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Sandal Making with Rachel Sees Snail Shoes

I have been absent a while on the blog (but not on the instaaagram!) because I have been working on getting a good set-up for my picture taking. I happen to be married to a talented photographer, but I hate having to rely on her to get pictures of all my makes. First it requires us to coordinate schedules and settle on a date, and then we have to plan where the shoot will take place and at what time of day, and then I have to figure out what I want to get pictures of, and usually there are so many things on the list that there is no way we can get them all in at one time so I have to prioritize, and then I have to wait on her to process all my photos, and then I have to deal with the guilt of asking her to spend several hours of her weekend helping me find my best angle (which, it turns out, does not even exist). She, of course, says she is happy to do it, which I appreciate, but I would love to have a way to do it all myself so I can work within my own time frame and schedule, etc.

A few months ago Claire taught me how to use her nice Nikon more efficiently, so I got a remote and a simple gray backdrop, set the camera up on it’s tripod and got to work snapping photos. It took a while to get the camera focused (I taped a headshot onto my dressform) but once I got the hang of it, the pictures came out pretty well. The only drawback were our selection of lenses- we needed a wider angle lens to get better images of me from head-to-toe, an expense that didn’t seem quite justified for my every-once-in-a-while blogging habit. But then I filmed an interview for my friend’s show, In Bed With Kristin, and her camera set-up involved a regular tripod with a little connector that allowed her to put her iPhone on top of it. I am sure all of you know of this ingenious little device already, but for me this was a revelation- I could use my iPhone, which takes perfectly good photos, in tandem with a remote control which would allow me to be in charge of all my photo taking needs without having to worry about focus or lights or using my dress form with a headshot taped to it as a stand-in! It’s a simple solution that I am hoping will make my blogging a bit more manageable than it has been, so wish me luck!

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In the meantime, I wanted to write about my latest foray into shoe making! The success of my last pair of flats has left me satisfied with my skill level but also excited to learn different techniques that other DIY shoemakers have adapted over the years, so when I saw that Poketo was offering a sandal making workshop in LA the day before my birthday, I couldn’t sign up fast enough- it seemed like the perfect thing to gift myself…and it was πŸ™‚

The workshop was taught by Portland-based Rachel Corry of Rachel Sees Snail Shoes and the whole experience was fantastic- I highly recommend taking her classes if she comes to your neck of the woods. It probably helps that I came into the class with a fair amount of experience in DIY shoe making, so a lot of the steps were familiar to me, but I still learned a lot about how to make a shoe without a last, and I though Rachel was incredibly gracious, patient, and skilled. Every single shoe that came out of the class looked wonderful and wearable, and all my peers seemed very happy with what they had created.

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Rachel brought several pairs of shoes that she has made over the years, so we got to see a sizable range of designs that we could utilize in the short period of time that we had in the workshop. Normally I am ambitious in workshops and I try to challenge my skills and my creativity, but I decided to try something different this time around and choose a simple design so that I could focus on the process better. Now that I know what a good teacher Rachel is, I probably could have pushed myself a bit further and come up with something of my own design, but I was so inspired by the class and my final shoes that I know I will continue creating sandals based on her technique, and I couldn’t really ask for more than that, you know?

my inspiration shoe from Rachel’s handmade collection

The main things I learned in what I will call The Rachel Process was how to cut out slits in the insoles to allow your upper sandal straps to slide through, and how to then fit the pieces to your foot, which was a lot like fitting a garment on a body in the midst of sewing it. Since we were not using a last for these shoes (and didn’t need to since the toe was uncovered), we used a shoe anvil in tandem with wooden mallets and hammers to work on the bottom of the shoe. I used shoe nails for the first time, cleverly designed little brass tacks that, when hammered against metal, flattened into a nice little pucker on the inside of the shoe so that it wouldn’t poke your feet but would hold the bulky pieces of your straps together. I loved being able to take the shoe off and on again to check for fit, something that using a last doesn’t allow you to do, and it also gives you more freedom in adjusting the sizes.

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slit cutouts on the insole

 

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I LOVE HOLE PUNCHING LEATHER!

Rachel brought lots of pattern pieces for us to choose from to design our own shoes, and after I picked mine out, I decided to trace others so that I could take them home with me for future use. Of COURSE I realized as I was typing this blog post that I left all the patterns at her class when I left on Saturday, so I am feeling foolish for that oversight, but I feel confident that I can recreate some, if not all, of those looks through a little trial and error. The pair I chose to make has a medium sized strap over the toe and a single piece of leather cut out out into an elongated “H” which comes around the front of the ankle and then ties to close the shoe. In addition to the upper leather and the insole, we used foam rubber soling for the bottom of the shoe which is another new technique I learned about in The Rachel Process. All my previous shoes have been made with soling leather on the bottom, but I love how the rubber foam gives you a cushion-y bed underneath your feet and a little bit of height. SO cute and comfortable!

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deconstructed sandals- upper straps, inner soles, and foam rubber soles

The process of putting everything together was familiar except for using the nails; skiving, Barge’s glue, hammering thick parts flat, etc. were all a part of the process, but once the shoe has been put together, you have to trim off the excess foam rubber (which is cut larger than the sole to accommodate any extra room you might need) with a utility knife, and this takes a lot of practice to get right. I was trying to shave a little extra room off the back of my leather soles at the same time as trimming the foam, which proved to be too tricky for my untrained hands, so the heel edge of my shoe was pretty jaggedy. We didn’t have a sander in class so I worried that my shoes were just destined to look really unprofessional if you looked too closely at them, but when I got home I used my Drimmel on the edges and it shaved and smoothed down all the wonky looking areas really well. Next time I will make sure to have my sole trimmed to the exact size and shape I want so that all I have to do in the last step is cut the foam rubber, which trims away like butter.

you can see how jagged the edges were in the back before I took my Drimmel to it.

you can see how jagged the edges were at the heel before I used my Drimmel

I wish that I had used a buckle or a rivet on my shoe so that I could have some experience with those components in the workshop, but I did get to use leather stamps which I COMPLETELY fell in love with. I could stamp leather all day! So fun, so effective, so satisfying! As far as the buckles and rivets, they seem to be pretty easy to use with the right tools, so I will add them to my list of (additional) shoe supplies I need, which isn’t super long- it’s mostly leather tools that I haven’t needed before but that I would love to use in the future. I am planning a trip to a shop called Saderma here in LA that is supposed to be an excellent place to find shoe components, findings, and leather.

fitting the upper straps and marking placement before it gets glued down

fitting the upper straps and marking placement before it gets glued down

 

how the pieces will eventually come together

loose idea of the final shoe

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I am so very happy with how these shoes came out and I am beyond excited to make more using The Rachel Process. Her instagram is filled with her own beautiful makes and those of her talented students, so there is plenty of inspiration to be found there. Here are a few of my favorite photos that she posted to her account- I am dying to replicate them!

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Happy shoe-wearing, friends!

Red leather, yellow leather SHOES!

After Cashmerette posted a really great overview of her sandal making class on her blog, I felt inspired to join in the fun. I think it’s really exciting and motivating to see more and more people dipping their toes into the furthest corners of the DIY-osphere, and it’s also nice for me to document my own stuff so that I can see my personal growth in the arena. I have posted before about general shoe making here, but for this post I am going to do a photo heavy step-by-step show-and tell so that you can see each individual part of my process. This is not a shoe-making tutorial- it’s not meant to guide you through making your own shoes- but rather it’s meant to be a kind of visual synopsis so that you can see the steps involved chronologically and have a better understanding of what is involved in case it’s something you feel like learning more about yourself. Sometimes certain projects seem daunting when I only see it in it’s finished form, but when you see the steps laid out separately it can seem a little more manageable. One important note here is that there are a LOT of different ways to make shoes, and for the most part, none of them are inherently right or wrong; I am still figuring out my own preferences for my process from the information that I have gathered from reading books and taking classes. Ideally I would like to learn how to make shoes the old school way by hand sewing the leather pieces together, using shoe tacks, and using way less toxic cement glue, but for now I am still trying to get more familiar with lasting and understanding how leather works before I move onto sewing them by hand.

The last pair of shoes I made were a pair of brown leather ballet flats and they were the first pair that were both functional and a great fit for the shape and size of my foot. Once they were finished, I was simultaneously thrilled with how they turned out and itching to make another pair to fix all the things that I wanted to change about them.

The construction method I had been working from tells you to leave the edge of your lining as-is while lasting the shoe (meaning not to turn the edge under) and have about 5mm peeking out past the upper. Once the shoe is complete and you’re ready to take the shoe off the last, you are supposed to use a sharp knife to trim the edge of the lining off of the shoe. This, in my experience, is a TERRIBLE idea. For one thing, your knife has to be super duper super sharp to slice the edges smoothly, but you have to cut carefully so that you don’t slice into the upper of your shoe. You also end up digging into your shoe last with your knife, carving out a huge and unsightly circle around the last. I consider myself to be fairly dexterous, but on each pair of shoes I used this method on, my results were disastrous. The upper leather is butchered with tiny slices dug into it from my knife, and the lining edge underneath isn’t cut smoothly at all- it peeks out in some places, is cut down to the inside of the shoe in others, and is generally raggedy looking. For the next pair I made, I wanted to fold down the edge of my lining and sew the upper and the lining together around the mouth of the shoe so that I wouldn’t have a raw edge that needed to be cut later.

The other thing I needed to change about the shoe was my tight grip during the lasting process. Lasting means pulling and securing the lining and the upper around the shoe mold, aka last, and if you pull the leather too tight, you risk shortening the rise of your shoe. And finally, I wanted to finesse the look of my sole. In my leather working book I read about burnishing the edges of the leather so that it looks smooth and clean and it doesn’t have the rough fibers of the leather poking out anywhere, so I was excited to apply this technique to my next pair.

Now that my latest pair of shoes are done, I can see exactly what worked and didn’t. Pretty much everything I wanted to fix from my last pair was successful: the rise is perfect on these and they fit on my feet without feeling like they are going to fall off. The lining edge is sewn under and looks clean and smooth next to the upper. The soles look great with their burnished edges. I put in some small arch supports so that the shoes wouldn’t be so flat. I added a small heel made of one layer of leather and one of rubber (I might add rubber to the sole of the rest of the shoe but I wanted to wear them first to see if they were necessary. The only thing that I messed up was forgetting to skiv the seams of the shoe. With my last pair, the leather was pretty thin and didn’t create much bulk at the seams at all, but this leather was much thicker, and forgetting to thin those edges was a total oversight on my part. As a result, the seams are super bulky. I think the shoes still look great, but I wish I had paid better attention to that. My only other issue, and this is a small one, is figuring out how to keep light-colored leather looking great while turning them into shoes. The process gets a bit messy, especially with the cement glue, and once they were all finished I kept finding tiny spots of dirt and gunk on the yellow leather. I could probably treat the leather before making the shoes so that dirt and grime will wipe off easily once they are complete.

Now, onto the steps of construction (from here on out, captions will be placed below the accompanying photo)!

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I used some scrap felt material and small nails to play around with the design of the shoe before cutting out my leather. I have a few cool ideas for shoes with cut outs and interesting design features, but I want to get good at making a simple slip-on first. This style basically looks like a pair of TOM’s.

 

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Once I figured out my pattern from the felt template, I cut out the pieces from my leather. The yellow leather is for my upper (or the outer part of the shoe) and the dark blue is a lighter weight leather that I use for the lining and the inner soles. There are two pieces to the pattern aside from the insole: one U shaped for the toe area, and a longer piece which will make up the sides and back of the shoe. The pieces are sewn together on my sewing machine.

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Before sewing the two pieces of the pattern together, I used cement glue to tack them into place. It is important to let this dry before using your sewing machine to sew the pieces together, otherwise your needle will get gunky with glue.

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Cutting the inner sole shapes out of foamboard.

 

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Totally forgot to turn over one inner sole pattern piece when cutting out of my foam board so I had two left feet!

 

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I bought some gel arch inserts for my insoles to give me a little support in the shoe and they worked out very well! I just glued them onto the foam board in the proper place before I attached my lining leather .

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Lining leather is cut out in the shape of the insoles with extra room around all edges to fold over to the underside. Both surfaces must be coated in a thin layer of glue, left to dry til it’s barely tacky, then pressed together so that the cement can properly adhere.

 

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The inner curve of the insole leather gets little snips cut into it so that it can be folded smoothly around the edges.

 

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Insoles are temporarily attached to the bottom of the lasts with either tape or nails- I don’t have a preference, because sometimes tiny nail holes are left in visible places on the top of the insole, and other times the tape is hard to get off once the upper and lining has been lasted.

 

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The upper leather and lining leather get a bit of glue around all the edges where it will be folded over and later stitched- here is where I should have remembered to skiv the leather to thin it out and make it less bulky. I think I forgot to take a picture for the next couple of steps in this process so I will just explain it. After the edges of the upper and lining have been glued under, I put the lining and the upper leather pattern pieces together so that wrong sides are facing and I sew them together around the mouth of the shoe. The bottom parts of the leather are left as-is. I also separately sew up the back seams (they are not connected here). You see the little V-shape cut out in the photo above? That gets sewn together with about 5 mm seam allowance and creates a little curve in the shoe where the heel of your foot rests.

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Next I cut out pattern pieces for my toe boxes and counters. A toe box is a piece of firm material that covers your toe area and keeps your toes from poking through the upper fabric (in case you have wildly sharp toenails or something??) and also keeps your toe shape from distorting the upper material. A counter firms up the back of the shoe so that it retains it’s shape throughout wear. Check out a pair of shoes that you have, flats or heels- you might not have noticed it before but if you feel around the shoe, you will find a firmer material in the back area and most likely the toe area, too.

I seem to be missing another important photo here! UGH! I know that in support of the maker blogger community I’m not supposed to be ablogogizing anymore, so ummm. I guess, deal with it? HA! Anyways, here is what is missing: I placed my upper and lining leather that I had sewn together in a previous step onto the last. Then I pulled JUST the lining leather around the last and onto the bottom of the shoe (the upper leather is connected to the lining leather only at the top, remember?), and then I glued the lining in place by connecting it to the bottom of the insole that I had temporarily attached to the last. I will be doing this step again with the upper leather and I have pics of it later on in this post, so just imagine that happening with the lining leather first. After the lining has been lasted, the toe area and back area where the counter will go is covered with a thin layer of glue.

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Once my lining leather is in place, it’s time to adhere the toe box and counter. These are made of a heat activated material with a sticky glue on one side (this part goes onto the lining) that I warm up in the oven just to get pliable. Then I use my heat gun to warm it up even more and finish applying it. When this material cools it hardens, so you have to work fast while also taking care not to burn your fingers on the hot material. You want to cover the toe area with the toe box and and bring all the extra material to the underside while making sure it doesn’t have creases or ridges on the top of the shoe. This part is tricky, but I am getting better at it, and you can always re-heat the material to make it soft and pliable again if you mess it up.

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Here is what the last looks like once the toe box and counter have been applied. You can see my lining leather folded around the last and glued onto the underside of the insole/foamboard, and the upper leather is unattached except at the mouth of the shoe.

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Here is one of the most important parts of shoe making, and it also happens to be the most tiresome and time-sucking! It is called skivving (I mentioned it earlier), and it essentially involves using a sharp blade to trim and thin out the bulky area of your shoes. In the above photo I am using a special tool which helps keep your fingers safe while skiving, which is nice because it’s easy to cut yourself in this step- you want a very sharp blade but you also need to use a good amount of strength to shave off the most material in thick areas. I have found that using a sanding attachment on my Dremel helps with a lot with reducing bulk, but you have to go SO slowly and carefully or you might sand off some of the leather on the sides of the shoe (which I have done. Many, many times).

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Here is a photo of one shoe that has the toe box skivved and one that doesn’t. Some of the folds of the lining leather have also been trimmed to minimize bulk.

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Once the toe box and counters have been skived down, it’s time to last the outer/upper of the shoe. Glue gets applied liberally on the inside of the outer leather and on the bottom of the shoe- this type of glue only adheres to itself, so it must be applies to everything that needs to stick together.

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Once the glue on both areas is slightly dry, you can start folding your leather onto the bottom of the shoe. The goal is to pull the leather around tightly and uniformly so that it doesn’t crease and gather in folds on the visible parts of the shoe, but you also don’t want to pull so much that the shoe loses it’s shape on the top of the last (this is how my previous pair of flats are so low around the foot- I pulled the leather too tightly). The thicker your leather is, the more difficult it is to get the toe area completely smooth- I didn’t perfect it on this pair of shoes but it’s not very visible unless you are looking at the shoes from the bottom.

yellowshoes_blog22Here is what the shoe looks like once its been fully lasted with glue, and now it’s time to skiv the crap out of it and reduce all that bulk.

yellowshoes_blog27I drew a faint line around the edge above the line of where the sole will go to show me where I couldn’t skiv past.

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The shoe bottom is now skived, and it also needs to be sanded so that the soling leather will adhere to it properly. I have traced an outline of my finished shoe onto the leather I am using for the soles (it’s 12 oz and much thicker than the lining and upper leather). I keep forgetting to cut the soles out slightly larger than the actual shoe, particularly around the toe area! DOH!

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As I mentioned, I recently read about a technique called “burnishing” that finishes the edges of your leather, and I used it on this pair of shoes and am thrilled with the results! To burnish leather, you first use a tool called a beveler to smooth the rough edges, and it worked fine, but I think my tool was slightly smaller than what I needed, so I ended up mostly using my Dremel to sand and even out the edge of the soling leather. Next I used a simple solution of mod podge and water (my book recommends something called “paper gum” which I could not find for purchase anywhere on google and which ultimately just seemed like elmer’s craft glue diluted with water) which I applied to the outside edges of the sole, and then I used a piece of canvas fabric to vigorously rub the edge of the sole with the glue solution on it. According to my book, the friction of the rubbing creates heat which binds the fibers of the leather together and then the watery glue holds it in, giving the edge a clean look. Above, you can see the burnished leather on the left and the non-burnished on the right- it makes a big difference!

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The bottom of the shoe and the inside bottom of the soling leather get coated with glue which is left to dry for at least a half hour and up to a full day, making the bond even stronger.

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To activate the glue once it has completely dried, you can heat it up with your heat gun, which is helpful because it allows you to work area by area, making sure that your sole is attaching to the shoe bottom in just the right places.

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I press the sole onto the bottom of the shoe for several seconds with as much strength as I can muster, but because I don’t have a fancy shoe press like the ones in factories, I came up with another idea.

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Not fancy, but it gets the job done! I used some clips from my woodshop to keep a tight grip on the sole and shoe as the glue dried, and I used extra bits of rubber to keep the clips from leaving marks on the leather.

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yellowshoes_blog31I wanted to see what it was like to make flats with a small heel after I saw a blog post on pinterest of a shoemaker making a stacked heel out of leather (SO COOL!), so I cut out a piece of soling leather and an accompanying piece of sole rubber to glue together and stick onto the bottom of my shoe.

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Once everything has been glued together and is completely dry, you can carefully pull your last out of the shoe and try it on! I’m not gonna lie, I always do this step way before everything is dry because the anticipation of trying the shoe on after all your hard work is just too great!

 

Here are some comparison photos of the previous flats I made and the new yellow shoes:

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You can’t really tell from these photos but the sides are much higher (and therefore better fitting) on the yellow shoes than the brown ones. You can see how sloppy the edges of the mouth look on the brown ones look compared to the yellow ones, and you can also see how bulky the seams on the yellow ones look. They are not uncomfortable at all, they just don’t look as streamlined as the seams on the brown ones- again, this is because I totally forgot to skiv the seams of the leather before I attached the pieces together at the seams.

 

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The actual sole of the yellow shoe looks great, but the toe area is a little bulky and not very smooth where I pulled it around the last.

yellowshoes_blog34You can see the detail of how much better the lining leather looks on the yellow (bottom) shoe when I folded and sewed the lining and outer leather together instead of leaving the lining leather free and cutting around it with a knife as I was instructed to do on the brown pair.

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I’m not sold on the soling rubber on the heel as of right now. I used it to protect the soling leather from getting so scuffed up, but the rubber feels kind of sticky on the ground and sometimes makes me trip a bit- not so much that I fall or anything, but something about it doesn’t feel quite right. I might see if I can pull the rubber pieces off cause I know they will feel fine without them.

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I have worn my new leather shoes several times since I finished them and I absolutely adore them- the color is amazing, they are comfortable and I like having a simple design style like a TOM’s shoe without having to actually wear TOM’s. As you can see, there are a lot of steps involves in making shoes, but they don’t actually take that long- you can definitely start and finish a pair in a day with the exception of the glue-drying time. The trickiest part of shoe making is gathering all the various tools and materials that you will need, and for shoes like the kind I make, finding the last is the hardest part of the battle. You need a different last for each size of shoe you make and for each style, in addition to whether or not you want a flat or a heel, and if you want a heel, you need a different last for each heel height. Because different companies have different sizing in their lasts (in the same way that trying an 8.5 size shoe in one brand might feel totally different in another brand), my best method of finding a good last is going by measurement in inches from toe to heel. I have had the most success finding vintage lasts on eBay, but there are specific companies that sell new lasts online, and etsy also has shops that sell plastic and wood lasts. I don’t have a preference between plastic and wood myself- I have used both and they yielded great results, although I suppose that wood lasts are more aesthetically pleasing.

Some additional resources for you to check out:

This is the book that got me started on this journey a couple of years ago! It is an excellent book with great illustrations, articulate instructions, and info on making your own lasts and shoes out of found materials. It is super informative and all the information I have gathered from classes and courses in the past couple of years has had similar methods to what Loomis writes about in her book.

I CAN MAKE SHOES is an online source I have relied on, and they also offer classes in-person in certain areas (I think they are located in the UK). They have some great materials for purchase in their shop and their shoe making kits are a great starting point for people who are interested in dipping their toes in the shoe-making waters without having to fully commit to buying all the supplies and tools necessary.

Prescott & McKay is another good source for taking classes in shoe-making, and although they are based in the UK, they come to the states and offer satellite sources several times a year. I took their one-day shoe making course, and although I thought it was fun and helpful, I think that their 2+ day seminars are probably better. One day just doesn’t seem to be enough time to learn all the complicated bits and pieces of shoe making from scratch while also paying attention to design. I think this course would have been amazing if they had given us less freedom in designing the shoe and instead focused more on functionality- I would much rather have had less choice in how my resulting shoe looked as long as it ended up being wearable, which it wasn’t, because we didn’t have enough time to learn about strap placement and buckles, etc.

Shoedo is an online store that sells various shoe components that are normally difficult to find if you are not buying wholesale, and I am so excited to have stumbled across them. I bought my foam board, several pairs of heels and some lasts from this site, in addition to other bits and pieces that I needed to stock up on.

This of course is just a tiny little snippet of all the resources available to amateur shoemakers- etsy, craigslist and eBay have lots of more options on where to buy the components you need, and there are a surprising number of blogs out there by bespoke shoe makers who write about their process and share tutorials on how to do what they do. Although I have learned a lot in the past couple of years, I am excited to continue my journey of learning even more. As I wrote at the beginning of this post, I am super excited to learn how to handsew leather shoes as opposed to just gluing the pieces together, and I am also looking forward to taking a leather sandal making class this Spring that is coming to Los Angeles. The method they teach doesn’t involve using a last and is instead based on the measurements of your individual foot. I can’t wait to see how that works! Hopefully it will be successful enough that I can share everything about it here on the blog, so stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shoe Makery

Around Christmas time last year I was deep in the rabbit hole of sewing blogs and reading the personal musings of strangers ad nauseam when I stumbled across a post about DIY shoe making. I don’t remember the name of the girl or her blog, but I did make sure to pin all the information she shared. I was immediately intrigued by the idea of making my own shoes, and more than a little shocked- I didn’t think that cobbling shoes would have ever evolved (or devolved, depending on where you stand on the subject) into something a person could do on their own without major machinery and decades of experience under their belts. I was so excited about the prospect that my heart started to race fast and I couldn’t google search fast enough! For something I had never before even conceived as a reality, there sure was a fair amount of information about it on the internets. There are so many schools of thought regarding the best ways to DIY your own shoes, and the finished projects run the gamut from super simplistic felted slippers to high heeled shoes with leather soles and buckles. I am still weeding my way through all the information I am finding, and hopefully I will get to a place where I can keep the ideas and techniques that work for what I want to create and discard all the other stuff, melding a bunch of steps from different schools of thought into a method that works best for me. That sounds really optimistic and I realize that I may never have the chance to see this through, but the process has proven to be SUPER fun and challenging so far.

The first avenue I went down on the road to shoe-making was to buy this book by Mary Wales Loomis, which I had learned about in that blog I stumbled upon. Mary Wales Loomis is an entrepreneur who published Make Your Own Shoes, a book about the technique she developed for building her own shoes after she essentially took one of her favorite shoes apart to see how it was made and then replicated it using inexpensive and found materials. Her story is incredibly inspiring because she never took “no” for an answer (the art of cobbling seems to have a lot of gatekeepers in place to ensure that no one ever gets the idea that shoemaking can be done for FUN and CHEAPLY), and she researched and asked professionals and experimented on her own for a long time until she was finally able to successfully make her first wearable pair of shoes. I am about mid-way through my first pair of shoes using the steps in her book, and I also made a pair of lasts per her instructions.

vintage shoes from Goodwill filled with plaster of paris.

vintage shoes from Goodwill filled with plaster of paris.

For those unfamiliar, lasts are molds that mimic the general shape and curves of a foot, and you build your shoe around it. They are made either out of wood or durable plastic, and you need a different last for each of your feet. Lasts also differ for size, heel height and each toe shape (like oval, square, pointy or round). If you know where to look, you can buy affordable vintage lasts online or new ones from specialty shoe component stores, but you can also make them out of an old pair of shoes and plaster of paris, which is how I made my first pair. The con of making your own lasts is that you can’t bend or fold the last once your components are put together on it, so you have to use different steps when molding the shoe upper and attaching the insole. The pro is that they are super cheap to make and you can cater them to your own specific needs, like if you have a bunion or one foot that is a different size than the other, or extremely narrow feet.

 

The other direction I went down in my quest to learn to make shoes was to seek out ready-made shoe kits with all the components necessary to make a pair of shoes. This is where I discovered a company called I Can Make Shoes based out of London that offers classes in addition to their kits to give you hands-on training in making shoes. Although the idea of the kit is innovative and oh-so tempting, I opted to hold off on buying one to do a little more researching on my own instead- for a little more than the price of a kit, I could spend money on tools and components and have enough material to make a FEW pairs of shoes instead of just one. I Can Make Shoes also offers PDFs for purchase on shoe design and shoe making, so I might just buy some of that material to add to my ever expanding pile of research.

After finding the I Can Make Shoes brand, I discovered yet another make-your-own-shoes organization called Prescott & Mackay, also based out of London, that offered 1 day, 2 day, and 5 day courses in everything from leather bags to high heeled shoes to sandals to accessories. I was really interested in this company because I saw that a couple times a year they offered a course in Berkley, CA, and traveling up to the Bay area seemed a lot easier than flying to London for a week. The next course they were offering in the states was for a 5 day heel making class in Berkley that was to take place in the middle of April, which was already turning out to be a busy month for me; I decided I couldn’t make it happen then and would instead try and sign up for the class they would be offering in the Fall. But lo and behold, a few days later I received a newsletter from P&M saying they were offering their first ever course in Los Angeles, a 1 day sandal making class, and it happened to be on a day when I was free. It seemed too serendipitous to pass up.

 

Shoe components

Shoe components

The class was taught by Melissa of P&M who was very knowledgeable and efficient in her teaching skills, and just generally a lovely person to learn from. She was able to rent the space of a furniture store in Mid-City to hold the class, and myself and four other women all sat at a big table with all the tools and components necessary for the sandals placed in front of us and got to learn the basics of shoe making together. The mood was lively and easy-going, but 8 hours to make a pair of sandals from scratch is hardly enough time if you have never done it before (some of us had more experience than others). I appreciated the “1 day” aspect of the course, but it was really only enough time to physically make the shoes- we could have used a few more hours to talk about design, functionality and wear-ability of our sandals. The other unfortunate thing about our class was that there were no machines to sew straps or tidy up leather edges or press our soles on, since it was a pop-up class in an environment that didn’t have the conveniences of their London school. So we were a bit limited in what we could do with our shoes. But this is in no way a complaint- I was very happy with the course, I learned a ton from Melissa and from the other people in the class, and it was a perfect companion to Loomis’ Make Your Own Shoes book, which I had already read cover to cover.

paper lining pattern + leather lining (pigskin)

paper lining pattern + leather lining (pigskin)

this insole is made special for sandals so that you can place the straps in the little nooks on the bottom.

this insole is made special for sandals so that you can place the straps in the little nooks on the bottom. here the insole is nailed to the bottom of the last to keep it steady.

fitting the leather onto the insole by clipping curves, just like in sewing!

fitting the leather onto the insole by clipping curves, just like in sewing!

finished leather insoles.

finished leather insoles.

I learned a few really key things in the P&M class that have me very excited to continue the process of DIY shoe making. The first is this: leather is, from my vantage point, the most ideal material to make shoes from, and I am very excited to learn more about leather crafting. I bought myself a couple of introductory books into leather making last year, the most useful of which is called The Leatherworking Handbook, which gives a very detailed overview of the different types of leather, what you can make with it, and how to work with it and sew it. Having a better understanding of leather and how to manipulate it is going to aid me a lot in being able to make the kinds of shoes that I envision in my head, and I never realized this before. When I first started making shoes from the steps provided in Make Your Own Shoes, I tried to start with plain fabric material since I was just learning. Regular fabric is definitely a fine material to use, but it requires so much to make it sturdy and pliable- using a good leather of the proper weight takes less work, less material, and creates beautiful results. Becoming more knowledgeable about leather crafting will make this book more helpful to me, too (I am dying to make a pair of cute Mary Janes using the guidelines from this document).

very pretty but barely wearable.

very pretty but barely wearable.

Another thing that I learned in class was that you must be as thoughtful about the design of your shoe as you are about the process of making it. As I wrote earlier, our class did not allow us much time to contemplate the blueprint of what we were creating, which makes perfect sense given the constraints of the course. In my head I was intending to make a wedge sandal with leather straps across the top of the shoe and a leather back that had straps or a buckle to tie around the ankle. By the time I was ready to plan out how the back of my shoe would look, we had already moved on to the next phase of gluing our shoe pieces together, which required some time limitations, so if I wanted to have a completed shoe by the end of the class, I needed to alter my design, sans shoe back. My last minute decision was to add some skinnier straps to criss-cross over the shoe from the inner toe edge to the opposite heel edge, which lookedΒ  pretty, but I knew it wasn’t going to be sturdy enough to keep the shoe on the foot, and I was totally right. At the end of class when our shoes had all been glued together, I tried mine on, and as soon as I took a step in it it just kind of slid around and then OFF of my foot; in addition to inefficient strap placement, the last that I used to make my shoes was also one size too big, so that didn’t do anything to help them stay on my feet. If I had had enough time (and the equipment necessary) to make a back to the shoes, they might have actually been wearable, but I wasn’t too disappointed- I learned a lot and I definitely feel more confident in making more sandals for the future, and that’s really all I wanted from the course. By listening to the other ladies in class chat, I also learned of the best place in LA to get beautiful, affordable leather (it’s called SAVE MOR and it’s incredible!) and I learned of some new sources to buy shoe components and lasts- I am keeping my eyes out for a flat ladies last with a slightly rounded toe in my size- if you find one, holler at me.

top view looks cute as long as I am stationary.

top view looks cute as long as I am stationary.

 

side view- you can see the I didn't do a great job with gluing the soles to the bottom, but there wasn't enough time in class to re-glue, and I already knew they weren't going to function so I didn't want to waste my time.

side view- you can see that I didn’t do a great job with gluing the soles to the bottom, but there wasn’t enough time in class to re-glue and re-attach, and I already knew the shoes weren’t going to function so I didn’t want to waste my time.