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The Craft of Shoemaking

The Craft of ShoemakingShoemaking Introduction

Opulent handmade shoes hold a special fascination for wearer and maker alike. Always at the head of shoe fashions, the designer shoemakers use the softest of leathers and richest of fabrics and trims to create original blissfully comfortable footwear.

Origins of Shoemaking

In the 15th century, the shoemaker was using fine leathers, velvets and decorative fabrics in his craft. Then in the 16th century heels appeared for the first time – perhaps to boost Elizabeth 1’s short stature.

Louis XIV (who gave his name to the classic Louis heel) was presented, to his great joy, with a pair of shoes with bows 16inches (40cm) across and high red heels. The gentlemen of the court were compelled to totter around on royal business in their high heels in order to remain in favour with him.  


The 18th century saw a period of extremely elegant shoes, of brocade, and soft kid, richly embellished either by embroidery or sewn with spangles. Diamond buckles were not uncommon.  


In contrast, many of the poor went barefoot, or made or bought their own crude footwear, often out of wood, or unforgiving coarse leather. The advent of mass production in the late 19th century radically changed this, making shoes available to the majority of the population. This century, hand made shoes have remained a luxurious indulgence, affording the lucky wearer blissful comfort in a pair of shoes unique and made to last.


Cobblers Basic techniques


Most of today's shoemakers who specialize in making them by hand are trained to both design and make up the shoes. Understanding the historical development of styles in shoes plays an integral part of the shoemakers training. Artistry and technical skill must be matched with a knowledge of what works and what does not.  
The design of a shoe must speak balance, symmetry, elegance and appeal. Last, but certainly not least, comes comfort. Making a comfortable pair of shoes is the master craftsman’s trademark: if he can’t do that, he is not a shoemaker.  


Techniques – Fundamental to making a shoe is the foot mould or ‘last’ around which the shoe is fashioned. Traditionally these were made of wood (maple, beech or hornbeam) by craftsmen specifically trained in this work. Nowadays, they are mainly made from a hard plastic, which has the advantage of being lighter and less likely to lose its shape through temperature changes. The bottom of the last has a metal panel a metal panel covering it.

The last dictates the shape, size and fit of the shoe made on it. They can be customized to the precise measurements of the foot, but this is extremely expensive. It is more common practise for the shoemaker to have a range of lasts in standard sizes.  


The pattern – As in making clothes, when cutting out shoes, you use a one dimensional pattern for a three dimensional shape. The pattern is worked up on a last which has been covered in reinforced tape. On to the tape is drawn the shoe the designer has in mind.

This tape pattern is carefully peeled off the last and pressed out flat on to a piece of card. Allowances are added on to the edges for the lasting – the sections that will go under the sole.  


Clipping – Once the different components of this flat sketch have been decided on – the sides, tongue and so on – the shapes can be cut out. This process of cutting out is known as clipping and is done using a special knife. The leather is moistened slightly to allow it to be worked more easily.

At the same time, the linings for the shoe back, under foot and heel covering are cut out. A shoe made from fabric will have to be backed with either stiff materials or kid leather to make it harder wearing.  


Stitching the upper – the next stage is to make up the upper (top part of the shoe). First any flap or integral accessory is stitched on. Then the leather linings are stitched in, together with any stiffening or blocking. The flat shape is now curved round to be joined at the back and it begins to look like a recognisable shoe.  


A stiff base is placed over the bottom of the last and the upper is then pulled on to the last. A delicate operation, the leather has to be stretched and coaxed around the last to form a perfect fit. The upper is nailed in place to the base using small tacks. As each tack is hammered through, the metal last base punches the sharp end flat.

It is then left for a minimum of four weeks. This allows the leather to dry out naturally and makes sure that the upper takes the shape of the last.  


The shoe is then left on the last while the soles are glued to the uppers under heat and pressure. The whole shoe is then slipped off the last, and the heel is attached with nails. The final stage is the make up, which involves adding the accessories and trimmings, bows and buckles, to complete the look of the shoe.  


Almost anything goes when it comes to choosing materials used in hand made shoes, the main restraint on the maker is his budget. Favourites with the professionals are: finest quality kid leathers and suede's, silk, silk satin, dupion, satin, brocade, velvet, damask and grosgrain.

The more unusual materials include Perspex, cork, raffia, salmon skin, fake furs such as zebra and leopard, astrakhan and sheepskin.


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