Handmade Shoes

April 11th, 2018 Jeff Mandel

Made by hand in Portland, Oregon with the highest quality Italian vegetable tanned leather and careful attention to detail, learn what it means to get handmade shoes.

“It takes 200 pairs of hands to make a running shoe.” (Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie T. Chang). If the largest and perhaps most advanced shoe factories in the world requires 200 pairs of hands to make a shoe, it would seem that in fact all shoes are handmade. This is also true. But what do I mean when I say my shoes are handmade? Is there a point to do work by hand if there is a machine available to do the job?

It’s still the case that you can not feed leather into one end of a machine and expect a leather shoe to come out of the other. In factories, there is always an attempt to reduce the amount of subjective judgment required to complete any given task with the goal of achieving consistency within an environment of diversity.

I am not a purist. I believe in the appropriate use of machines and technology to make shoes. Nonetheless, there are many ways in which what I make can unequivocally be characterized as “handmade shoes.”

Last modification

Shaping last on finisher
Most lasts are still made on lathes. When I receive them, they’re considered “blank,” which is to say, they have not been customized for your feet. One way to modify the last would be to put it in a 3D scanner and then change the coordinates for various dimensions in a 3D model and then mill out a new one. Compared to building up or sanding down an existing last model, the digital-mechanical method is surprisingly expensive and time consuming. It’s a system that is also even more time consuming if revisions are needed, especially if the revisions are only very minor. When I modify a last by reshaping using a sanding wheel spinning on a machine using only eye-hand coordination, is this handwork or not? Yes, in my opinion. The finished last is not cut by CNC, but it’s a stretch to call it a handmade last.

Preparing insoles

Each pair of shoes, with their custom shaped bottom patterns must be traced and cut by hand. They are formed to the last and trimmed to fit the edges of the bottom of the last. Leather for the insole is set wet and shrinks in drying. It’s important not to trim the leather too soon or it may shrink more than you would like when fully dry. Once wet, set, dried and trimmed, it’s ready for use in cement construction, or ready for additional preparation for welted construction. Different cuts from different parts of the same hide, may shrink at different rates. It’s not 100% predictable. Even if you knew what shape you wanted, it may be subject to shrinking later with unfortunate results. Despite using tools like a knife, stapler and hammer together with a bladder press and perhaps even my finisher, I call this a handmade insole.

Marking and cutting pattern pieces

Marking patterns on leather (photo by Wesley Bauman/Poppycock, ©2014)
Shoe patterns can be made from a minimum of one pattern piece to many. A careful examination of any hide will reveal irregularities. Sometimes these may be defects that I would like to avoid. Sometimes these irregularities are features of the hide that I would like to take advantage of. Careful orientation of the pattern template pieces is needed to both use the material efficiently and to capture the desired properties. This is true whether placing dies to stamp out with a press, or to be marked and cut by hand.

Sewing uppers

Shoe upper pattern pieces tend to have lots of curves, each wandering it its own unique path. It’s not like there are no two seams alike, but, well, mostly no two seams are exactly alike. The left and right uppers are mirror images of each other, not straight copies. I use a sewing machine to sew my uppers. Is this handwork or not? Would sewing them with only a hand held needle make them better. I don’t believe so. I still refer to these as handmade uppers.

Lasting

Aligning upper during lasting (photo by Wesley Bauman/Poppycock, ©2014)
Putting the upper on the last and attaching it temporarily to the insole is called lasting. In a factory, there are machines with heated plates which melt thermoplastic inserts in the toe and heel of the upper to set the upper in a shape quite close to it’s final shape. These heated toes and heels are quite generic in shape. Close enough to do the job in most cases. This is sometimes referred to as lasting. Other lasting machines pull the upper around the last just the same as I do, but with a minion of little pincers fixed to the edge of the upper.

Lasting itself is not an especially time consuming process, though it is very easy to get wrong. The alignment of the upper may not look right, maybe it’s pulled too hard on one side or the other. So many possibilities for it to go wrong, I won’t enumerate them all here. The thing is, lasting is genuinely fun. It’s one of the most fun parts of making a shoe. Lasting is the moment of wonderment that follows the transformation of a flat form into a living thing which is readily recognizable as a shoe. As a custom shoemaker, I exercise some judgment in lasting as I pull the leather. Deciding how much stretch to take out and how much to leave in to suit my client. It is also fascinating to see how each unique piece of leather performs during lasting. Easily smoothing around curves, or resisting and bunching. Revealing, or hiding its flaws. Revealing or hiding its color and finish. There is a lot to see in lasting. Even if a lasting machine wasn’t enormous and vaguely threatening, why let a machine have all the fun? My shoes are for sure lasted by hand.

Welting

Welting (photos by Wesley Bauman/Poppycock, ©2014)
When people think of “handmade shoes,” a construction type where the upper is sewn to the insole is usually what they have in mind. Sewing uppers to insoles and welts is time consuming and physically difficult. It’s often done in an awkward position which is hard on the neck and shoulders. It’s actually not that easy to welt badly (totally possible, of course). There are usually large pitfalls lurking in each part of the shoemaking process, but with a little experience, it is in my opinion, a relatively low-stakes operation. A key thing here is timing. Getting one shoe welted in one go is a great feeling. One after breakfast, and the other after lunch. You can leave at the end of the day feeling entitled to a little celebration.

Sewing on the outsole

The really key stitching in welted construction is not visible. It’s hidden once the sole of the shoe (the outsole) is put on over the insole. The sewing of the welt to the outsole is an opportunity for functional structural attachment and ornamentation. Outsole stitching is quickly and easily and even inexpensively accomplished by machine. Why sew by hand here? There are some subtle characteristics of the placement and ornamentation of the outsole stitching that can’t really be done by machine. A machine needs a more generous allowance of material to set its stich. Thus shoes with machine outsole stitching need a wider welt, giving the shoe a “bigger lip.” Stitching the outsole by hand, the stitches can be placed much closer to the upper than any machine can reach. So close that they disappear when seen directly from above.

Soles, heels and finishing

Checking heel heigh (photos by Wesley Bauman/Poppycock, ©2014)
Even if the shoe uppers are not sewn to the insole, building the heels and shaping the sole is still very similar to the work of shaping custom lasts. It’s a lot of hand-eye coordination – guesswork, measuring and eyeballing the lines to make sure things look right and align properly. Making handmade shoes, there’s rarely an option to attach a heel or sole using an “off the shelf” part without any modifications. In larger production runs, all of the heels and soles are molded to be used as is specifically without modification. A lot of tooling, prototyping and specialized mold-making ensures that this is the case. Having to alter, or create the shapes myself does, even in this very last step, make a handmade shoe.