Today we’re bringing you a special guest post by master shoemaker Sara McIntosh. We met up a while back when I was visiting Chicago and I was impressed by the organization she founded, the Chicago School of Shoemaking. Sara is a master teacher there and has built up an impressive facility and student following.
In the early 70’s, I found myself taking apart a pair of shoes. These shoes had served me faithfully for 3-4 years of wearing them every day through all kinds of terrain and weather. They fit well and were comfortable. I went into town to try and find the same style and fit, but lo and behold, the shoe industry had changed the styles and even changed the sizing-so I couldn’t duplicate what I had by purchasing it.
As a “back-to -the-land” baby boomer, the mindset was there to see if I could make my own shoes. Therefore, the knife came out and as I cut the stitching around the bottom edge, I soon realized that the tops had been made from flat pcs of leather. That was my first aha moment during the investigative phase of my shoe adventure. I had a pair of scissors, a rotary punch and an awl. I cut my midsoles out with tin snips and trimmed my sole with a bandsaw. I purchased a small 1″ band-sander to smooth the outer edge.
Now 40 years later, I have made over 10,000 pairs of shoes for customers all over the world. More recently, I have been teaching people how to make their own shoes and to follow my journey to learn this wonderful craft. There are two main shoe constructing methods, lasted and outstitched. Today, I’m going to tell you about the advantages and disadvantages of both methods and how to choose which one is right for you.
The lasted method employs the use of a solid plastic or wooden form to shape the shoe. These forms are called lasts. They are made to a certain size, toe shape and heel angle (height). With this last (you need a right and a left) you can make and remake the same size and shape shoe over and over again. This means that the toe shape remains the same, the heel height and overall room inside the shoe remains the same.
Multiple shoe styles can be made on the same last- a low cut spectator, a desert boot or saddle oxford to name a few but the heel height of the finished shoe and the toe shape will always remain the same. The last is not a cast of a foot– it is the room you need inside the shoe to feel comfortable wearing it. The pattern for the lasted shoe is based on the outside measurements of the last in numerous places.
Patternmaking for a lasted shoe includes measuring the last at many points, taping the last and drawing the styling and seam allowances onto the last so you can transfer the pattern onto a stiffer pattern board. Once you create a pattern that works for a last, you can use that pattern repeatedly for that particular last. Lasted shoes are either wet or dry lasted and the form stays inside the shoe until the leather dries.
One barrier that many beginners and would-be shoemakers face is acquiring the necessary tools. A huge part of a shoemakers tool collection are lasts. My entry into shoemaking was fortunate because the shoes I took apart built using a method called outstitching.
[Outstitch (or stitchdown) construction is a construction method in footwear. In outstitch construction, the upper is flanged out over the top of the midsole and the midsole is fastened to the upper by stitching through it. Then the midsole is glued to the sole. The stitching around the outside edge of the shoe is visible and makes this shoe easy to resole multiple times.
For the outstitch shoe, we measure both feet of each client. We have a pattern system that includes taking measurements in several places on the foot we draw a pattern based on those measurements. We have a formula that adds room for socks, takes into account the stitching around the outside and leaves room for an insole pad that can include an arch support or not. Slight changes can be made in the pattern to accommodate a heel height of 1″ or more, thicker socks, loose or snug fit. This measuring and pattern system can be applied to extremely wide, very narrow and hard to fit feet as well as different sized feet on the same person. Not needing a last to make a pair of shoes allows for greater freedom in creating a custom fit for the client.
Since all the outstitch shoes are pattern based from the measurements we take, the only place on the shoe that needs modification is the toe box during construction. After the shoe is stitched down and soled, we create that space by wetting the leather and stretching it to the right shape and height with newsprint paper packed so tightly it resembles the hardness of wood. We are actually “lasting” the toebox with this stuffing. Once we hard pack the toe and get the height of the toe box we prefer, we leave that form in the shoe until the leather dries. When that packing is removed, the toe box height remains.
Advantages to both methods
Lasted shoemaking is definitely the most traditional method for constructing shoes.
In general, outstitched styles are considered more casual whereas Lasted shoes tend to look more sleek and can be structured with shanks and stiffeners to allow for higher heels. The outstitch method generally resorts to wedges to increase heel height.
The Biggest difference
The Outstitch method allows for a wide range of fit and shape-which is why I stuck with this method for so many years. I could make a broad toe for a wide foot or a narrow heel for a thinner foot without having to modify or buy a new pair of lasts. Most of my clients came to me because they couldn’t fit comfortably in regular sized shoes. The niche that I created for my business served me well since there are a lot of feet that don’t fit comfortably in standard sized shoes.
Learn To Make Your Own Pair of Shoes
Lasted shoes examples can be found at most shoe companies and traditional shoemakers.If you’re interested in seeing outstitched shoe styles, you can see
several examples here: Conker Shoes, Aurora Shoes, yoreunlimited.com, Chicago Soles, and Designs We Teach.
We are teaching both the outstitch and lasted shoemaking construction at the school I founded : The Chicago School of Shoemaking. If you’re interested in making your own pair of shoes or becoming a shoemaker as a business, check out our classes at chicagoschoolofshoemaking.com.
Sean’s note: I’ll be in Chicago in October teaching our Finishing Edges class in-person. If you’re near Chicago and want to check out the class or meet in person, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sara and her school are top notch.
Do you sell a distance learning course or DVD on pattern making for the out stitched shoe?
Hi Doreen. We don’t have any course material specifically about pattern making. Please let us know if you come across something worth checking out!
I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this blog. I am hoping the same best work from you.
Thanks for your support and for taking the time to read our posts!
Oh my god thank you so so much. I’ve been making shoes for about four years now and looking online for answers and until now I had not figured how to do the toe box!! Duh!! Why didn’t I think of this!!! I also was trying to form the toe shape before stitching it or to stitch the shape of the toe box into a seam at the front… Gaaah!!! Years of frustration and trials and mostly complete errors everything is just a slipper without a proper shaped toe box. This is fantastic. My kids and I all have odd shaped feet and can’t afford the thousands of pounds for bespoke shoe maker to make shoes. But i see some companies are starting to make them affordable …one I just found I can’t remember its name because I am tired…but you can send measurements and have them made. The dream of my lifetime is to have shoes that fit me some day. So you have helped me enormously!! Now how I make a paper toe shaper is another thing but I am sure it won’t take me to long!! PVA glue and paper? Why not!! I will try! Thanks again you are foot saver!!
You just made my day! Comments like this are a big part of why we love doing what we do. I’m glad we were able to help, Eli. Keep in touch and send me some photos of your shoes!