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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!!!!!

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 looked  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.