DIY Boots?
September 12, 2012 5:29 AM   Subscribe

London: DIY Homemade / Handmade Leather Shoes: How difficult is it to make your own leather shoes? I"m not working at the moment and thought perhaps I could learn leather shoemaking.

There is are some courses at the London College of Fashion but they are rather expensive.

I guess I'm interested more in Traditional leather shoemaking like the construction techniques in this video: You Tube Shoemaking compressed into 7 mins.

Where in London can one purchase all the gear for Making Shoes? The different tools and the foot moulds?
posted by mary8nne to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (6 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
The term you're looking for is cordwaining.

I took a week-long course in Toronto from a woman who had studied at Central St. Martin's in London. It cost about $500, but of course that was only one possibility (and it was in 2005, and she no longer teaches. Sadness!).

The "foot molds" are called lasts. There are instructions online for making your own, I believe. The thing about lasts is that you want different ones for different shoes. You hammer the nails (permanent or temporary) directly into the lasts, so they need to be sturdy and shaped exactly like the shoe you want in the end. Different heel heights, different toe shapes... different lasts.

Aside from the lasts, you will need a very strong sewing machine capable of sewing through multiple layers of leather. Could be an old one; those are often better than the new and techy ones. Note, though, that because of the way they're constructed, you may have a very difficult time sewing the backs of shoes and other parts without a machine that can handle 3D curves. Backless, though, you can do with any old machine.

The most difficult thing to obtain and work with is probably the barge cement. They do still make it out of horses or whatever, because it is the strongest yet most flexible adhesive available. (So all y'all who look for "vegan" shoes, I am curious what they use.) Barge cement is used for EVERYTHING. It is also super gassy and bad for your brain and should really be used under a ventilation hood. It's awful stuff. So I think it might be regulated.

Most of the other equipment -- Xacto knives, hole punches, etc. -- can be found in a hardware store. You can also probably find used lasts online. Same for the heels.

So much of it comes with experience. The shoe I designed on Day 1 looked like a Frankenshoe in the end because I didn't realize I'd be learning certain techniques on Days 2 and 3. As you get comfortable with leather, you'll learn which kinds are best for the sole, the thin straps, the lining.

My advice is to look up someone in the theatrical community who makes shoes and see if they might be willing to take you on as an apprentice or assistant. They may be rather secretive and not want to do so; my teacher said it took her forever to find someone. But when you actually make a shoe, it's pretty dang cool.

Good luck!
posted by Madamina at 6:07 AM on September 12, 2012

My friend has recently set up his own bespoke shoemaking company, and he did a year-long course in Northampton which no longer runs. I've talked to him an awful lot about all the skills you learn when making a shoe, and while it doesn't sound difficult, it's very obvious that to do an even half-decent job of just one of the processes involved in making a shoe, it takes a good lot of practice.

The other thing that you might want to bear in mind is that most shoemakers nowadays don't complete the entire process from start to finish. Some will just design a shoe and get others to make it; others will do everything but closing. So, if you wanted to, you could just skip the most difficult stages by giving that work to other people and pay them to do it.

If you really want to learn shoemaking, you really just need to bite the bullet and pony up for a course. It'll be well worth the price. If you just want to make yourself some shoes, it'd probably be cheaper to take a design to a bespoke shoemaker and hand over a pile of cash. Shoemaking equipment is not cheap by any means once you've bought all the various bits you need. My friend managed to save a bunch of money by getting machinery from factories that were closing down, and by buying lasts off ebay, but he still has pretty substantial business loans to pay off. One of the upsides to taking a shoemaking course is that the materials and equipment is there for you to use. But, kudos for wanting to learn this - it's well worth it.
posted by Juso No Thankyou at 6:31 AM on September 12, 2012

Juso, thanks for reminding me of another consideration: the space.

You should really have a dedicated area for your stuff. This is 100% not a do-it-in-your-living-room hobby.

Here are a few pics of my cordwaining camp experience:

Student working under the ventilation hood (and she's still wearing a mask!) You can see the old sewing machine at left, as well as the shelf where several pairs of in-process shoes are drying, etc. The white rolls are, I believe, foam rubber for insoles and padding.

Here are the lasts, along with some of the leathers. The beige one is probably cowhide for the outer soles (very thick); the red stuff was trim. Out here in the hallway, she had a sewing machine with a big sort of anvil thing sticking up, so she could sew the back seams and other 3D curves.

Very obvious, but easily forgettable fact: as a friend of mine once reminded me, "cows don't come by the yard." You can't just go and pick up another bolt of your stuff. Everything has to be matched carefully, including the natural blemishes in the skin of the animal whose remains are now adorning your own feet. So you need to buy judiciously, cut judiciously, and save every little scrap.

Here is my Frankenshoe, mid-construction. Notice all the crap lying around the table. You will not want to clean that up every day.

And just because I know you will probably find it in the same set, here is the really doofy pic of me meeting Billy Ray Cyrus. I was there and so was he, okay?
posted by Madamina at 7:47 AM on September 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

I keep meaning to order a copy of this, and haven't. Obviously I can't vouch for the quality of the book, but the stuff on the website suggests to me that the guy has some clue about what he's writing about.

Be warned that there are some books available out there on Amazon, et al. that are reprints of ancient (and out of copyright) texts that aren't all that great and/or available for free download if you look around for a while.

Lasts can be had on e-bay but you're at the mercy of the fates in terms of sizes and styles.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:32 AM on September 12, 2012

Something I didn't think of is that you might be able to find someone in the historic recreation community who can show you the basics (because, believe me, buying 14th century thigh high riding boots off the rack is not a happening thing). The techniques have pretty much involve needle, thread and glue since forever and once the turn-shoe technique died out everything else has been, more or less, an incremental evolution or stylistic change rather than an abrupt paradigm shift.

Not to say that 500 years or so of incremental evolution isn't a huge heap of change, just that once you have the basic idea, you could probably dissect some old dress shoes and get up to speed pretty quickly.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:39 AM on September 12, 2012

Kid Charlemagne and I both know several historical recreationists who make shoes by hand. The "large work area" and huge, expensive array of tools alluded to upstream are not necessary, though of course it may be useful. Anything a sewing machine can do can also be done by hand, of course, and traditional cordwainers did (do) just that. The holes are pierced with awls, then the waxed cord is pulled through.

This book focuses on medieval and ancient shoes, but goes into detail about the construction methods:

Shoes and Pattens (Amazon)
posted by IAmBroom at 1:02 PM on September 13, 2012

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