Okay, that’s not entirely true. I’ve made two pairs of shoes in my life so far. One, when I was 10 or 11, a pair of moccasins from a pre-cut and punched kit. I can remember tracing off the pieces onto paper before I made them up so I had a copy of the pattern for later (apparently I’ve always been this way) but I have no recollection of actually wearing them - or copying them.
Next, about five years ago, a pair of leather moccasin-style fringe boots. Made without a last or any kind of internal structure or support, and with three layers of 5” hand cut fringe. The soles were foot-shaped pieces I’d cut from a rubber floor tile found at home depot, which I glued to the bottom. They took about 10 minutes each to lace up, because they had to be un-laced all the way down to the ankle so that I could get my foot in.
This is not going to be like that. This post is a preparatory pre-post to the one where I’ve actually made the shoes - risky, as we’re taking a great assumption here that once everything has arrived from various corners of earth and internet, that the shoes will not be a complete disaster. Either way I hope I’ll have learned something. Maybe you will too.
I want to write everything down here, having now done as much research as I can, but having not actually started the thing yet, because I am very curious to know how useful my ‘book smarts’ are going to be as compared to the ‘street smarts’ I gain from actually Doing The Thing.
So here’s what I know so far.
I plan to duplicate my very most favourite pair of shoes EVER. They are black leather ankle boots, and I love them dearly. I got them in around 2010 or ‘11, and wore them pretty constantly up until I decided last year that they were too fragile to carry on, lest I destroy them (and the chances of recreating them) completely. They functionally lace, but also have a zipper. At first, I thought I’d make the new version without the zipper, but as it turns out I really miss that feature in my other shoes! I have decided that I won’t add the boot hooks at the top - I’ll use eyelets all the way up, since unzipping the shoe caused the shoelace to slip out of the boot hooks, which was always annoying.
My second deviation from the original shoe is that I plan to fully line it. The original shoe has what I as a sewist can only describe as a facing, but I cannot find any information online about how to make a facing, or how to last a shoe with a facing. There is a lot of information on linings, and a lot of things (well, two) that are supposed to be hidden between a lining and an outer. So I’m lining it.
I have read a bit on patternmaking for shoes, but as I’m making a copy, a lot of my decisions have been made already for me, which is nice. Hopefully it’ll cut down on the chances I make something that fundamentally does not work as a shoe. Here are some resources I have found helpful:
I Can Make Shoes YouTube video on taping a last
This article on why the lining can’t just be an exact duplicate of the outer (hint, it’s because the seam overlap is too bulky) - and how to make a lining pattern that works, with some great diagrams.
This 10-video series on YouTube which goes through the entire process of taping a last, drawing the pattern, removing the pattern, uppers and linings, stiffeners and counters…. very thorough, full of information, although the shoe is a bit different to the type I’m making, there are still some good tips.
I will be making my shoes using a method called ‘cemented construction’ - so called because the sole is ‘cemented’ to the insole and upper, rather than sewn on. The sewing-on is very cool but looks suspiciously like something my hands might take issue with, and also like something that one should try once one is familiar with the process as a whole. I’m putting a pin in that idea for now.
So. How do you make shoes? I can tell you from firsthand experience that Googling ‘how to make shoes’ does not really get you very far. However, there is a LOT of info online if you can be a little bit more specific with your search queries. I have learned everything so far by finding a rough guide, and googling individual parts of it (following trails of breadcrumbs) until I had a clearer picture of the whole thing in my head (of course, the next step is to actually do the thing!
If you’re in New Zealand, Lou in Wellington runs Shoe School - which is exactly what it sounds like - shoemaking courses! Unfortunately, she’s in Wellington and I’m in Auckland and I can’t really take a week off work to go and take the class. I do have a few friends who have taken it and really enjoyed it though! What is really awesome, though - is that Lou sells her printable course notes for the class on her website. These have been invaluable for me, as they’ve given me an overall handle on how construction happens, plus a few good tips, and given me the ability to search further for specific things. It’s by no means a complete guide (I imagine she hands them out and then fills in the gaps by talking and demonstrating during the class) Also, specifically if you are in New Zealand, Lou sells a materials list which covers everything you need to make those shoes, and where to get it from (In Wellington or Auckland). I bought this as well, and it has been worth its weight in gold. Lou’s done a lot of work to put that document together so I’m not going to broadcast her sources here, but this post is for general learning, so of course there’s some overlap. I suppose it’s a bit like a knitting pattern - I won’t tell you the recipe, but I’ll show you what I made!
Similar to the Shoe School class notes, I Can Make Shoes (a company that teaches classes out of London) also has instructions available for download. Between the two, I think I prefer the Shoe School instructions. Although I am glad I bought the I Can Make Shoes instructions as well, I found the videos on their own much more informative for my specific project. I do think they’d be a super helpful resource for high heels though, as Shoe School doesn’t really cover that anywhere!
My friend Steph has a blog called Life After Shoe School, where she blogs about her own shoemaking adventures - she added a drill motor to a hand crank sewing machine to make it powerful enough for leather! Not only are her projects awesome, she’s also been very patiently answering all of the questions that I cannot find answers to on google, and giving me advice on different types of leather. She even hooked me up with a lead on a guy in Auckland who was selling shoe lasts from a closed down factory! Thank you Steph!!
Jasika also has a lot of her shoemaking adventures on her blog under the shoemaking tag - she tends to make high heels, which I struggle to wear, but there is definitely concept overlap despite the height of the heel, and she has some great little tips which she has learned along the way, especially since she took a similar approach to me, in choosing to buy as few task-specific things as possible until she was sure she enjoyed shoemaking. For example, I bought a $4.50 utility knife instead of a $90 stationery leather blade - I’m sure the task-specific tool is nicer, but the utility knife will definitely do the trick while I learn.
So. Once I had my instructions and a general plan, I delved a bit deeper into specific things I was still struggling with. (Lasting. I was struggling to wrap my head around lasting!)
I also at this point found a reddit forum which has led me down many-a rabbithole (did you know that the edges of a stacked leather heel are smoothed with a piece of broken glass?! and that there is a specific technique used to break said glass?!) Did you also know that if a stacked leather heel is to be more than four layers tall, you’re better off to make a wooden heel and wrap it in a stacked leather lookalike veneer because otherwise it will be too heavy?! Now you know!
Steph pointed me in the direction of a reasonably active Facebook forum. I’ve yet to post, but am learning a lot from reading the answers to questions that other people ask.
There’s a saying in shoemaking (she says like she knows what she’s talking about) - “The lasts come first”
Lasts are the foot-shaped forms that shoes are built on and around - traditionally made from wood, but modern ones are often moulded plastic. Every last limits the type of shoe that can be made. You can make infinite design changes on one last, but each toe shape, heel height, size, and width change requires a different last. Lasts also have different styles of hinges that limit what type of shoe can be made. If there's something odd/asymmetrical/whatever about your feet, you make changes to the last to accommodate the difference. Finding a last proved to be very difficult - I needed one in my size and width, of course, but also I wanted a round (but not too round) toe, and a heel height that was not-quite-but-almost flat. After weeks of searching, one Reddit rabbithole led me to Lisa Sorrell’s website. Lisa makes custom cowboy boots in Oklahoma (!) but also sells some harder-to-find shoemaking supplies (like lasts!) on her site. She was very giving of information in our email exchange, and picked a size for me based on a foot tracing I sent her. My lasts have a ‘medium round toe’ with a ‘flat’ 1/2” heel (my copy shoes have a 5/8” heel, that was as close as I could find - most ‘flat’ lasts aren’t truly flat, shoes in general tend to pitch forward a tiny bit, it’s more comfortable.) and they are currently still on their way to me. These are the ones I chose. In addition to the 1/2” heel, she also has a 1.5”, a 2.5“, and a 3.5” with the same toe and sizing.
Now, plot twist: just a few days ago, (I mentioned this above) - Steph told me about a source for used lasts in Auckland. So. I did what you Should Not Do, and went to a stranger’s house on a Tuesday night, and lo and behold, his garage was full of shoe lasts! He ever so patiently helped me go through and measure to find my size, and I was able to get three pairs - a hinged last with a 1/2” heel that will be very similar to the ones I ordered from Lisa, and also two solid pairs with a 1” and 2” heel. I’m nervous now, because Lisa sized me at a 9C and these new lasts are 10B’s - the 10’s I bought seem to be exactly the right size? My plan to start with is to make a very quick and dirty mockup on the last using some felt so that I can actually try something on my foot. I’d hate to go through the whole process and have them not fit for a silly reason like that!
I have my leather for the uppers - my shoe will be grey nubuk suede with a black (maybe calf, maybe goat) lining, both of those are from Drapers Fabrics, and if all goes to plan, the pink embossed patent leather (from The Fabric Store) will be the next pair of shoes I make - if I don’t get scared and decide I need more practice first. The leather is thinner than you might expect for shoemaking, but these aren’t heavy work boots we’re making, they’re just plain old everyday shoes - shoe leather isn’t generally that thick. I’ll be using a thermoplastic toe puff and heel counter for stability in the shoe - and really it’s best I tell you about that next time once I’ve actually done it, it’ll make much more sense if you can see it.
I also have a few supplies I’ve picked up at the home improvement store: the glue used to ‘cement’ the sole is VERY nasty, so I have a mask rated for solvents. I also have steel nails (the upper will be nailed to the last with these), a utility knife, and my making tape to make the pattern!
One of the very important things I’ve not yet acquired is called ‘sole bend’ - it’s a type of super-thick, firm leather specifically used for the soles of shoes. That will be coming from Lapco, which is literally about a 4 minute walk from my house, but they open at the same time I start work (across the city) and close half an hour before I finish. So I have to get my sole bend shipped. Across the street. I’m putting that off because it’s a silly thing to have to do, but also because I know it’s going to take up a lot of space and I don’t need it right now at this very moment. I’m using it for the midsole of my shoe (the midsole is between the insole and the outsole - where the insole is the bit that you see when you look inside a shoe, and the outsole is the bit that touches the ground when you walk.. it’s the middle of a sandwich) and I’m also going to make (read: attempt) a stacked leather heel with the sole bend. Here’s hoping it works!!
The lasting pincers have just arrived and the rest of the supplies - soleing rubber, insole board, rand, glues, etc. - I’ll be picking up this weekend, now that I have lasts. The shoe has a structural bar hidden in the sole called a shank - shoes with any kind of a heel have one, it keeps the insole section of the foot from bending - but the shank has to be fitted to the bottom of the last! No last, no fitting of shanks. The shanks come from the same place as the rest of the supplies, so I’ll fit my shanks to the lasts and pick up the rest of the supplies while I’m at it.
I am going to be getting my hardware (in this case, just grommets for lacing) from GDL Trading here in Auckland - best place I’ve found for hardware so far! I’m hoping my bag of 100 antique nickel finished grommets will last for many, MANY pairs of shoes! I’m also going to get a skiver from them: it’s basically like a safety razor on steroids. Skiving is the process of shaving down the back of a piece of leather to make it thinner, and is used pretty much anytime you want to sew a leather seam and have it not be bulky. You can skive a seam allowance before you sew, you can skive bulk down after, and apparently there is also going to be a lot of skiving once the shoe upper is lasted, but before the sole is glued on, to flatten everything out. I’ll show it to you when it happens!
I know, it’s a bit odd to post something that is distinctly still in the planning stages, but if you’ve gotten all the way to the end of this novel of a post you’ll understand why I didn’t want to cram all of it plus an entire first pair of shoes into one! I’m anticipating I’ll have LOADS of other stuff to tell you once I’ve actually done it, so it’s good to get all of this out of my head first. Let me know if you have questions, (keeping mind I quite literally have not made these shoes yet!) and I’ll try to answer them next time!