It’s been a few years since I made myself a hiking boot. (I gave the last pair to a lifelong friend with the same size feet.) It’s been even longer since I first got the pig suede I wanted to use for them. I really liked the sage green color when I saw it at the Footwear Materials show here in Portland. With some time on my hands during the pandemic, I had no more excuses to put this off.
The pig suede quarters are made by Wolverine – the tannery and brand perhaps best known for the Caterpillar (CAT) brand boots in a striking yellow suede. They treat their leather with a water resisting silicone. It’s flexible and seemed like a good choice for a hiking boot shaft.
The vamp and outside counter are Italian cordovan. The boots are hand sewn using double-stitch welted construction. The hidden feature is a basalt fiber footplate between the leather insole and leather midsole. It’s intended to put a little spring in my step. Basalt fiber is much safer to work with than carbon fiber, but the strength and function is the same. The footplate is quite stiff in the heel/shank section where the fabric is more compressed and flexible in the forefoot where the fabric is thinner.
A not so hidden, but maybe not so obvious feature, is the lack of back seams on either the upper quarters or the liner quarters. Why not? Finally, it is finished with a Vibram Montagna outsole.
These cordovan full brogue oxfords are made with Horween Color 8 cordovan uppers sewn with rust colored A&E Tex 70 thread. They are lined with undyed vegetable tanned calf. The soles are J.R. Rendenbach covered with Vibram cat’s paw. The leather heels are topped with Vibram heel caps. It’s all put together with welted construction using a hand dyed welt and beige hand sewing threads attaching the welt to the leather sole.
These oxfords feature a few interesting details worth pointing out.
Why rubber over leather? Leather is a good material for both soles and heels because it shapes to the last and foot. Good soling leather is tough and flexible, but it has its limitations. Leather does not insulate as well as rubber, which can mean cold feet on cold pavement. The rubber has better grip on a wider variety of surfaces and helps reduce the amount of water the sole is exposed to when the ground is wet. The rubber heel cap also grips a wide range of surfaces and is very hard-wearing. Both the sole cover and heel cap are easily replaced when worn. It makes for a good all-purpose, all-weather shoe. There’s no one shoe to rule them all and it’s nice to have the right shoe for the job if you can. You might choose to wear these instead of your leather-only soles in certain circumstances.
Most, if not all, cordovan is top finished, not drum dyed. When cut, you can see the color only slightly penetrates the top surface. The undyed original color, (typically a light brown) is then visible. That cross section is usually not shown on the shoe upper, but is often hidden by skiving and folding the edges.
Cordovan can sometimes be difficult to fold, and the fact that it is finished flesh-side out makes skiving problematic for the integrity of the material. I have found the thickness of Horween’s cordovan to be highly variable – from 1.2mm to 2.2mm in the same piece! I used the thick parts of the material for the quarters, and rather than skive and fold, I rounded and finished the exposed cross section. With the right treatment, it appears as if it were skived and folded – which only actually occurs where the top of the outside counter captures the backs of the quarters. (See above.)
What even is “cordovan?” It’s *both* a special piece of horse leather *and* a color. (I’ve written about this before.) Horween actually calls this reddish brown color “Color 8.” Maybe this is because in the 1930 edition of “A Dictionary of Color” by Maerz and Paul, Cordovan is listed as a color on page 39, Plate 8, Color Sample H8.
I don’t often dye the welts I use for welted construction, but I needed to figure out how to match the color when dying the blunt cut undyed top line. The “cordovan” colored dye was just brown, lacking even a hint of red. What matched most closely for me was using “burgundy” dye and then rubbing it with an uncolored oil and wax finish. This darkened the burgundy considerably and made the color I wanted.
Leaving aside for the moment all the problems with color correction, lighting and digital displays, you can still get a good idea of the color matching. It’s very difficult to distinguish the part of the topline that I dyed from the rest of the material below the stitching. The dyed and finished welt looks a bit more red because the undyed welt is much lighter in color than the undyed cordovan. I expect the welt to darken in time, but I think it’s a good match to start.
Cordovan is an interesting and unusual leather. The special attention required to the material thickness, skiving, folding and finishing make it an additional challenge to work with.
The client requesting these boots wanted a roomy fit in the front, but also needed room for an orthotic insert that takes a fair amount of room in the back. I really like the quality of this particular orthotic. It is better than most I have seen.
At the last minute, he requested a bit of ornamentation. I’m of two minds on ornamentation. On the one hand, some ornamentation is just fine. On the other, many times the ornamentation, in the form of broguing, degrades the integrity of material on the seams right where the strength is needed most and they must be sewn twice to make up for it. The broguing on this boot is not on any seam. The line of sewing that borders it, however, does sew in the undyed part of the liner. Rather than having a strip underlay the broguing, the quarter facings from the liner seam forward are lined with cordovan as can be seen behind the speed hooks above right.
On the red cordovan boot I made before this pair, I used the color of the liner for contrast, which also matched the stitching. On these “Color 8” cordovan boots, the rust colored stitching serendipitously matches the undyed cross-section of the leather made by the hole punches.
These boots were made using double-stitch construction. The welt is sewn straight into the insole then down to the sole. With the reflection of the bright finish and deep colors, it’s difficult to get a true feel of the color and texture. I’ve included this last photograph on the carpet to help put the color in context.
These custom boots, made for winter use, feature a basalt fiber shank which covers the entire heel and arch area, giving very solid support. I have recently started making shanks and reinforcing components using basalt fiber because it’s much safer to work with than carbon fiber.
I assembled this pair using welted construction. The welt is hand stitched the to the leather outsole which is covered by a thin layer of Vibram soling so they could spend more time on wet surfaces. The upper is vegetable tanned shell cordovan.
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.
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.
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.
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.