Cordovan Oxfords

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.

Orthopedic Boots

My first pair of 100% orthopedic shoes. I’m not an orthopedic shoemaker, but many of the shoemakers I studied from in the Netherlands are. Why call these orthopedic? I’ve made lots of shoes for people who wear “orthotic inserts.” These boots different. They are a textbook case of how to handle hallux valgus – your basic big bunion and also dealing with foot and ankle instability. The blueprint shows how different the feet are.

On the right foot, there is a significant bunion on the first metatarsal joint (big toe). There is also a bunionette on the little toe ball joint of the right foot. She has had some plantar fasciitis, pain and tenderness on the bottom of the foot. Not a lot of mobility in MT1, the big toe.

The left foot has no such issues, but due to a stroke, my client lost some facility with her left leg creating balance issues and instability with the left ankle and foot. Looking at the print of the left foot, those issues are not visible. The left foot is also a full size longer than the right, and two widths narrower in the standard sense. Her issues have nothing to do with her left foot per se, and yet everything to do with it. Getting to know the client, seeing and feeling the feet first hand is an essential part of making custom shoes. In this regard, the knowledge I got from in person contact is critical to the success of working with her.

For an orthopedic shoemaker, dealing with hallux valgus is really no big deal. Basic beginner stuff. Their daily work is typically with clients that have much more complicated conditions. I have an understanding of these issues, but since I’m not a trained orthopedic specialist. I referred her to one. She said “No.” She really wanted me to make them. I told her that I would take a crack at it, no guarantees.

What to do? I referred to my copy of “Orthopedisch maatschoeisel in de medische praktijk” (1991), by Dr. Klaas Postema. This hand me down from my colleague Rene van den Berg, was the standard textbook that he and many of the shoemakers I met in the Netherlands studied in school. I read through that and Dr. Postema’s latest book, “Pedorthic footwear – assessment and treatment” published (in English!) in 2018. I also thought back on all the discussions I’ve had and shoes I’ve seen at Mischa Bergshoeff’s shop in Gouda. You can look at his work and see how amazing it is and have no idea of what sort of feet go in those shoes.

There is a prescription for hallux valgus, a sort of shoemaking recipe, in the books. Depending on the mobility of the foot, you can squeeze it a bit around the tarsals and that will actually straighten out the bend in MT1 slightly. This should ease the stress of toe-off in walking and possibly give more flex to MT1. Extra room is needed for the bunion and bunionette, but the foot will slip forward to fill that space unless you keep it firmly in the rear 2/3 of the shoe. It’s important to keep the rearfoot firm and secure. It’s a tight fit, but should not be uncomfortably tight. To help keep the ankle and foot in position, the upper is about a hand’s width above the ankles (malleolus). There is a firm heel counter and a rocker bar to assist in toe-off. I made a padded contoured footbed liner with metatarsal bump to helps restore the transverse arch.

Like any recipe, you need to season to taste. Most people don’t want to go to “orthopedic specialists” because they are most famous for making ugly shoes and boots. The difficulty of clinically handling the many foot pathologies orthopedic shoemakers encounter is already extreme. On top of making the most appropriate shoes possible, people also demand they look great. Sometimes there is a real disconnect between the shape and functionality of the client’s feet and what the client wants to see when they look at the shoes. As a custom shoemaker, it’s my job to balance those things. For an orthopedic shoe, it’s no different, just more difficult.

These shoes are EU 39-9(L) and 38-10(R). I wanted to use a Vibram Gumlite unit sole because it’s cushy to walk on and a good all-weather material. Vibram, however, typically only makes huge soles available to the distributors in the US like only men with giant feet need their soles. It’s very hard to get the right size unit sole for a custom shoe, but once the shoe is size 41 or less, you really have to start hacking to make it fit. When I made the trial shoes, I simply made sure the sole covered the shoe. As you can see from the tread pattern, this is not nice. Would anyone even notice? I noticed and I didn’t like it. At the very least, the shoes have to satisfy me.

I had to shorten these to get a passable agreement of the heel and forefoot. If you look closely, you’ll see the word “Gumlite” is gone from the final version. I made a straight cut and then sanded a 1 cm skive for the 39 and 1.5 cm skive for the 38. Previously, I have cut these along the curve of the heel and made an overlap. This time I wanted to try something new. The cut along the curve of the heel looks more finished, but the increased contact area and a transition before the edge of the heel on the straight cut and skive should keep the heel more solidly bonded, at least in theory.

Who doesn’t  love a hidden feature? There is one for the wearer and one for shoemakers. For the wearer, there is an embossed inside lace stay. This allows me to use more rust colored thread for not-totally-gratuitous ornamental stitching to sew it in. The embossed stays can only be seen when the shoes are open.

When they are open, look at the back of those speedhooks! Have you ever seen such a clean finish? Thanks many times over to Mischa for this method of setting speed hooks. I want to thank all the shoemakers who helped reach the point where I am able to make shoes like these, and thanks to Dr. Postema. I couldn’t have done it without you.

Green and Brown Medium Hiker

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.

Color 8 Cordovan Derby Boots

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.

Red Cordovan Derby Boots

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.

Lis Royal – Rocinante – Cordovan Derby

cordovan brown derby
cordovan brown derby

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.

Two tone cordovan wingtips

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.

Casual Derby Boot

Brown derby bootThis deep brown derby boot was made for a client who wanted a hard wearing all weather boot with a very low heel. The upper leather is a German chrome free synthetic tan, with vegetable tanned lining, components, insole and midsole. Brass eyelets. Welted construction and Vibram Oxford Gumlite outsole.

Black Derby

Black Pebble DerbyThis derby shoe was made for instructional purposes. Plain old black upper leather with a pebble grain, basic lines with English quarters. The construction is welted and hand sewn to a vegetable tanned leather outsole. Natural finish leather heels. Straight outsole stitch on the welt. Depending on what you wear it with and your mood, I think it could be considered casual or formal.

Red Derby

Red Derby (womens)These shoes were for a female client who wanted a woman’s shoe without compromises. She likes knitting and needlepoint so I tried to put something special into the design for her. This derby design with English quarters features an ornamental stitch similar to a wheat ear embroidery stitch on the wing tip toe cap and bottom quarter lines. Welted construction, Italian vegetable tanned dark red leather upper and vegetable tanned leather liner. Vegetable tanned leather insole and outsole. Natural finish leather heels. Braided outsole stitch.

Blue and Brown Derby

Blue Brown DerbyDerby design with French quarters. Welted construction, Italian vegetable tanned brown leather vamp and blue quarters. Leather insole and midsole. Vibram Gumlite outsole for a little extra cushion. Casual or formal? I think it’s right on the edge. The rubber sole and the more rounded curve of the toe suggests it’s more casual than formal.