Hard Leather Shoes: Why?
July 6, 2007 6:38 PM   Subscribe

Why are shoes made out of hard, ouchy leather?

It is really hard to find shoes, especially women's shoes, made out of leather that is soft or flexible. Why is this?

Background: Nearly every pair of shoes I buy gives me hellacious blisters on the backs of my heels because the upper is made of rigid, inflexible material. Sometimes (more frequently overseas) you can find heels made of materials that are softer (I test by pushing with a thumb on the heel area; if the leather does not bend, it will eat my feet). But in the USA even fancy designer shoes are made of materials that don't conform to the foot. Why?*

- Is leather just crappier now? Some brands of shoes, like Dexter, that formerly used moccasin-soft leather now put out shoes with rigid uppers.

- Is there no market for this kind of shoe in the USA because we drive more?

- Is a shoe with a soft leather upper harder to design? Clearly it couldn't be too soft and have any kind of heel because you wouldn't stay up, but that hardly seems to require the sort of inflexible stuff that most shoes are made of, and heels with relatively soft leather do exist.

* The worst are shoes that look like they have soft leather with an elasticized band and actually have no elastic and a hard, serrated edge. WTF???
posted by amber_dale to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I've been told by various saddle makers that decent quality leather is a lot harder to get in the US in the last 15 years even if you are willing to pay for it. Something to do with the beef cattle mature younger so the hides are thinner when they're harvested.

I've seen an increasing number of mid to high end shoes that are made of plastic. For $200 I want nice leather!
posted by fshgrl at 6:50 PM on July 6, 2007

I'll tell you one shoe that is the softest shoe ever: Enzo Angiolini's Liberty flat. I wear through the soles, though, way too quickly.
posted by GaelFC at 7:10 PM on July 6, 2007

in my experience north american shoe production sucks in general. i highly recommend looking for a specifically european store. i.e. in your russian/portuguese/italian area of the city.
posted by olya at 7:31 PM on July 6, 2007

I've found that my soft leather shoes wear out really quickly.
posted by orange swan at 7:38 PM on July 6, 2007

Sounds like you're buying corrected-grain leather. You'll find full-grain leather breaks in much nicer, and full-grain shoes can easily last decades. However, where a pair of corrected-grain shoes might cost $100, full-grain will be $400+ -- but the construction will be much better, too.

Basically, for $100 you're getting factory-made shoes which are designed to last one season and which are constructed with the cheapest hides and processes. Good shoes are expensive.

(The rule of thumb is that $200 shoes will last twice as long as $100 shoes, but $300 shoes will last forever.)
posted by mendel at 7:43 PM on July 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Former shoemaker here. Good quality shoes have what are called "counters" in the heel area, specifically to harden the heel and make it hold shape through the life of the shoe. "Counters" are semi-circular pieces of thermoplastic compound, usually inserted in a pocket between the lining and outer leather of a shoe, after which, when the upper is put on the last, the counters are heated above their thermoplastic point by infrared lamps, and molded to the last either by external pressure, or by the pull of the lasting machine, depending on the type of construction of the shoe.

Some footwear, such as moccassins, or strap sandals, or clogs or other kinds of footwear which do not have normal fox/heel type construction will not have counters, but all good, conventionally made shoes, will, regardless of country of origin.

If your heel is suffering, you have a fit problem. When was the last time your feet were accurately measured? Feet change throughout a person's life, particularly with changes of weight, kidney function, age and gait. An adult's feet can vary 1 and 1/2 U.S. shoe sizes and up to 2 widths, simply on a weight change of 20 pounds. You need to find a quality shoe store which has a Brannock Device, and someone who knows how to use it. You should have your left and right foot individually measured, sitting and standing, and special conditions such as bunions, hammertoe, pronation, metatarsal collapse, etc. noted. It is not unusual for there to be a 1/2 or full size difference between the left and right foot, but if there is more than 1/2 size difference, you'll need to understand that, and compensate accordingly when buying shoes. If there is more than 1 full size difference between your feet, you may only get good fit by double buying shoes, and wearing the appropriate size on the proper foot. Or, you can have shoes made to measure, which may solve your problem.

Generally, people experiencing heel fit problems are in pain because of slippage of the heel. The heel may be too broad in width, or the shoe may be too long (common on the smaller foot when a person is buying the right size for the larger foot). Many people have heels that are narrower than the ball and instep would be, if the foot were in normal proportion. Some few U.S. makers still manufacture size/width matrixes for narrow heel people, and a good shoe store can recommend these makers.

But fixing your problem starts with accurate measurement, and proper fitting. Nothing really, I'm afraid, to do with the type of leather, or its country of origin, tannage, or care. If you avoid footwear with conventional counters and foxing, you'll be wearing shoes with far less support, and much greater likelihood of slip and fall accidents on uneven footing, so be careful, accordingly.
posted by paulsc at 7:53 PM on July 6, 2007 [28 favorites]

I have a very hard time believing that leather heels at any price point last "forever," and that's what I wear. Heels. But I sure do prefer leather to man-made, and what with my big feet, I think I'll just have them stretched upon purchase forever from now on. The shoes I linked are now quite flexible, not like a leather pouch or anything, but soft.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 7:56 PM on July 6, 2007

i know *exactly* what you mean about that hard heel thing. my feet are very sensitive and are prone to blistering in that same dumb spot with every single pair of shoes i get. however, i bought a pair of these and no blisters, no hard leather biting into the heel. you might check the "sofft" brand out. they are very very well made, stylish and extraordinarily comfortable.
posted by hecho de la basura at 8:33 PM on July 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

I completely second what paulsc said about fit.

Due to my high instep, I used to have endless unhappy experiences buying any non-athletic shoes to the point where I avoided dress shoes entirely. But you need something nice at most jobs. A foaf recommended a mail-order company, which made me quite skeptical: If I couldn't get a good fit in person, how could I possibly do it remotely? But the company -- Wissota Trader -- had a variety of extended sizes, and just by crossing my fingers I found that 11½EEE was just the ticket. They fit perfectly the first time and there was virtually no break-in period.
posted by dhartung at 8:49 PM on July 6, 2007

i feel your pain. i find a patch of moleskin or those fancy blister-blocking bandages help when breaking in a pair of shoes.

for shoes that just don't break in, if you're not willing to part with them, i find that sticking a piece of moleskin to the shoe (rather than your foot) is an okay solution. not something you want to do for a marathon, but for those supercute heels you wear four times a year at weddings? perfect.
posted by thinkingwoman at 9:06 PM on July 6, 2007

btw, i have a pair of clarks and they're great. born also has cute, soft flats. try aerosoles, it can be hit or miss.
posted by thinkingwoman at 9:06 PM on July 6, 2007

I've seen some custom made shoes with soft but thick leather.

If you avoid footwear with conventional counters and foxing, you'll be wearing shoes with far less support, and much greater likelihood of slip and fall accidents on uneven footing

Less support, obviously, but I don't see why one would be more likely to slip and fall. It seems that one usually slips due to lack of friction with the floor, and it has more to do with the sole of the shoe. I have a pair of moccasins that I wear specifically on lumpy dirt areas, and they slip much less than my hiking boots.
posted by yohko at 5:39 AM on July 7, 2007

"Less support, obviously, but I don't see why one would be more likely to slip and fall."

The counter construction of a shoe is one thing that determines whether or not the shoe will resist twisting on the foot. Shoes that twist easily on the foot, whether due to highly flexible soles/insoles, or minimal construction, are implicated in several studies as contributing to slip and fall accidents. In contrast, a shoe that resists twisting longitudinally can be "trusted' by its wearer, and its sole edges can be dug into loose material to limit slip. Additionally, a stiffer heel construction tends to transfer off center strike loads with less radical deformation of the footwear, resulting in less twisting force to be absorbed and compensated by the wearer's ankle ligaments and tendons.

Nearly all running shoes, hiking boots, and work boots are therefore made with significant, stiff counter construction. As a former executive in women's footwear manufacturing, I'll also tell you that the number of slip accident claims from high heeled shoe wearers are much higher for open back shoes, than for pumps which have a full counter.
posted by paulsc at 8:31 AM on July 7, 2007

Response by poster: I've had my feet measured.

Essentially my thumb test is checking for the presence of the structural features paulsc mentioned. I'd rather suffer once a year by slipping and falling than have my heels sawed through every single day.

P.S. What did they use before "thermoplastic compound"? This even sounds uncomfortable.
posted by amber_dale at 2:21 PM on July 7, 2007

"... P.S. What did they use before "thermoplastic compound"? This even sounds uncomfortable."
posted by amber_dale at 5:21 PM on July 7

Back before WWI, shoe makers made counters from a variety of materials, even including stamped metal, which worked pretty well, but required hundreds of sizes of preformed counters be kept in stock, to account for sizes, widths and the pitch of various lasts (lasts are the foot forms around which shoes are manufactured). Often, an extra piece of hard oak tanned leather was used, particularly in blucher type shoes for men, as this was a common technique for manufacturing Army shoes, from the time of the American Civil War (many soldier's of that time got the first pair of real shoes they'd ever had from the Army).

"heels sawed through" is exactly your problem, amber_dale. A properly fitted shoe is not supposed to move on your heel. If your shoes move on your heel, you'll have blisters at least, and potentially irritation of the Achilles tendon. If your shoes are "sawing," you have, by definition, a fit problem. It may not be a sizing problem, but you could have something as simple as a calcaneus (heel bone) that is short, meaning your foot will sit deeper in most shoes than a normal foot. This can usually be corrected by a simple orthotic device, or by an insole insert in every pair of shoes that cause you problems. You may also have a wide forefoot and a narrow heel, which is a pretty common condition for women. That condition is also corrected by insert devices.

But I'll also say that many people have never been well fitted in shoes, and consistently accept a poor standard of fit, with all the resultant problems. This has been accelerated by an influx since the 1980s of low cost imported shoes, which are made in only a few widths, and with poor attention to American size standards. If you don't know what well fitting shoes feel like, it's hard to choose new ones. Most people simply settle for inexpensive shoes that aren't immediately painful. Others endure initial pain, hoping they can "break in" shoes, which often involves actually damaging the footwear through use. Still other people try to have shoes "stretched," or mechanically distorted to ease discomfort.

Well fitted shoes do not hurt when new, do not need to be "broken in" appreciably, and will last a long time, because they are flexing as designed (at the ball of the foot) for wear.
posted by paulsc at 3:43 PM on July 7, 2007 [2 favorites]

« Older If Capitalism is a circus, I want front row seats.   |   What to declare when shipping a US passport? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.