I was given a sample cordovan shell from a tannery in Argentina called Lis Royal. The line of cordovan leather is called Rocinante and the color is “Dark Brown.” It is a lovely dark brown. I’ve written about cordovan before, but this sample was my first opportunity to make a pair of cordovan shoes for myself. The representative for the tannery told me that the horses in Argentina are kind of small, so I should expect the cordovan shell to be on the small side as well. Indeed it was a very tight fit to get a complete shoe pattern on a single shell. To do so, I had to forego any skiving allowance on the quarters.
This is on an Alvin 24″x36″ cutting mat. I think you can get the idea that this is not a lot of material. No mistakes in cutting or marking allowed!
The leather arrived with a very glossy classic cordovan finish. This makes it challenging to sew because there is so much glare it’s hard to see. I used a contrasting rust colored thread and vegetable tanned liner embossed with a leaf pattern.
The embossing is quite deep, but the cordovan is also ~2mm thick, so there was no visible trace of the embossing from the outside, as you can see above.
I have heard from others who have worked with it, that cordovan is very stretchy. In lasting you can pull and pull and keep pulling. I did not find this to be the case for this shell. I was actually stressing about the back height as I felt that my pattern came up short in length from the heel seat to the top line. I was hoping to have some stretch there, but it definitely didn’t want to. Ok, to be fair this is the first time I made a pair of shoes on this particular last and the volume of the heel seemed to be a bit bigger than I expected. I’ll take responsibility for a pattern error on that. There was very little lasting allowance. In the end, it fit, but it was a close shave.
I have used cordovan from a few other tanneries and usually the finish goes to matte quite quickly after wetting and lasting. The Rocinante from Lis Royal held its finish pretty well. I have questions about the nature of the finish. The top side of cordovan is in fact the flesh side of the skin. Creating the finished “top grain” means shaving away everything until you get just the callus that is cordovan. Lis Royal did a really good job as it still remained quite smooth when wet and pulled. With a sample size of one, it’s hard to tell what was a property of this particular shell and what was part of their process. In any case, we’re off to a good start! I’m looking forward to seeing how this beautiful material performs in wear testing.
This pair of cordovan derby shoes is sewn with an English welt to a J.R. Rendenbach vegetable tanned leather sole. They have stacked leather heels capped with a Vibram heel lift. The stitching on the welt is dark brown and the welt is dyed dark brown. The welt thread color and dye treatment were not my first choice, but that’s a different story. Note that this last has a bit of a bulldog toe. On the subtle side, but a bulldog toe nonetheless. The bulldog toe shape, which rises and then drops as you look at the profile from the side was very popular in the years 1910 – 1920.
Beginning with an overview of women’s fashion from 1905 to 1925, this portion of the presentation will explore how tango influenced mainstream fashion, with particular focus on the easing of strict Victorian social mores and the increasing need for freedom of movement. Original apparel, shoes and hats from the era will be modeled and discussed.
Learn the anatomy of tango shoes. This portion of the presentation will cover how women’s tango shoes were made – from the early days through the present. Discover how innovations in shoemaking during the 1930s are still with us today. There will be real-time shoe deconstruction!
I made these two tone cordovan wingtips for a client who really wanted dress shoes, but he has wider than average feet, and much wider than average heels. He had never found a dress shoe that fit.
The uppers feature quite a bit of broguing. Broguing is often done with a tool that has a combination of punches at fixed distances for consistent hole spacing. Brogue punches have one big hole punch and two or four little hole punches on either side. If you punch it freehand with individual large and small hole punches as I did, you can make whatever combination you want.
I made assembled this pair using welted construction and hand stitched the welt to the leather outsole. The upper is vegetable tanned shell cordovan.
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 and 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 who’s 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.