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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- 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.
- 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.
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.