In this age of automation and mass production, acquiring handmade shoes is like possessing a thing of art. Shoemaking has evolved into a finely honed craft where several specialists assemble to create excellent and well-made shoes. The process used is referred to as ‘Nesting’ where workmen possessing a particular skillset are assigned to separate sections performing different functions during the production.
The Basic Components of a Shoe
Before we embark on the process of how shoes are made, let’s go through some integral parts which comprise a shoe.
- Upper – As the name denotes, it is the upper part of the shoe above the sole which covers the feet.
- Counter – The rear part of the shoe which helps in maintaining the shoe shape.
- Collar – The padded opening where the foot is inserted.
- Lacestay – The section of the shoe where eyelets are punched.
- Eyelets – Also called lace holes, into which shoelaces are inserted.
- Tongue – The part of the shoe which is between the lacestays and laces and touches the upper part of the foot. Generally made of padded leather so as not to hurt the feet.
- Insole – Also referred to as foot beds. These are placed inside the shoe for padding and comfort. Generally made from the same leather as upper with cushioning on inside.
- Sole – The base of the shoe. It is further divided into Midsole and Outer sole.
- Heel – The back portion of the shoe attached to the sole to provide elevation. This can be short or high and made of different materials.
- Pull-tab – Small loop at the opening of the shoe to pull them up.
The Shoe Making Process
The making of shoes is an elaborate and complex art that may in some cases take hundreds of steps to complete. Below mentioned are the main steps in the shoe-making process.
1. The Creative process/Shoe Design
You may have seen or even owned a pair of ‘Yeezy’s’, a popular and expensive brand designed by famous rapper Kanye west and distributed through Adidas. Well, talent has no limits but we wonder sometimes how a talented musician is so multi-skilled as to design shoes? The credit goes to the in-house designers of the shoe manufacturers. Celebrities provide the general idea about the design, then the company’s specialists work on them and make it feasible for wearing and comfort. The in-house designers and shoe technicians will check which material or leather will go best with the design and create the final blueprint.
Now the leather procured for the making of shoes is cut into different parts by putting ‘Patterns’ over the leather and cutting them with a special leather knife. All the pieces of leather used to make the shoe in this stage are called a ‘Shaft’. The patterns are the 2D shoe designs cut into specific sizes which are sewn later to give form to the ‘Upper’ of the shoe. The patterns may be made of cardboard or other materials. One interesting point to note is that the cutters are skilled craftsmen with years of experience. Cutting leather is a specialized craft which has been passed down through generations.
Skiving is the method in the making of shoes to reduce the thickness of leather. The outer edges of the leather parts which are to be stitched together later are thinned so that stitching and folding of leather into shoe shape would be easier without weakening the leather. Skiving may be done with a Half Moon Leather Cutting Knife or through a machine.
The different parts of leather are marked as per their position on the upper. This process is called stamping which makes the work easier for leather smiths while stitching and sewing. The two biggest leather patches are marked and eyelets are punched on them. If the handmade shoes have a distinct or decorative design like Oxfords or Derby shoes, these designs are marked and punched too.
5. Leather Hand Finishing
Leather hand finishing makes the appearance of shoes attractive. Finishes are applied to enrich leather dye colors and to preserve the leather surface so its dyes do not stain the clothes and hands of the wearer. There are several finishes like polishing, oiling, waxing, lacquering, antique, matt, and burnishing which make the leather shine. The craftsmen also dye the leather parts as per the design for which either a special leather brush is used or the sponge dying process is carried out.
6. Upper Making
The upper as the name implies is the upper visible side of the shoe. Most of the time leather used in the making of shoes for uppers is vegetable tanned which is an eco-friendly process. The different pieces of leather patterns are stitched together as per their stamps and this way the upper of the shoe is prepared.
7. Preparation (Moulding)
After the upper is ready, it is fitted into a mould called ‘Last’ to give the upper shoe shape. The ‘Last’ is made to simulate both left and right feet and for different designs. Later on, the mould is again put inside finished shoes, the process of which is explained below.
8. Sole Making and Stitching
Sole is made up of two layers, the ‘Midsole’ which is made of a hard and pliable material curved to provide support to the arch and the ‘Outsole’ or the bottom which touches the ground. The outsole is usually made of hard leather and rubber and is waterproof. The stitching of the upper and sole is done either by a skilled cordwainer or through a sewing machine specially designed for leather products. To keep the eyelets in shape ‘Placeholder Shoelaces’ are put in them. Real shoelaces are only put at the last stage in the making of shoes so as not to hinder the stitching process.
9. Lasting and Curing
‘Last’ as we discussed earlier is a mould around which shoes are fitted. These are shaped like feet with various predetermined sizes. Last’s are generally made of wood and hardened plastic. Now they are slipped into the assembled shoes and gently warmed for a predetermined period so that the leather gets tightened or ‘Cured’ around the Last and shoes take the final form.
In this process, the shoes are sent to the ‘Finishing Room’ where the last-minute alterations are done. Soles are trimmed and their edges burnished, uppers are polished and laces are put in eyelets. Now the finished product is ready for packing.
Shoes are sorted according to their size, design, and color. For expensive shoes, shoe trees are put inside them, and for the rest clean white paper is inserted inside so that handmade shoes retain shape. Now, these are tagged, packed in shoeboxes as per the specifications, and sent to the warehouse for storing and shipping.
The making of shoes is a pain-stacking yet satisfying process for the craftsmen involved. These artists have years of skills under their belt and are dedicated to their craft. This skill translates from creator to end buyer as appreciation and joy on acquiring a pair of handcrafted shoes perfectly matched to your needs and style.