A Beginner's Addendum to Making Shoes
Maestra Damiana Illaria d'Onde/Elizabeth Jones
21 March 2002
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
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,
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
Wear messy clothing or an old, but durable apron. A lot of this work is
done close to the body so you can't be afraid of mucking up your clothes.
Making a few pairs of shoes at once allows you to immediately improve on
new skills. Having multiple lasts and doing shoes for other people gives
an opportunity to immediately try the same step over again and do it better.
Get disposable latex gloves when working with barge cement or alcohol for
soaking chrome tanned leather. Big mess on the hands!
Make SURE you have proper ventilation (open window, fan) when working with
cement. I have done it my basement and really felt the effects of it.
The stuff is really toxic. Also, barge cement needs to be put on liberally,
but not excessively, on both surfaces you will be joining. A very thin
layer will not gum up properly. Make sure you let it sit for at least five
minutes until it seems to have soaked in/dried up enough or it will not
Skiving Instructions using
a single edge razor blade
Objective is to thin the leather gradually, tapering to an existing level.
The two most common areas to do this is in building up the last by gluing
on pieces of leather and then rounding out the edges, and also thinning
the toe area of the shoe upper so it lays fairly flat over the insole.
Make sure you have a sharp (or new) blade. You will know they are dull
if you have to "saw" back and forth with the blade. A sharp one will cut
easily towards you with little effort
Hold your single edge razor blade between your thumb with index finger
on top for more control.
Hold the shoe against your chest/lap or body. Try not to get your face
too close! (I have never slipped and slashed my face (or body), but better
to have some protection of clothing!
If you are right handed, keep the area you are trimming on the right side
(reverse for left handed people) so that the are is always closest to you
hand and you do not have to reach over the shoe.
Line up the bottom of the razor edge as close to the area you are trying
to match - for example, the side of the last. Trim off a corner of
the leather bringing blade towards you, never away.
You will have to keep trimming away the top (far edge) of the leather in
order to get flush with the level you are trying to meet.
If building up a last, you should have very little grain left on top of
the leather, the top should be somewhat circular, curving in to the last
itself. The bottom edge of the last should remain flat.
Butt-Stitching 101: (Edge-Flesh
Stitch for Turn Shoe or Edge-Grain Stitch for Later Shoe)
These instructions are for a right handed person:
You need the (aforementioned) curved awl, straight awl, linen thread and
beeswax for this procedure.
You can soak the thread by the skein in melted beeswax to thoroughly penetrate,
or just run through a cake several times
Smooth the beeswax with the heat of your fingers several times to remove
Measure out your thread five times the length of your seam. The real measure
is 3 times, but as a beginner more is safer.
Do a couple of stitches on a practice seam so you can gauge the depth and
width of the stitches before starting the real piece.
The thinner the leather, the wider the seam probably will be so as not
to tear the leather.
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
Make hole with curved awl, about 6 at a time. Holes should be about
1/4 -1/6" away from edge and 1/4 - 1/6" apart (4-6 stitches per inch).
Hold leather with edge up in left hand. Use index finger of left hand under
leather to apply slight pressure. With awl in right hand, use index finger
to push and guide the awl point through the middle of the leather. As a
visual guide the stitches end up being spaced about the length of the curved
part of the awl. You may stab yourself if you don't pay attention. You'll
heal - keep going!
Open up the holes initially with the straight awl. Point in the same direction
that they were made (towards the edge). Wiggle the awl left and right (not
round in a circle) while pushing in, then wiggle it out in the same way.
This will help you see where the holes are and create an initial tunnel.
Starting at the top of the seam (away from the sole), hold the join of
the two seams in the left hand. Straight awl the top two holes on the bottom
piece of leather and push the thread through. The first thread end should
be one inch longer than the second.
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
If the thread buckles and unwinds near the end: apply more beeswax, straighten
and re-twist slightly
If the thread keeps hitting the join in leather and won't pass - re use
straight awl in same direction as thread is trying to go. If really stubborn
, push through in middle of join or check for leather fuzz that might be
If thread won't emerge out other end but seems to pass through middle:
point awl in towards join (opposite of the thread direction so that you
open up the tricky end), then re-awl going in the direction as the thread
needs to go.
If you rip the leather: assess damage and rest of seam. If it's only one
stitch, create a new hole even if it is out of alignment and keep going.
Remember you're a beginner and will make more shoes! If you botch the whole
seam you can re-sew it wider apart and then glue a very thin piece of leather
over it to conceal and protect the mess. Not period or proper, but it will
save your shoes! In this case, function before form!!!
Check end of thread to make sure it is not fuzzy. Cut neatly with razor
or sharp scissors. Re-wax end of thread every set of 6-7 stitches.