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MeMade Birkenstocks

The first question that I know the majority of you will be asking is where do I get authentic cork Birkenstock footbeds?, so let me go on and get that answer out of the way: I have NO idea! That’s something you will have to search for on your own! The footbeds are out there because I stumbled upon mine accidentally, but I don’t know of a one-stop shop where you can buy them (not that such a place doesn’t exist- I assume it does and can be uncovered by a bit of googling). If your city has a shoe components shop, obviously check there first- that’s where I found my footbeds. Saderma (no website) is a leather and shoe findings store here in Los Angeles that has been servicing shoe repair shops and cobblers for years, and once I started making shoes I would head there to buy shoe heels, Barge’s cement glue, and used lasts. On one visit I saw a shelf full of packages of what looked like Birkenstocks, and upon closer inspection I realized I was half right- they were Birks,but they were unfinished: just the footbeds with no soles or uppers. I bought a couple pairs not knowing at all how to make them, but I figured that I could suss it out on my own with my already-acquired basic shoe making knowledge, and I was right.

Another place to check for these footbeds locally would be a cobbler/shoe repair shop in your area, since these are the places that generally buy the footbeds from the distributors. You know how after years of hard wear the cork on a pair of Birks, if not taken care of, can wear down so much that they are threadbare in places? Well a shoe repair person can take your beloved old sandals and save the uppers by replacing the corkbeds and the bottom soles. So you might have some luck reaching out to one of those shops and asking if you can buy a pair from them or asking them to order a pair for you to use on your own. Maybe they will charge you a few extra bucks for them, but in my opinion it’s still worth it: I pay $36 for each pair of footbeds, so compared to the average price tag of $140 for a pair of finished Birks, they are a steal.

Here is a list of basic supplies I used for my Birks:

  • thick leather for the uppers
  • Barge’s rubber cement glue (I wouldn’t recommend using anything other than Barge’s for these- there are non toxic glues you can work with to put together uppers and glue them in place on certain shoes, but when it comes to putting together a hearty, strong sole, rubber cement is the only thing that wont melt on hot pavement or start pulling apart at the seams after time)
  • thick rubber soling for the bottom of the footbed (I get my Birkenstock bottom replica soling from Saderma, but I have seen thick rubber soling in cool colors on eBay- again, hunt around!)
  • nylon thread
  • a leather needle
  • a multi-sized hole punch
  • buckles, clasps, or decorative pieces depending on your design

I’ve made several pairs of Birkenstocks and I have come up with my own designs as well as used the standard two-buckle design. If you decide to use a standard Birkenstock design, I highly urge you to make a pattern based on a completed pair. Borrow them if you don’t have a pair of your own, or you could even purchase a knock-off pair from some place like Target, trace the pieces, then return them! The reason for basing the pattern off of a finished pair is that even though the sandal looks very straightforward, it is actually drafted very specifically to mold over the shape of a foot, which is why the uppers are so comfortable and easy to wear. I always assumed it was just two straps on one side, two buckles on the other and that’s it, but once I traced my own pair I realized that the shapes of the pieces were unusual and not something that could just be thoughtlessly sketched out onto some paper. If you have a flat last that will fit into a Birk shoe bed, you can also make a pattern using the masking tape method and it will probably yield similar results.

There needs to be enough leather added to the underside edge of the pattern piece so that it can reach around under the footbed. The straps also need to be the correct width of the buckles so that they can slide easily through them- it’s easier to shave off some extra width so that it will fit than it is to have straps that are too skinny.

 

Once my pattern pieces are laid out, I trace them out of my leather. I found a beautiful oxblood suede at The Fabric Store, but it was a little flimsier than I would like- since these sandals need to be able to hold up to heavy wear, I want the uppers to be soft for comfort but strong for durability. The fix for this was easy- I glued two pieces of the leather together (this is a great opportunity for using the non-toxic glue if I want to limit my exposure to Barge’s) and let it dry, then cut out my pattern pieces: double the weight of my original leather with very little fuss.

Since I am making a standard 2-strap design for this pair of Birks, I attached my buckles to the outer pattern pieces at this point. On authentic Birks, the buckles are held into place by a kind of metal staple that is formed around the bar of the buckle and clasped closed on the other side. They are discreet and you can’t feel them on the other side of the leather.

I was unable to replicate this exact technique because I couldn’t find what kind of metal staple was used to secure the buckle, nor could I figure out the device used to apply it, but even if I could, it seemed an extravagant thing to have for someone who just make Birkenstocks for fun for herself and her family. So instead I just sew my buckles onto the leather in a tiny criss cross pattern using Nylon thread (it’s important to use nylon thread when shoemaking with leather as opposed to a thread made of natural fibers or a sewing thread, because cotton will disintegrate over time and you need the thread to be thick and strong).

I made a pair of polka dot Birks about a year ago and the nylon thread has held up beautifully, but the stitches need to be tight and secure, knotted at the beginning and ends of them (I also held a small flame to the ends of my knot to melt the thread for extra security). It helps to punch tiny holes in the leather to sew the stitches into, and it also makes the criss cross look neater. Ultimately this area is covered up by the strap so if it doesn’t come out looking that great, it won’t be seen anyways!

After attaching the buckle, I positioned the leather upper pieces around the edges of the footbed. These Birks are actually for my brother for a Father’s Day gift so I wasn’t able to position them around my foot in the sole, but thankfully these footbeds come with markings on the bottom for where the straps should hit, which takes out a lot of the guesswork. Another cool thing is that they seem to use the same sized pattern pieces for a variety of sizes, so the pattern pieces I created for my polka dot Birks work just as well for this pair for my brother which is several sizes larger.

 

Once buckles are complete I punch holes the matching width of the buckle bar into the straps.

When making regular sandals around curved edges, you often have to cut some darts into the underside parts of the upper pieces so that you can mold them around the curve and they will fit the foot well and not gape anywhere (this is the same premise as cutting notches into a curved edge of fabric in sewing), but since I didn’t have the luxury of actually molding these onto my brother’s feet I didn’t really need to use them. Also the edge of the footbed is pretty straight as opposed to curved so the notches weren’t as necessary, but I cut them out of habit before realizing I didn’t need to. I did try to curve the upper outer edge of the pattern piece around the toe because I remember that it wanted to gape out a bit when I constructing my first pair.

This part is easy to figure out if you are molding them around your own feet though. When positioning the uppers around the footbed, I use the marks on the bottom of the footbed as a guide but you don’t have to be married to them- I played around with what looked/felt best.

Safety first when working with Barge’s!

Once I figure out the best positioning, I use tape to secure the edges to the bottom of the footbed, then mark the outer edges of each piece so that I know what and where to glue. I also make sure to mark the insides of the uppers and up the sides of the cork footbed- this rubber cement glue only adheres to other glue, so both sides being adhered need to have a thin, even coating. After applying the glue, I let it dry for a few minutes before sticking them together, pressing hard and then pounding with my rubber mallet.

The final steps are attaching the soles to the footbeds. I skive the edges of the leather on the underside to create less bulk, but I also could have poured shredded cork onto the bottoms to fill in the gaps between the leather and the footbed.

I cut out a piece of rubber soling for each shoe that is larger than the shape of the shoe. It is much easier to adhere the pieces together and cut around the soling than it is to cut an exact soling shape out and then try and line it up perfectly (trust me, I learned this from Rachel of RachelSeesSnailShoes and she is the shoemaking QUEEN).

I mark the general area of the shoe on the soling so that I don’t waste too much glue, then evenly coat the sole and the bottom of the footbed with glue. I wait another few minutes til the glue is tacky, then press hard with my hands to squeeze the pieces together, especially around the thick edges of the upper and the sole where it wants to gape, and then I gently pound the bottom and sides with a rubber mallet on my shoe anvil.

If there are any gaps still between the footbed and the sole, I try to squeeze tiny drops of glue inside, then press hard at that area. I used a clamp here to squeeze them for longer than my hands wanted to and it worked really well!

 

Once the glue is dry and the footbed and sole are pressed together, I take my utility knife (essential in home- shoe making…who knew?!) and very slowly and carefully guide my blade around the edge of the sole. Rubber soling is very easy to cut with a sharp blade, it’s just important to remember to keep your blade perpendicular to the shoe so that the cut is straight up and down along the side of the shoe as opposed to leaning in or out. Since the cut is so smooth it’s usually not necessary to sand the edges, but if I need to I will take it my belt sander, or I will use my Dremel if the spot that needs to be sanded down is pretty tiny.

One coat of cork protectant and voila! I have a beautiful pair of Birkenstocks made especially for my sweet brother Nick, who I am hoping will wear them with pride! Apparently he and his wife just bought my toddler nephew his first pair of Birkenstocks so I am hoping I can get some cute pics of them rocking them together!

Nick, for anyone who has been following this blog for a year or more remembers, got really sick this time last year and was in the ICU for Father’s Day and in a coma soon after that. He was in there for weeks and things got really really dark and terrifying before they got better. Last year I had made him a leather wallet with his initials engraved on it for Father’s Day but he got sick before he could open it, and when things were at their lowest I was afraid he would never see it. But WOW what a difference a year makes! He is all the way healed up now and I am beyond thankful for his recovery and his health, and I am so happy I got the opportunity to make him something special again. I know you don’t read this blog, Nick, but if by chance you ever do stumble upon it, for the ten thousandth time, I LOVE YOU MORE THAN YOU COULD EVER IMAGINE AND I AM SO HAPPY YOU ARE HERE!!!!!

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!

classroom

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 🙂

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.

samples

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.

cutout

slit cutouts on the insole

 

holepunch

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!

deconstructed

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

wearing

wearing2

closeup2

closeup

closeup3

closeup4

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!

inspiration4

inspiration5 inspiration6 inspiration3

inspiration1

Happy shoe-wearing, friends!