Your foot is 3-dimensional, but leather and cloth are 2-dimensional. How can we get a nicely fitting 3-dimensional shoe from 2-dimensional fabric? One common method is to use a last: a wooden, resin or plastic form in the shape of a foot. The last is used to make the pattern, and the shoe is assembled around it. Much of what I outline here was taught to me by Paul Thomas of Paul Thomas Shoes in the UK; all errors are my own.
First choose your last
I had great trouble finding a last that would give me the foot shape I wanted for my shoes:
- No heel at all (“zero drop”)
- Ample toe room: the toe area as the widest part of the shoe
All off-the shelf lasts I could find had some sort of raised heel combined with “pointy” toes. Fashionable, maybe, but terrible for feet. Therefore, I had to get lasts custom-made to my foot measurements: very expensive, but when the cost is spread across dozens of pairs of shoes, I felt it would be worth it.
Masking tape is your friend
The first step is to cover the last (all but the sole) in masking tape. The pattern will be drawn on once the last is covered, and some key lines and reference points marked on.
Covering the last with masking tape is easier said than done. The aim is to eventually pull the masking tape off the last and stick it to card, in order to create a 2-dimensional pattern. Therefore, it’s important to put the tape on in such a way that it doesn’t distort too much when pulled off. I added tape in overlapping layers, working first from toe to midfoot and then heel to midfoot.
Mark reference lines and points
Over the ages, shoemakers have discovered that it’s very useful to use certain characteristics of the foot when making robust footwear. These include:
- A center (or centre!) line down the front of the forefoot. I drew a straight line on a piece of masking tape, and then eyeballed where it should go to divide the forefoot into two equal halves (see photo above).
- The Outside Joint Measurement (J). To find this, first locate the part of the last that corresponds with the metatarsal joint of the smallest toe (see photo below). Draw a line OC from this outside point to meet the center line at right angles, then measure J as the length of this line. For me, J was 80mm on the left foot and 81 mm on the right foot.
- The Stay Point is the point half way between the center line and the outside joint (it sits on the line OC), and is an important reference point when thinking how the shoe will get on and off the foot.
- The Vamp Point. This sits further towards the toe than the point where the centerline intersects with the line OC. Specifically, it sits Vmm down from the intersection of the center line and the line OC, where V is calculated as (Jx2)/10. For me, J=80, so Jx2=160 and V=16. In other words, the Vamp Point is 16mm towards the toe from line OC.
- The Instep Point. This is usually measured as Jmm up towards the leg from the Vamp Point. However, if the point is more than about 20mm from the “cone” of the last, it can be adjusted upwards or downwards using some rules of thumb.
- A center line down the heel. As with the front center line, I added this by eye.
- The Back Heel Point (BHP). This is a useful reference point on the heel center line. One finds it by doing a calculation based on shoe size. For an EU 37 shoe size, measure 54mm up the heel center line from the point where the sole starts. For each shoe size above 37, add 1.5mm. My shoe size is 40.5, which is between 3 and 4 sizes above 37. Therefore, I measure 59mm up from the edge of the sole (54+(3.5*1.5)=59.
- Connect the BHP to the Stay Point with a straight line, then measure Jmm from the heel. On many people this gives a point A (see photo below) which is the position of the bottom of the ankle bone. However, on my feet the ankle bone is lower than this, and I found A by measuring my actual feet and then transferring these measurements to the last.
Now draw the pattern
Using sharp, soft pencils, draw the shoe pattern onto the last. I like to use colored pencils to show different parts of the shoe.
Coming unstuck: from last to card
Now comes the tricky part. The tape needs to be removed from the 3D last and stuck onto card. This always results in distortions: the tape wrinkles or wants to stretch when it is stuck down.
The way I was taught to remove the tape by a professional shoemaker was to cut down the center front and back lines using a scalpel, and then to remove each half of the pattern in turn. These are stuck down to card to make an “outside forme” and an “inside form”. One then draws an “average forme”, using the vamp and back heel points to fit the inside form (which is smaller) inside the outside forme.
However, when working on my own, I found it was generally much faster and simpler to cut the pattern off in pieces that corresponded to the major pattern pieces I eventually wanted to stitch together to make the shoe. I used a scalpel to cut out along the relevant lines of the pattern before peeling the tape off.
I then stuck the tape carefully to card, making sure to leave enough room for seam and lasting allowances (more about these below). Where the tape had been pulled around the curve of the heel and the toe, I cut small slits to allow it to sit more-or-less flat on the card.
When the leather of what will become the shoe’s upper is pulled over the last, it needs to be nailed onto the sole of the last. Therefore, the pattern needs to include a “lasting margin” to allow this nailing to take place. It needs to be wide enough not only for tacks to be hammered near to the edge of the sole, but also for pliers to grip the leather to pull it tight ready for hammering. Therefore, I add 20mm to the bottom edge of the pattern as a lasting margin (see photo above).
Seam allowances and skiving
If the leather is thick (say 3mm or more), two pieces of leather could be sown together using a “butt joint”: the leather edges are butted up to each other and stitches hold them in place edge-to-edge.
However, with thinner leather, or for design reasons, one needs to overlap the two pieces of leather slightly before stitching them. Therefore, one needs to add a seam allowance to one or both pieces of the pattern. For a closed seam, I use a seam allowance of 2mm. For an underlay seam, I use an 8mm margin and skive the piece of leather that lies under the piece that shows. Skiving means shaving the edge off, so that the thickness of the two pieces of leather increases gradually towards the seam rather than abruptly at the point where the underlying leather starts.
Linings are not so silver
If the shoe is to be lined, one has to make a lining that fits inside the upper. The seams of the lining should not unduly overlap the seams of the upper (double-thickness seams might rub: ow!). So now that you have finished the upper pattern, make the lining!
Stiff upper toe… and heel
Many lasted shoes are made with a rigid toe box, and a heel that stands upright on its own (it does not slump). To get these characteristics in a shoe, you need to make patterns for toe and counter stiffeners. You may also want stiffeners in other parts of the shoe, depending on the design. All these need to be given a pattern, with relevant lasting margins.
Ready to mock up?
Once all the pattern has been cut out and carefully labeled, it’s time to start sewing!