Making Shoes by Hand
November 24, 2015 8:23 AM   Subscribe

Shoemaking (the job of a cordwainer) is a very particular blend of artistry and science. Here are some masters at work: Emiko Matsuda at Foster & Son; artisans at Saint Crispin's; and at Paul Parkman.

If you'd like to see the process in (far) more detail, check out the 63 part Andrew Wrigley video series How to make shoes by hand.

If you want to take a really deep dive, check out The Honourable Cordwainers' Company and especially their online library, which contains digitized editions of several classic texts on shoemaking.
posted by jedicus (12 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
My beau has just finished his second pair of shoes and I'll be sending him this! Thank you so much for this great post -- and I learned a new word!
posted by fiercecupcake at 8:37 AM on November 24, 2015

Thanks for posting this, Jedicus! What a beautiful craft.

I've been spending way too much time thinking about shoe construction lately, in the course of a long, fruitless quest to find shes that come even close to comfortably fitting my wide-ish, high-instepped feet with spread-out toes (actually pretty normal-looking in themselves, but it's a foot shape that for women apparently makes you a hobbitlike freak unworthy of being shod by anyone ever). Watching these videos really drove home how crappy and toddler-ish in construction a lot of handmade "natural" shoes actually are. But it also kind of breaks my heart, because why would these real shoemaking artists go to so much care to beautifully custom-engineer the curves of their shoes, but still use a last design that has no relation to the actual shape of a human foot? It's like gorgeously custom-designing and hand-building an exquisite house... where all the ceilings are 5'7", because that's just the most aesthetically pleasing height.
posted by Bardolph at 9:21 AM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Saint Crispin's video is lovely. (And I realize it's probably only for the video, but all of the women in that video have absolutely immaculate manicures.)
posted by maxwelton at 9:51 AM on November 24, 2015

why...still use a last design that has no relation to the actual shape of a human foot?

Partly for reasons of fashion, and partly for reasons of mechanics. A shoe has to be bigger than the foot in places because the foot changes shape as a person moves. But it also has to be snug in places or else the foot will move too much, leading to friction and blisters. A shoe must be stiff in places so that it provides protection for the foot and isn't shapeless. But a shoe must also be flexible in places because, again, the foot changes shape as a person moves. It's a difficult problem, especially when one is limited to traditional materials.

Special purpose shoes have to be seriously not-foot-shaped. Rock climbing shoes, for example, have an extremely cramped toe box, and many also have a pronounced arch to the entire length of the sole. This binds the foot into a single unit and allows the wearer to put their full weight on a tiny point of contact with the wall while distributing the force of that contact across the entire foot. Great for climbing, awful for walking.

Riding boots have taller heels to help prevent shoes from slipping in stirrups, and they are very tall partly to provide grip but also to protect the wearer from being pinched by the stirrup leathers and buckles. Great for riding, awful for walking.

Pointe shoes are another example. Their construction borders on hostile to the human foot but necessary to accomplish the task at hand.

Of course, sometimes fashion becomes the predominant concern, leading to high heels (first on men, then on women) as a demonstration that the wearer was both rich enough to ride a horse and rich enough not to do much walking. Other examples include shoes with extremely pointed toes and the current fashions for boots inspired by riding boots and sandals derived from caligae worn by Roman soldiers.
posted by jedicus at 9:55 AM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

My father was a cordwainer (and of course a cobbler too), I didn't fully learn the trade, so I am just a coblbler, some day may be... There is this short documentary that explains our story: Zapatero (password=zapatero)
posted by samelborp at 10:35 AM on November 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

I remember reading an article about some English bespoke shoe maker, part of which covered the collection of celebrity lasts. And when a customer died? "Ah, from time to time we have a small bonfire."
posted by BWA at 11:05 AM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Sweet little film you linked, samelborp. Flagged as fantastic.

Loved this exchange ...

Customer: This handbag was a present, but the straps are too short.

Cobbler: Give it to someone else then.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 12:05 PM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

The craftsmanship in the Saint Crispin's video is remarkable. Seeing those very, very sharp knives trimming the sole so close to the shoe top is nerve-wracking. Endless opportunities for one small slip to ruin all the person-hours invested before.
posted by Pliskie at 1:08 PM on November 24, 2015

Here in Atlanta we've got at least one person making boots and shoes by hand: Sarah Green at Cord Shoes.
posted by Maaik at 1:59 PM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you're really interested in shoemaking, this thread at Style Forum is a must read. There are a couple posters (DFWII chief among them) who drop serious knowledge on a regular basis. I'm not into it, but I peep in from time to time just to gawk at the master craft talk.

Here's an example, DFWII comments on a recent debate about toe springing:
Theoretically, and all other things being equal, the lower the heel height the more toe spring is wanted. If only for the reason Nicholas mentioned. And more creasing in the forepart of the shoe inevitably leads to lower life expectancy of the shoe.

Like a lot of things regarding fashion, and esp. on StyleForum, such considerations are easily dismissed or discounted. And, in fact, the shortened life expectancy may indeed be marginal in the larger scheme of things. But unless people are buying clothing almost entirely for the superficial aspects and the cachet associated with having, and casually/carelessly spending, more money than everyone else around them, the niceties of quality and all that is associated with objective quality--issues pertaining to life expectancy, IOW--are relevant.

Currently, fashion dictates a lower profile for men's shoes. We've been here before in centuries the point where once upon a time, shoes and boots had virtually no toe spring regardless of heel height. And vice versa--when shoes had more toe spring than is in vogue today. These are all ephemeral, will-o-the-wisp notions and ever changeable. In ten years more toe spring might be the very thing.

Beyond all that, AFAIK, there is no bio-mechanical reason to prefer more or less toe spring except perhaps initially, during break-in of the shoe--the resistance or lack thereof to easy, comfortable flexion of the foot. This is one of the reasons toe spring is incorporated into high heeled boots--the foot has so little room or ability...already being in a flexed bend and break-in the leather outsoles. Without the toe spring, the rolling, "rocking chair" motion disappears and you get a clumping, slapping gait.

As a far as structural reasons, just as when a shoe with minimal toe spring will tend to curl up at the toe, so too will a shoe with more toe spring tend to flatten as body weight settles into the shoe. As this happens, my experience is that it draws or creates lines of "pull" from the back of the quarters forward. This tightens the topline and accentuates the ability of the shoe to cup and hold the heel without slipping.

But, as implied, except for more creases, shortly after the first couple of wears, the shoe that begins life with more toe spring will be virtually indistinguishable from one with less.

Toe spring is toe's all in the last and the eye of the beholder. And is probably more important to marketing than to making. For shoemakers...or at least this shoemaker...there is no heightened skill or sense of mastery associated with more or less. The only significance, in that regard, might be simply as an indicator of how closely attuned the maker is to fashion versus sound shoemaking practices.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:50 PM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh, and I love my St. Crispin's!
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:53 PM on November 24, 2015

Thank you very much for the amazing post Jedicus, my great grandfather Guido Maggi used to say roughly translated, “To make people walk well, the shoes must be made by hand”!
posted by Emanuele at 2:51 PM on December 7, 2015

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