Once I have a pattern, it’s time to start sewing!
A quick note about terminology before I launch into detail.
- The welt is a strip of leather that’s used to attach the upper part of the shoe to the sole.
- In a double-welted shoe, the stitches that attach the welt to the upper are visible; in a single-welted shoe, they are hidden.
- In both double-and single-welted shoes, you can (just about) see the stitches that attach the welt to the sole.
Unless I have already used the pattern, I mock the shoe up in cloth before making it in leather. It’s a lot less expensive to make a mistake in cloth than it is in leather!
Professional shoemakers might make a cloth-specific pattern with seam allowances more appropriate for cloth than leather , but I use the same pattern for cloth and leather.
The photo above shows a cloth mockup I made under the supervision of a professional shoemaker. This is the “rolls royce” method of mocking up. However, at home, I do something much more rough and ready.
I happened to have some heavy material for lining blackout curtains on hand, and it turns out to be fine for making mock-ups. Previously, I had used a heavy cotton onto which I had ironed some fabric stiffener, to try to make the fabric as thick and dimensionally stable as possible. However, the blackout material is much less work.
For the insoles, I simply use thick card. It is possible to get card specially formulated for sole-making (see photo above), but my budget does not run to it.
To fix the cloth uppers to the card insoles, I just use masking tape. I can’ t stand to breathe in fumes from the solvent-based glues that many professional shoemakers use, and I find that masking tape allows me to fix errors on the fly much easier than glue does.
The mockups allow me to check the general fit of the shoe, and make adjustments. I generally make the adjustments using masking tape, then unpick the mockup so I can lay it flat to adjust the card pattern as necessary.
If making lined shoes, don’t forget to make mockups for the linings and stiffeners as well as for the uppers! However, I don’t ever go so far as to mock up the welt or outsole.
Cutting out the leather
Once confident the pattern will fit the foot, it’s time to cut out the leather. Depending on the type and thickness of the leather, I might use a scalpel, a knife or a pair of fabric scissors. Using scissors would probably horrify most professional shoemakers, because the edges of the cuts are much more likely to be angular and ragged, but I find that scissors are much faster than a knife and much less likely to hurt my hands!
Constructing the upper and the lining
Having already constructed the shoe in cloth makes it easier to know how to hold and sew the leather. I sew everything by hand. I pre-punch seam lines using a chisel, and double stitch using 0.8mm Tiger Thread and two no 10 saddle needles.
Once I have the upper sewn together, and the lining constructed, I sew the upper to the lining along the top of the shoe and other relevant seams.
I use 4-5oz vegetable-tanned leather for the stiffeners, soaked for at least 12 hours in water. Just before I stretch the shoe over the last, I coat the stiffeners in water-based glue on both sides, then stick them between upper and lining. I then pull the whole set of layers onto the last and nail it in place ready for welting.
I find this is much quicker than the way I was taught. That method involved lasting each layer one at a time (lining, then stiffener, then upper), and fixing it in place with glue before lasting the next layer. My “all in one” method also avoids the possibility of breathing in toxic solvents from glue.
Trademark tozafoot method for making welted shoes
I have taught myself how to make shoes with double and single welts, by looking at a few books and trying some things out. I have developed my own methods, to fit the materials and tools I have available, and to avoid using solvent-based glues. I have been wearing several pairs of shoes and boots made this way for well over a year and am pleased with how well they stand up to rugged wear on sidewalks, tarmac and rocks.
First, construct the inner and mid soles
The first steps of my “tozafoot-method” involve cutting out a mid sole and an inner sole, punching holes for welting in the midsole, then sewing the midsole to the inner sole.
I nail the combined inner/mid soles to the last, and then tack on the combined upper, liner and stiffener. Sounds easier than it is! It’s particularly tricky to avoid getting creases in the leather around the tight curves of the heel and toe areas: I use a very narrow pair of lasting pliers.
Trim before welting? Or after?
This is the trickiest bit of the whole process: trimming the excess upper, stiffener and lining lasting margin, so that it doesn’t bunch up to make lumps under the foot. With single-welted shoes, I find it best to trim before welting, to avoid damaging the welt during trimming. With double-welted shoes, I can trim before or after welting.
I use a combination of knife, scalpel and scissors to cut the leather back to the point where it lies pretty flat against the underside of the insole but there is still enough left to hold the welting stitches nicely and butt up against the mid sole when the welt is attached.
Welting the tozafoot way
Professional shoemakers make a welt from a single strip of leather, like a narrow strap. They bend this strip around the toe, and sometimes around the heel. I used this “strap” method several when making a double-welted shoe (as in the photo below). For the welt material, I have tried 4oz goatskin (nightmarishly stretchy) and 5oz cowhide (much better).
However, if I am making a single welt, I find it much easier to cut out a welt in the required shape, from the same 5oz cow leather that I use for the mid sole. This results in very little leather wastage. It also means I can prepunch the holes in the welt to match the holes I prepunch in the midsole.
The first time I made this type of shoe, I did not get the holes in quite the right place to prevent stitches showing on the inside of the foot. I also failed to dye the welt before attaching it, and it proved too fiddly to dye it after sewing. However, lesson learned: I treated the shoe as a prototype, adjusted the pattern, and made sure to dye before sewing!
Attaching the welt to the midsole, through the combined layers of upper, lining and stiffener requires an awl and lots of strength. Curved needles also sometimes come in handy. When sewing soles I use 1mm thick Tiger thread, rather than 0.8mm thread, because I want especial strength in this part of the shoe.
Next lot of trimming, followed by infilling
Once I’ve sewn the welt on, I do any final trimming that might be necessary, taking great care not to cut into the welt. I then cut pieces of goatskin to fit the space within the perimeter set by the welt, and glue them in place with a water-based glue. I find goatskin is nice and spongy: just what one needs under one’s foot!
The end result is a sole area that is flat side-to-side and end-to-end over the whole area within the welt.
I cut my outsoles from 10-12oz cow hide. This is pretty stiff, and requires a good knife to cut. First, I put my welted shoe onto the hide, and draw around the perimeter of the welt. This gives me a rough shape to cut out: no need to be too neat at this stage, as it will be trimmed later.
Next, I put a waterbased glue onto the upper side of the sole and the bottom side of the mid sole, hammer out any airpockets, and use bulldog clips to clamp everything in place until the glue dries.
Next, I use an awl to push holes through the welt and the outsole, making sure to space the holes as evenly as possible on the upper side of the welt. A pair of calipers and a silver pen can come in handy here. Recently, I’ve got confident enough to prepunch holes in the welt before gluing on the outsole.
Once the holes are all punched, I carve out a groove connecting all the holes. The thread holding the welt to the sole will sit in this grove. The whole groove will be covered by a rubber sole later, so it needn’t be ultra neat.
Ready to sew! Again, I use 1.0mm Tiger thread for robust stitches.
Once the outsole is attached, I need to trim it, and also trim the welt if necessary. I use a very sharp knife to do this by eye. I generally remove the shoe from the last in order to trim the outsole and welt: makes it easier to avoid nicking the upper with the trimming knife (I really should get a lip knife, but have been making do…)
Once everything is neatly trimmed, I can sand and rub the edges of the outsole and welt to get them smooth (optional!) and then dye them.
Rubber soles for wear
I am a pretty heavy walker, wearing down the heels and forefoot area of my shoes through walking 4+ miles per day on concrete and tarmac. If I tried to walk with just the outsoles attached, I would quickly wear through the stitches holding the outsoles to the welt. Therefore, I glue Vibram rubber soles to the bottoms of my outsoles. This is the only stage of my shoemaking in which I use solvent-based glues, and I hate it. But it’s necessary, and I do all my gluing outside to minimize the fumes I breathe in.
I have tried Vibram Elvis and Vibram Newporter soles. Having resoled my Vibram Elvis soles three times, I am no longer going to use those soles for outside shoes. I am in the process of resoling my sneakers and boots with Vibram Newporter soles, which are thicker and seem to wear much more slowly. The basic method of attaching them is the same whatever soles are used.
I place the shoe on the sole and check this gives me roughly the tread pattern I want. Then I draw around the shoe with a silver pen, to give an outline shape on the sole. Next, I score the leather of the outsole and the rubber of the Vibram sole lightly with a scalpel. I might even sand it using rough sandpaper: there needs to be a good surface for the glue to stick to.
I then go outside and put everything on cardboard or sheets of newspaper. I use a plastic knife to spread barge cement liberally on the surfaces that will be stuck together, making sure to spread it well outside the silver outline marked on the rubber sole.
After waiting the recommended amount of time, I carefully press the rubber sole to the outsole, trying to fit the latter within the silver outline of the former (with varying success!). It then needs to dry for 24 hr before I trim the rubber sole to match the outsole, again with a very sharp knife.
End product: handmade shoes that look shop-bought!
Here are some of the welted shoes I have made:
A pair of “ballet” flats with a double welt. This was my second ever welted pair of anything. Next time, I will try a single welt, which is a bit more delicate.
A pair of Oxfords, again with a double welt. This time, I tried 4oz goatskin for the welt, which was easier to bend but was frustratingly stretchy.
My favorite pair of sneakers so far. I made this pattern to try to minimize the amount of leather waste: the tongue is cut out by leather that is left between the sides of the uppers. It was also much easier to get off the last than the Oxfords.