Grappling with pattern-making

Devising a pattern that results in a nicely-fitting shoe is the hardest thing about shoemaking.

When you think about it, this isn’t surprising. A foot is a complicated 3-dimensional object. How do you go from a flat piece of fabric like leather or cloth to something that fits closely to the foot? And that stays snuggly fitting whether you are standing, walking, running or jumping? The difference between a great fit and a terrible one can be a matter of just a millimeter or two.

So far, I have tried three main ways of making patterns. All take longer than I would like! Method 3 is for purists using lasts. Method 2 is my preferred method and can be used with lasts or actual feet, for all kinds of shoes. Method 1 is “quick and dirty” and can only be used for a limited range of shoe styles.

Method 1: work off a tracing and key measurements

The simplest method, which I devised for making some pairs of “sew-down” shoes without lasts, involves:

  • tracing around the foot
  • marking on some key reference points
  • making several measurements of the foot in relation to these reference points
  • drawing a pattern based on the measurements
An intricate web of colored lines and annotations representing a sandal pattern
Here’s an in-progress pattern for a “Roman” sandal that I drew up purely on the basis of a foot tracing and some key measurements of the foot. The sandal (see next photo) is made out a single piece of leather, with just two stitched seams at the heel.

I described the method in some detail in an earlier post, so I won’t dwell on it here. But I do want to discuss some pros and cons.

The major “pro” of this method is that it is faster than the other methods I’ve tried, and doesn’t require as much equipment.

However, a big “con” is that I don’t think I could make an intricate, close-fitting pattern using this method. Therefore, I have only tried this method with patterns that rely on laces to hold the end product tightly to the foot.

Blue open sandal with green nylon lace
The “Roman” sandal made from the pattern in the previous photo. It has lots of room at the toe, and is held tight to the foot by a lace that can be adjusted: just how the Romans did it! It took me about 12 hours to make the sandals, of which about half was devising the pattern.

Method 2: work from a tape casting

This is the method I used for making my first ever pairs of shoes, which used the “Lomoc” technique to attach uppers to soles. I have also used it many times since for making “sew-down” shoes (where uppers are sewed directly down onto the perimeter of the sole). I’ve also used a version of it for making patterns for lasted shoes.

The cast can be made of duct tape or masking tape. It can be made on the foot or on a last. The main thing is that the tape should not stretch when you remove it from the foot or last, and should be easy to make marks onto using pencils and pens.

The basic method for making a casting of the actual foot is as follows.

2.1. Make a sole pattern

Stand on a piece of card and trace around the foot with a pencil held vertically. Then trace under the arch of the foot with a pencil held at about 45 degrees under the arch. The sole pattern will be based on this tracing.

Step off the card and draw some lines in freehand:

  • Under the arch of the foot. I draw a line roughly halfway between the lines marked with the pencil held vertically and with it held at an angle.
  • Around the toe area. I try to give my big toe a couple of mm to the inside of it at the end of the toe. Usually, I add about a finger’s width of space at the ends of every toe to give the foot room to move when I am walking.
  • Just inside the outside edge of the foot between the little toe joint and the heel. My foot bulges out a bit in this area when I am standing, but the bulge disappears when I point my toes. So I bring the sole edge inwards a little from the marks made when tracing around the foot (see difference between grey and orange lines in photo below).
An annotated pencil tracing of a foot, encompassed by a neat orange line
Here, my foot tracing is marked in pencil, and the sole pattern is marked in orange. This became the sole pattern for the Roman sandal pictured in the previous section. Since I knew the upper of the sandal would ballon outwards at the toes,  in this case I did not make the sole have much room beyond the ends of the toes. But I did give the big toe room to the side of it.

2.2. Stand on the sole pattern and make a tape cast of your foot

The aim here is to make a 3D cast of the foot using tape. This cast will eventually be cut up and flattened to make the pattern.

In order to get the cast off the foot easily, the foot needs to first be “coated” with something that will not stick to the foot but that will let the tape stick to it. This something also needs to be cheap, because it will be cut during the process of cast removal. I’ve tried using old nylon stockings. I’ve also tried cling wrap (also known as cling film). My preference is the latter because I find that the stockings pull my toes together too much, whereas I can keep my toes spread while covering them with cling wrap.

The method here is pretty simple. I stand on the sole pattern and cover the foot in tape. Sometimes, I put the sole pattern onto another piece of card and tape everything to that. Other times, I carefully tape around the bottom of the sole pattern.

Foot completely encased in cling wrap, partly covered with masking tape
Making a rough and ready cast of the foot. Here, I was going to be making a pattern for open-toed sandals, so I did not worry about using a toe shield to help shape the cast nicely at the end of the toes.

Depending on what sort of shoe I want to end up with, I may make a little “toe shield” out of cardboard or duct tape to make sure the tape in the toe area doesn’t scrunch around the ends of the toes too much.

Carboard sole with 2cm high rim of duct tape perpendicular to it in toe area
Here, a toe shield made out of ~2cm high heavy duct tape has been added before the rest of the foot is taped over to make a cast. This helps make a nice 3D shape in the toe area of the eventual unlasted shoe.

2.3. Mark up the cast and cut it off

Once the foot is completely covered in tape, I mark some key points onto the tape while it is still on the foot. For example, if I am making a shoe, I might mark the area of the big toe joint, the little toe joint and the instep bump, so I can avoid putting edges or seams over these areas. If I am making a minimal sandal, I may not need to put any marks on the tape before cutting it off. I use scissors to cut carefully down behind the ankle on the inside of the foot.

Pair of scissors cutting thru the inside of a masking tape cast on a foot
I’ve found that an angular cut almost to the sole, starting behind the inside ankle bone, is the easiest cut for getting the cast off the foot.

Once I’ve eased off the cast, I retape the cut making sure to exactly match the ends of the tape. This leaves me with a cast onto which I can start drawing the pattern.

Masking tape foot cast lying on its side on a wood floor
The cut has been retaped, leaving a casting of the foot. This cast will be used for drawing an open-toed sandal pattern, so I didn’t worry too much about making a nice shape at the ends of the toes of this cast.

2.4 Draw on the pattern

Now it’s time to draw the pattern onto the cast. I usually do this using a soft pencil, so I can rub out as necessary. Once I have the lines pencilled in, I may ink them so it’s clear where to make cuts. I may also add labels such as “inside” or “top”, to make it easier to work out how all the cut-out pieces fit together.

Masking tape cast with black ink pattern
Pattern for a “chappal” style sandal inked onto the foot cast. Note the blue ink cross in the toe area: I drew this on while the cast was still on my foot, to mark the bottom of the gap between my first and second toes. I also drew an ink line across the foot below the big and little toe joints. These then served as a reference points for the actual pattern.

2.5. Cut out the pattern and flatten it onto card

Scissors come into play again to cut the pieces of the pattern out of the cast. I then peel the cling wrap or nylon carefully off the tape before sticking the tape onto card. Cutting out and peeling off cling wrap is easy: much harder is flattening the 3D cut-outs onto card without introducing too much distortion.

A pair of scissors and two pieces of masking tape with inked edges
Pattern pieces for my “chappal” style sandal, before they are flattened and stuck down to card. Notice how they don’t lie flat, because their shape reflects the curve of the foot. Flattening them introduces distortion.

Flattening a very concavely curved piece may mean I need to cut slits in it (for example, in the toe and heel area). If the piece is strongly convexly curved (e.g. from the arch area), I may need to accept some wrinkles in the flattened piece.

Once the patterns are stuck down to card, I cut out the pieces, then trace around these onto new card. From here, I can add seam allowances as required. This is also the stage at which I check carefully that all seam lengths match each other, and adjust as required. Now I have a pattern that I can use to prototype my new shoe.

Two pieces of card plus the scissors used to cut them out.
Card pattern created from the masking tape cut-outs in the previous photo. Note the seam allowances.

2.6. Use the same basic process for making patterns from lasts

Above, I outlined the process for making patterns from a tape cast of the actual foot.

One can use essentially the same method for making patterns from a last. The last is covered in tape, the pattern drawn on, the pieces of pattern cut off one by one and stuck to card, and the pattern then created from these, taking particular care to match seam lengths.

Wooden last covered in strips of masking tape, except for the heel
Taping up a last ready to draw a pattern on. The tape needs to be applied in such a way that it has little chance of stretching when it’s pulled off.

Method 3: posh lasted shoe patterns

The third method of pattern making was taught to me by a professional shoemaker. Essentially, it involves the following steps:

  • Tape up a last with masking tape and mark key reference points (I described these in an earlier blog post)
  • Draw a pattern onto the tape in pencil
  • Cut down the center line of the front and the back of the shoe to divide the taped pattern into two halves: inside and outside
Tape with a pattern marked on it peeled up from a wooden last
Removing tape in the way a professional shoemaker does: first cut down the center line then pull each half off in turn
  • Peel off the two halves and stick each to card; from these, create an Inside “Forme’ and an Outside “Forme”
  • Superpose Inside and Outside Formes to create an “Average Forme”, making sure that the bottom of this shape encompasses both inside and outside Forme shapes
  • Straighten the centerline out from the vamp point towards the toe (a complicated process that I won’t inflict on you here)
  • Adjust the heel area to help avoid the issue of the resulting shoe gaping around the ankles (again, a fairly complicated algorithm)
  • Add a lasting margin (usually 20mm for a handmade leather shoe) below the bottom margin of the shoe
  • We now have a “Basic Standard”
  • Trace or prick pattern design lines onto a copy of the Basic Standard, to create a Design Standard.
Using a pencil to trace around a masking-taped piece of pattern
Tracing from the cut-out pieces of pattern onto the Basic Forme to create the Design Standard.
  • If parts of the pattern cross the center-line of the foot, as they often do at the toe (the vamp) and heel (the counter), the outside and inside halves of the masking tape pattern have to be combined to make a single pattern piece that crosses the center line. This process is even more complicated to explain than to carry out, so I won’t attempt it in detail, but here are a few photos to illustrate the complexity.
Annotated pencil lines traced onto card
Part-way through making the pattern for the vamp, here using the outside forme. This process, known as “deadening” gives a pattern for the outside half of the vamp. By repeating it for the inside forme, one ends up with a vamp pattern (next photo)
Pencilled vamp pattern in progress
The process of deadening is repeated with the inside forme, creating a pattern for the vamp (and tongue), to which seam allowances can now be added as required. The straight line here corresponds to the center line down the front of the foot
Penciled heel pattern on card, with annotations
Corrections also have to be made to the pattern for the part of the shoe that crosses the heel center line.

I prefer method 2 to method 3

All in all, I found the process of making formes and then making pattern pieces from these very lengthy and intricate. Also, because my last was highly asymmetrical with a steep toe area, there were fairly substantial differences between inside and outside formes. So it was particularly stressful to make the average forme and do the various algorithmic corrections to the vamp and heel patterns.

I found it much faster to cut the various shapes of the pattern directly off the last with a scalpel, stick them to card, and then work from there.

Masking tape marked with pen and pencil and stuck to pink card
Making a vamp pattern from a last by method 2. I cut the piece of pattern off the last without cutting down the center line (marked), and stuck it to card. To reduce distortion in the toe area, I cut slits in the tape before flattening it.