sustainable – making recycled rubber soles. André spent quite some time with me explaining how natural rubber can be recycled, and what they make with it.
Sustainability is a tricky word. It can be used to mean just another way to sustain the status quo, or it can mean creating a full cycle process that can sustain itself without depleting some other resource. I prefer the latter.
I don’t usually take clients with a deadline because so many things can happen to delay the making of the final shoes. I don’t feel comfortable putting work out there that I can’t feel proud of, so I’d rather be late than not meet my basic standards for the look and the quality. Nonetheless, I took this job for a client who had a special event because she knew exactly what she wanted and she said she wanted the shoes whether or not I made them in time for her event. I still put a lot of pressure on myself to get them done in time. I encountered an unprecedented number of technical difficulties. Shoemaking is a process of on-going problem solving, but to figure it all out in time was very difficult. I started over completely 3 times. In the end, this pair was a new speed record for me. From first meeting to final shoes in 2 months! (Don’t get any big ideas out there…)
This t-strap features a single seam on the upper which is done with a “feather stitch.” The design itself is a modification of a model I previously made from a design in a book I have called “Women’s Shoes in America, 1795-1930.” The client who requested this design collects embroidery. Since I first tried this stitch, I’ve wanted to find more ways to use this beautiful embroidery stitch on a structural seam. It seems that machine embroidery these days is almost always ornamental, and good luck finding an industrial machine that will do an structural embroidery stitch with three needle positions on leather!
I tested this out before going sewing on the final leather. When it came time, however, my Bernina would not sew this consistently at all. I tried small test pieces which would go ok, only to have it totally stall, error out and bind up when sewing on the uppers proper. When I first gave up on trying to make this embroidered seam happen, I sewed the whole thing on my straight-stich postbed, but I was really haunted by the fact that these were for an event dedicated to embroidery. (Maybe it would have been better if she had not told me the details of her event.)
In the end, I switched to a slightly lighter weight tumbled Italian leather that I’d never used before. It was the only leather that behaved halfway decently with the embroidered stitching. The tumbling made it wrinkly and kind of matte in appearance, which I did not like for this purpose, but this was before lasting. I knew it would smooth out after lasting, but honestly didn’t know exactly how it would come out. You can still see a bit of the tumbling effect, especially in the cut out sections which were not pulled so significantly.
Like my previous client, she was unable to wear a heel as high as the original design featured, so I made this low heel version just for her. The closure uses a button post (aka a “mini Sam Brown button”). There was no hole in the strap yet when I took this picture because punching the hole is really a one shot deal. Using a button, you can’t make adjustments like you would be able to with laces, or a buckle. To make a perfect fit, you have to check the stretch of the strap and mark it while the client is wearing the shoes.
The upper is Italian vegetable tanned calf, the liner is a combination of rose colored vegetable tanned goat and undyed vegetable tanned cow. The sole is Rendenbach with Vibram heel cap.
The client for these boots requested a low heel and something “very casual.” After discovering that the trial shoes I made for him were “too fancy,” I had to learn what his idea of casual meant. The opening between the quarters is a bit wider and there are some substantial eyelets. These boots feature a hard-wearing German upper leather and vegetable tanned cow and calf liner. The quarters and tongue have a softer liner (cow) and the vamp and footbed are lined with a stiff drier vegetable tanned calf. I like the the stiffer veg tan calf because it breaks in very nicely and is quite dry. The veg tan cow is very supple and appropriate to make the boot shaft and tongue more comfortable and flexible from day one.
They are with and English welt and hand stitched to a mid-sole using an ornamental stitch that I’ve become very fond of. At first it was a sort of chain pattern along the as featured on some of my other shoes, but I crossed over the thread one more time (by accident) and found it made a nice “x” which seemed like a natural compliment fo the “o” of the chain pattern. Like a French braid, Gibson tuck or other sorts of ways to braid hair, I’m sure there are a lot more possibilities to make different patterns in the welt stitching.
The boots are soled with a Vibram Gumlite Oxford as the Oxford sole has a low heel, which fits the last and a low tread profile which the client wanted.
This year I am offering instruction on how to make shoes from start to finish. From lasts and feet through design and construction. You can take them all or just the shoemaking workshops that are of interest to you. The first set – Lasts and Sizing, Shoe Design and Pattern and Pattern Making, and Clicking and Closing will be offered twice before the shoemaking construction workshops. This will give you the opportunity to get a last in your size and design shoe uppers to go with before putting it all together. Details are on the workshops page.
Here is a blue court shoe, otherwise known as a pump. This pair was made with blue Italian vegetable tanned leather with a “waxy pull-up” finish. It gives the lighter accent to the blue in this case. The lining is vegetable tanned calf and the heel is Padouk wood capped with a Vibram heel cap. They were assembled primarily using cement construction (glued), though the heels are set with two stainless screws each drilled through the spring steel shank.
For some time I’ve wanted to make wooden heels. This is the first pair to feature wooden heels of my own making and also with a natural finish.
Often I am asked if I make “women’s” shoes. This is a loaded question. I believe there is not such a hard and fast definition of shoes that can only be worn by women and shoes that can only be worn by men. Some might say these blue court shoes are unmistakeably for a lady. This pair is in fact for a lady, yet it’s important to know that there are still places and occasions for which men are expected to wear pumps (Oxford, for example).
The styles of shoes my clients request often cross over between “men’s” and “women’s” styles. This has nothing to do with “cross dressing” and more to do with the social construction of style. Styles have changed over time and continue to change. What is considered appropriate for men and women to wear on their feet is not fixed and unchanging. The ability to feel comfortable in any style of shoe only opens up more possibilities.
The limitation of “standard” sizes can keep people out of the shoes they want to wear. Despite making up the bulk of the shoe buying public, women are often excluded from buying the shoes they want. For example women are sometimes forced to buy a “men’s” style when they want a “women’s” style or vice versa. Common examples are no size large enough of the women’s style for some women to wear so they are forced into the men’s section and no size small enough of the men’s style for many women to wear, even though they would like to.
Last year while I was studying last making, orthopedic shoemaking and pattern techniques at the DHTA, I also had the good fortune to learn René van den Berg’s new shoemaking technique for the shoes he calls Makerszoon.
At first glance these shoes might seem kind of rough. After 30 years of precision work, however, there’s nothing rough about the design and workmanship of Rene van den Berg. The upper is very precisely drawn, punched and aligned. The embossing on the toe must be done to his exacting standards. The only thing rough about it is the cavalier cutting of the turned upper and sole edge with a knife by hand to give it a “hand finished” look.
The upper is hand sewn and the leather is all vegetable tanned. There is very little waste and hardly any trimmings. The lining is all one piece and the extra is left both for visual appeal and to soften the feel of the shoe around the ankles.
Please see René’s site for details on this fantastic new approach to making shoes.
I received a copy Kunst, Aufräumen, or “The Art of Cleanup” for my birthday some time ago. Check it out if you haven’t already. It featured all sorts of things “cleaned up” or deconstructed from their otherwise “messy” natural state. For example, organizing from a bowl of alphabet soup a an alphabetized and sorted grid of all the letters and carrot pieces. I really enjoyed the book and all of Ursus Wehrli’s clever images. When I made this pair of oxfords, I wanted to try something similar.
It wasn’t until I tried to make an organized image that I understood how much systematic thinking it takes to be as organized as Wehrli. I’ve got a long way to go. The image I made includes all all the parts that went into these shoes. There are at least two of everything. This pair was built using cement construction. These shoes are unlined, so they do not include the quarter, tongue and vamp liners. If they were welted, there would be a few more parts still. The upper is hand dyed top finished vegetable tanned Italian leather. Here’s the parts list from left to right: