Lastless but long-lasting “Lomocs”

Shoes that you can buy in a store are almost all made using lasts. If you want to make foot-shaped shoes (what a concept), especially ones with roomy toes and without any heels, you may find that it takes a fair amount of time and money to find a last that fits.

When I started making my own shoes, I did not know if I would actually end up with footwear I would want to wear. So I did not want to invest a lot of money into equipment, such as lasts, that I might only use a few times.

Therefore, I made my first three pairs without lasts. I used a method that has been developed by Sharon Raymond of Simple Shoemaking. I used Sharon’s “lomoc” method for the first two pairs, and modified it for my third pair. What I describe below is the modified method.

A pair of red, blue and green ankle boots with yellow stitching and green laces
My first ever pair: made in 2 days, without lasts, thanks to Sharon Raymond’s Simple Shoemaking methods. I have modified this pair since this photo was taken: see the bottom of this post for details.

Sole pattern

The first step was to stand on a piece of blank paper, and draw carefully around the foot.

Pencil outline of the right foot
Draw around the foot while standing, holding the pencil perpendicular to the floor. It’s very hard to do on your own! My right foot is fractionally bigger than my left, so I made the pattern based on this larger foot.

This gives the shape of the sole… except in the toe area. When you walk, run, skip, jump or otherwise move on your feet, your joints flex and your foot changes shape. This is one of the things that makes shoe design so challenging. It’s very important to leave room at the end of the shoe for the toes to move forwards slightly.

Therefore, the next step was to cut around the foot tracing, and draw carefully around it onto a piece of stiff card. Once the shape was transferred to the card, I marked roughly a finger’s width away from the end of each toe. Then I drew a line freehand connecting the marks: this delimits the eventual end of the shoe. I also connected the little toe joint to the heel with a single smooth line that lay outside the somewhat wiggly line on the foot tracing. This gave me the pattern for my “base sole”.

Piece of beige card cut into a foot shape
“Base sole” pattern. Note that the toe area contains roughly a finger’s width of space beyond the actual ends of the toes (which are shown by the wiggly pencil line), to allow the toes room to move when doing something other than standing or sitting. The black marks show positions of stitches that will attach uppers to soles.

Yet another use for duct tape

Now for the fun bit! I put on a thin old  stocking. Then I used a piece of duct tape to attach the cardboard sole to the bottom of my foot so that the foot and the sole lined up exactly. Next, I stood on a second piece of card that was slightly bigger than the sole pattern and duct taped the whole foot to it, going up to the ankle.

Once the foot was completely encased in duct tape, I could then cut the tape off and draw a pattern on the resulting cast, making sure that no seams would impinge on my troublesome toe joints. I also clearly marked the center line of the foot. Finally, I used a piece of card 1cm wide to measure a series of marks 1cm apart along the seam where my foot hit the basal card. These indicate stitch positions. I then used a scalpel to cut the duct tape from the basal card.

Beige card with white duct tape and black pen marks.
Basal card, after the duct tape has been cut off, showing the shape of the “base sole” pattern, the 58 stitching marks ~1cm apart, and marks denoting the center-line of the foot at toe and heel ends. The green line denotes where the duct-taped 3D upper met the flat cardboard.

This left me with some 3-dimensional duct-taped pieces, in addition to the basal card. It was from these pieces that I made the pattern for the shoe.

3D to 2D: never easy

A major challenge in shoemaking is to create a pattern that can be cut out of flat material such as leather, yet assembled into a 3-dimensional shoe or boot that fits a foot which changes shape as it moves.

Here I had the reverse problem: how to make a 2D pattern from the 3D pieces of duct tape cut off my foot. Whenever you try to flatten 3-D shapes onto a 2D plane, things distort. To try to reduce the distortion, I cut a few short (~2cm long) slits in the duct-tape in the toe area and the heel area before peeling off the stocking and flattening the tape onto a piece of thin card.

White duct tape marked with black and green marker, stuck on white card
Duct-tape flattened onto card. Note slits cut into toe area (marked with arrow).

I then cut out around these shapes, and traced the cut outs onto yet more card. This gave the basic pattern for the upper. I had to add seam allowances for seams within the upper, but will cover this detail in another post.

Attaching upper to sole

How to attach the upper to the sole? This is one of the thorniest problems in footwear and has been solved in a variety of ways. One way is to use a welt, but this is a difficult technique for the novice shoemaker. I taught myself to use welts for the 5th and subsequent pairs that I made. Another method is to use glues, which is what I used for my 4th pair. But for my first three pairs, I used a type of “moccasin” method:

  • First, I used the sole pattern to cut out a flat “base sole” out of a soling material (crepe for my first two pairs, thick leather for my third).
  • Then I cut a “frill sole” from 6oz leather. This frill sole was the same shape as the base sole, but 6mm wider all around.
  • I stitched the “frill sole” to the “base sole” 2mm from the edge of the base sole.
  • Using a silver pen, I marked the positions of the stitches (see above photo) 3mm from the edge of the upper and 3mm from the edge of the frill sole. I double checked that there were exactly the same number of marks before using a 00 punch to knock a tiny hole through the leather at each mark.
  • Finally, I stitched the upper to the “frill sole”, using a “double needle” technique.
A retro leather trainer, handstitched from blue and green goat leather
Next to the floor is the  leather “base sole”which is stitched to the “frill sole” about 2mm from the edge of the base sole. This leaves about 6mm of “frill sole” that is then turned upwards and stitched to the upper. Here, I’ve left the frill sole on the outside of the upper; below is a photo of a boot with it on the inside. Since the “frill sole” perimeter is larger than the base sole, when the frill sole is stitched to the upper it is pulled inwards and puckers slightly, especially at toe and heel: hence “frill”.

Sharon Raymond of Simple Shoemaking, who introduced me to this kind of method, recommended a whip stitch to connect upper to “frill sole”. However, I found that a simple double-stitched seam was more robust than a whip stitch. I have actually removed all the whip stitching from my first two pairs of shoes and restitched everything using double-stitched seams. I also restitched the uppers on the outside of the frill sole rather than on the inside of it so that the frill sole was no longer visible (see photo below).

Comfortable and modifiable

These are not smart, formal shoes, but they are very comfortable. Interestingly, since I made them, my feet have changed shape somewhat: the big toes have moved into better alignment with the underlying joints and my arches have become higher. Therefore, I have had to alter my first two pairs by adding an extra strip of leather between the upper and the “frill sole” to accommodate the change in my foot shape. Since the whip stitching between upper and frill sole (see top photo) was starting to fray anyway after a few months of wear, this was not much of an issue. I just removed the whip stitches, stitched the extra strip to the frill sole, and then stitched the upper to the strip. I also took the opportunity to hide the frill sole by stitching the strip on the outside of it. Each shoe took about 2 hours to modify.

The same boot as in the top photo, with the extra strip I added between upper and “frill sole”, to accommodate the changing shape of my foot. This (goatskin) strip comes down over the top of the frill sole, hiding it completely. I also changed the round green laces for more practical flat black ones.