Learn to make shoes day #3

sewing threads

Word of the day for day #3 is “last”.  A last is a 3 dimensional representation of the human foot, and is what is used to shape the shoe.  Lasting is the process of stretching the leather over the last to make a shoe.  It’s lasting day – fitting the shoe to the last. The fruit of our hard labours so far, when the shoe takes real form.

But first off, I painted an acrylic leather coating on my uppers, as the antique look of my leather showed a tendency to peel off under any kind of stress. Removing excess glue, hammering or rubbing caused the purple to lift off and reveal the black underneath. So hopefully the coat will provide a little more protection.

Then it was back to the sewing machine to finish attaching the quarters to the vamp, first glueing and then sewing. When I’d finished the day before, I had glued one side but not yet sewn it. I didn’t realise this and carried on glueing and then sewing the other side. While the glue is firm enough to hold the pieces together while they are sewn, they are not strong enough to hold one side together while the other side is being manipulated to fit under the sewing machine. A timely reminder that to get the best results, you really need to work in the correct order, else you risk making life so much more difficult for yourself.  Lesson learnt.  Well, that lesson at least.  You will recall I got the lining caught under the stitching yesterday by mistake. I did not learn that lesson well enough and was very peeved with myself to find I’d done it again. Sigh. More unpicking and carefully retracing my needle marks.

Once all the quarters were attached to the vamp it was time to glue the lining pieces together. A wee bit of trimming here and there to get it flat, then spread the contact glue on each side, wait for it to go off, and fit it all together smoothly. While this part will mostly not be seen, any folds or creases could create a sore spot and make the shoes uncomfortable, so it’s important to get it as flat and well fitted as possible.


Next up was eyelets, my nemesis. I’ve always struggled to get this sort of thing to go together neatly, and today was no exception. I had chosen pointy ones rather than the standard round, with the idea that the points would keep nicely with the star theme I have going on. There was no metal mould to fit the pointy ones in whilst bashing them on, so they didn’t go on very cleanly.  I suspect that there are sharp edges inside the holes and shoelaces will shred quickly. I may have to replace the eyelets, but I decided to mull on it overnight, and hope that when I go back tomorrow, the eyelet fairies will have visited and re-done them all beautifully for me.


So those two setbacks rattled my confidence a little and I had a few moments of self-doubt – what the hell was I thinking when I thought I could make shoes? But I didn’t come here to quit, so gave myself a metaphorical kick up the jacksie and carried on.

Lasting was up next. Apparently, this is the hardest part, and all the best shoemakers don’t bother with the minor jobs like closing (sewing in layman’s terms) and their big skill is in the lasting.
The first step is to put in a counter. This is made of vegetan – leather that has been treated with wood tannins rather than metal and is soaked in water until it stops releasing air bubbles, and is then painted on one side with PVA. This gets inserted into the heel, glued side towards the lining, and is what will ultimately give the heel it’s firmness.

Now it’s time to put the shoe on the last. This is first coated with talcum powder so that the shoe will slip off more easily once it’s completed. Then the shoe is tacked on to the last at the heel, using a couple of short tacks. That bit is reasonably easy. Then things get terrifying. The toe of the shoe is grabbed with the lasting tool, which is like a curved pair of pliers, and the leather is lifted up towards the ceiling and then folded down over the bottom of the shoe and tacked in place.  The aim is to get the upper into the 2cm lasting allowance drawn on the bottom with pen.

lasting step 1

Thankfully Lou did this first off, else I would have probably had a heart attack. Just watching her do it had me imagining leather ripping, stitching letting go and stars popping out. Once the first two points were tacked, back and front, we turned the shoe over, and I truly felt gutted when I saw how creased and out of shape the shoe was. All this effort to get this far and it was ruined.

ok I’m panicking now!

Of course, I was being a drama queen, and this is exactly what happens at the beginning. The goal is to continue stretching the leather over the last until it is smooth all around. Grab the leather and lining with the lasting tool, lift it up towards the ceiling, fold it over the shoe bottom, tack it in place. Repeat, front, left side, right side, front, left side, right side, turning occasionally to check the front of the shoe until all the creases are gone, and it is smooth. The leather was sprayed with a stretching agent, which seemed to make it give much better, and helped to keep the fragile surface intact. It was amazing to work with the leather and watch it stretch and mold and then hold it’s shape. I would never have believed how malleable it was without seeing it for myself.

Still a couple of creases but starting to look more like a shoe should.

You can see the blackish mark at the toe, this is where the surface is coming off the leather.  I’m thinking of it as the Milky Way amongst my stars.

The last bit is the “waist” of the shoe, the skinny bit that is under the arch of the foot. Same deal as before, stretch gently this time, fold, tack. So now the whole shoe is attached to the base using tacks. Starting at the heel, the short tacks are removed and longer ones hammered in. This is so that the leather will be held in place, but can be lifted up the height of the tack so that we can get the glue brush in underneath. Contact glue on the inside of the lining and on the bottom of the shoe, but this time it is given a few seconds blast with the heat gun to really activate the glue and make it a very strong bond.

Next, the heel gets attention, and the leather is hammered gently at the edge to get a really smooth finish. Again, tall tacks are used so the leather can be lifted up, glued under and hammered down again. Repeat all over again with the upper layer of leather.

Once it’s glued, the tall tacks are removed and just a few short ones hammered in. The short ones start really pointy and then get fatter quite quickly, so the act of hammering them in place forces the leather into a tighter fit against the glue and the base.

So that was one shoe mostly lasted, tomorrow morning we will be shown how to finish the front.  Then I get to repeat the whole process again with the right shoe.  Check back tomorrow to see how I get on!

Learn to make shoes at Shoe School

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