A Beginner's Addendum to Making Shoes
Maestra Damiana Illaria d'Onde/Elizabeth Jones
21 March 2002
Skiving                            Butt-Stitching 101

This information is intended for the rooky period shoemaker, and is meant to supplement other instructions available on the Internet. It provides some basic information from the novice point of view, as I have made a few pairs of shoes, but am still new enough at it to have trouble. I am taking the "make a somewhat authentic pair of shoes" approach here, in order to encourage more people to make and wear period footwear. I am inspired enough from doing this to want to try more advanced and authentic methods, but my overall goal is wearable shoes. Hopefully, this handout will get you started and help you avoid some of the same troubles!

Step 1: Check out these two websites, and figure out which type of shoe you wish to make:

Turn shoe construction (roughly pre-1500) is thoroughly documented on Marc Carlson's Website. Marc has done fairly exhaustive research on this topic, but also speaks frankly to issues of availability and practical time saving issues. His website has detailed instructions on shoemaking but there is a lot of information so you will have to go through it and organize it prior to making your shoes. He also has many different period diagrams (not patterns!) for shoes. He warns not to just enlarge these as they are not to scale, but you can fiddle with the diagram until you get the right style and pattern.


A modified later type of construction (post 1500) is documented on Luke Knowlton's Website. Luke has documented this method for beginners who wish to wear period shoes, but are not ready in talent or time to do all the sewing required for authentic recreations. Luke has a concise set of instructions that I have used to make shoes. To this I have added some of the beginner comments below.


Step 2: Gather your materials and equipment. In my (beginner) opinion, to avoid undue frustration you must have the following specific equipment before starting to make shoes. Getting these materials take a bit of time (probably two weeks) so get organized before you start.

Straight and shoemaker's curved stitching awl (http://www.colonialneedle.com/tools.htm - item A5214,C5096) I would not get these through eBay auctions as you will probably get ones too large (like I did!)

Last - wooden or (modern) plastic shoe form approximately your shoe size - http://www.eBay.com is a great place for this - I now have a trunk full! There is not a lot of competition for these, and you can get a pair for about $ 5-10. Do searches under the following words:  "shoe molds, shoe lasts, wood shoe, shoe form, wooden shoe, cobbler". Especially useful are "primitive" wooden forms that are actually straight lasts (neither right or left). You only need one of these to make a pair, and they are usually handhewn and more suitable for period shoes, (having less heel). Try to avoid ones with obvious heel curves, unless you are desperate - you can modify this with leather if need be. If you have a family, look for lasts for them too as it will give you more things to practice on.

Iron Last - for clinching (bending nails if using the later method) - This is the iron upside down shoe thing you usually see. A lap model is best (curved piece goes over your legs) but a standing one is fine too. You need a shoe piece that is big enough for your shoe size (roughly). Ebay is the best bet, or a local antique store. You should not have to pay more than $20 for this. If doing sewn turnshoes you do not need this.

Proper Thread: linen (pre-waxed available from Greenberg and Hammer, NYC at $5.50 for 25 yds), or hemp (beading hemp from Romania, available at JoAnn Fabrics by the skein). In desperation I have used carpet thread but it does not stay stiff and so is miserable work.

Leather of various types for uppers, soles, heels (see websites for more details) and their appropriate soaking stuff (water or alcohol (if chrome tanned)). Mid-Continent Leather: 800-926-2061 has a variety of  leathers and also carries barge cement and various other leather products.

Barge Cement: available from leather suppliers (see websites) or Mid-Continent Leather

Beeswax for thread (available at Sewing or Leather stores)

Hammer and Plier/Pincers: Shoemaking ones are better, but you can get along with what you have at home to start off. Look at Ebay or antique stores for specialty shoe ones.

Single Edge Razor blades (at least 5 per pair of shoes)

Shoe Nails if doing later period (Luke's website) (4/8 brass clinching nails, available from D B Gurney Co, Whitman, MA 781-447-4411, Fax: 781-447-3155)

Step 3: Compile your instructions and go at it! This is work that needs practice. Plan to make a few pairs of shoes so that you have time to improve. Chances are that your first pair will be wearable, but you will want to improve on them.

A few additional tips:

I have found the two most difficult tasks for a beginner are skiving (thinning) the leather to shape and butt-stitching. Both techniques are used in both websites (and all shoemaking, to my knowledge) so you need to learn to do it. Practice does help, but you can avoid some pain (literally) by following these instructions:

Skiving Instructions using a single edge razor blade

Butt-Stitching 101: (Edge-Flesh Stitch for Turn Shoe or Edge-Grain Stitch for Later Shoe)
These instructions are for a right handed person: Straight awl the first two holes on the upper piece of leather from the edge out, so the thread can be inserted through the middle. Pull the two threads straight up together

Take the left thread and turn it to the left at a 90 degree angle. Hold it down with the the left thumb to keep it out of the way and maintain it in proper position.
Straight awl the 2nd hole pointing DOWN (towards join) and going THROUGH both pieces of leather. Awl will stick out the length of stitch plus a little. Be careful not to tear the leather, and wiggle it gently out so as not to disturb the leather fibers. The angle is slightly diagonal from right to left pointing down  in order to start at the right side of the top stitch, and left side of the bottom stitch. This allows the thread to cross itself inside the leather and makes the join stronger.

Pass the thread (well-waxed and with a nice straight and trimmed point) through both pieces of leather. Pull down gently. (This is the hard part and where you will get the most frustrated! See troubleshooting steps for more advice!)

Straight awl the next hole pointing UP (through both pieces of leather from now on) towards the middle.

Pass the thread upwards though hole. Pull up gently but firmly.

The leather should be rounded and slightly raised where the edges are squashed together.

Repeat the last four steps until the end.

Tie remaining thread in a small but tight bow, (or a knot if you have to) so the edge is secure for lasting.

Troubleshooting Steps