Lasted court shoes

By late 2017, I’d made myself many pairs of shoes. My skills had improved massively, and I had acquired some decent tools. It was time to attempt a slightly more formal pair.

Lessons learned from previous pairs

I had already made some “court” shoes: a little black pair (photo below). However, this was only the second pair of welted shoes I’d ever made, so the stitching wasn’t especially neat; also, I felt that the L-shaped “double” welt was a little chunky for truly formal wear. What’s more, I was still at an early stage of learning about leather grain and bias when I made these shoes, which have stretched noticeably in the 15 months since I made them: they now are prone to slipping off, to the extent that I now need to add some kind of strap to keep them attached across the mid foot.

Black ballet flats handmade by tozafoot
Little black court shoes made in late 2015. Note the slight “gaping” of the leather around the top seam that has occurred during wear: sadly, this makes the shoes more prone to slipping off now.

Given this experience, I realized I needed to:

  • Use a more slimline welt
  • Have some method of attaching the shoes more tightly at the midfoot, so even if the leather did stretch a little, they wouldn’t slip off.

The end result

Here’s the final shoe I made with these considerations in mind:

A pair of handmade blue leather shoes with green detail
A pair of lasted “court” shoes I made in Fall 2017. Note the single welt: the stitching holding it to the outsole is almost invisible under the curve of the shoe. The simple lace mechanism for fastening the shoes over the instep should help counteract any gaping that occurs during wear.

I am fairly pleased with this pair, which I’ve worn to a few parties already! They are chunky enough to walk on sidewalk in the rain without getting the feet wet, but don’t look too heavy to wear with formal trousers or a skirt. There is just one lace across the midfoot, but it (together with the scalloped shape of the vamp/counter) helps the foot attach firmly. I figured that I could make the shoe look different by using a different set of laces: maybe pale satin ribbon for some occasions, or severe black (as in the photo above) for others.

The process: same as for other lasted pairs

I’ve already gone into some detail about the process for making patterns for lasted shoes, and for making the shoes themselves. So here is just a brief summary in pictures.

Pieces of heavy paper and cloth cut out to make the pattern for court shoes
First, make a pattern, and prototype it in cloth. Here is the initial pattern for the upper (left) and lining (center), together with the cloth prototype (right) before it’s put on the last.
The bottom of a lasted prototype, with strips of masking tape attaching the cloth upper to the cardboard insole
Purists would probably be appalled, but I don’t bother nailing my cloth prototypes to the last. I just use masking tape to hold them in place firmly enough to check (a) the fit around the top of the foot; (b) how easy it is to remove the shoe from the last.
Heavy cotton cloth taped onto a wooden last
Here is the cloth prototype attached to the last. This is the point at which I experimented with different types of mechanism for lacing the shoe over the midfoot. Rather than putting the lace through the upper itself, I decided to sew on a separate piece of leather that would not only contain a hole for the lace but which would also be decorative.
A piece of white card with many pen markings
For previous pairs, I cut out lots of separate pieces of stiff card to make the patterns for the insole, mid sole, outsole etc. Here, I experimented with making all the patterns out of a single piece of card. Here’s this composite sole pattern part way through construction, as I mark lines for piece edges and tick marks for stitch holes…
Tools together with the card pattern they were used to make
…And here’s the final pattern after I’d used (a) a scalpel to cut out the lines marking the edges and stitching lines for the various sole pieces; and (b) a punch to mark the stitching holes. Timewise, making this composite pattern was about the same as cutting out lots of separate pieces.
An undyed piece of cow leather on a cutting board, together with a rubber mallet and metal punch
Here’s an insole made using the above pattern, with stitching holes punched ready to attach it to the midsole.
Many pieces of leather laid out on a table
Altogether, 36 pieces of leather went into this pair of shoes. Here are most of them, including the welts (left), uppers and liners (center), stiffeners for toes and heels (right), and the decorative pieces to hold the laces (next to stiffeners). Not shown are the outsoles, or the pieces used to fill in the mid sole.
The bottom of a last with soles attached by two nails
Once all the pieces were cut out, the next steps were to sew the insole to the midsole, then attach the composite piece to the bottom of the last, ready to nail on the uppers.
The underside of a shoe tacked to the last
Then, I tacked on the upper (taking especial care to avoid wrinkling on the sides of toes and heels), before trimming back the leather (upper, lining and stiffeners at toe and heel) so that it just touches the midsole when the welt’s sewn on.
Handmade welting in action, involving pliers, awls and curved needles
The tozafoot method of single welting. Rather than bending a straight strip of leather around the shoe as traditional shoemakers do, I cut out a piece in the final shape I want (the center of this cut-out became the midsole) and prepunched holes in it to match holes punched in the midsole. I then stitched the welt to the midsole through the upper and lining (and stiffener at toes and heels), using the prepunched holes to guide the awl in punching holes through the the upper and lining.
Neat stitching on the bottom side of a partly constructed handsewn shoe
The completed welt. Note that I dyed the top of the welt before attaching it, because it would be impossible to dye neatly once it has been sewn on.
Three pieces of leather filling the space inside a welt on a handmade shoe under construction
The next step was to infill the midsole with some soft pieces of scrap leather cut and skived to fill the space between the sides of the welt. I glued these in place with a water-based glue (EcoWeld from Tandy Leather).
A tracing of the welt outline on a thick piece of leather that will become the outsole
I didn’t bother making a card pattern for the outsole, because it was easy enough to place the partly constructed shoe onto a piece of leather and trace around the perimeter of the welt. The outsole leather is so thick that it can’t be cut with scissors: I had to use a very sharp knife.
A partly hand-stitched outsole, together with pliers, needles, awl and grooving tool
Sewing the outsole to the welt involved several steps. First, I clamped the outsole onto the welt using bulldog clips, and then used an awl to punch stitching holes through the outsole (I’d already punched them in the welt before attaching it). Next, I carved a groove into the bottom of the outsole, so that the stitches lie in the groove (this makes resoling less likely to cut any stitches by accident). Finally, I stitched the outsole to the welt, using pliers to pull the needles through.
Two pieces of Vibram soling material, a pair of shears used to cut them, a silver pen for marking the outsole outline, and one of the shoes they'll be glued to
Once I’ve trimmed and dyed the edges of the outsole and welt, it’s time for the final (yukky!) part: gluing on a rubber undersole. Here, I have trimmed the Vibram soles very roughly to shape. The aim is to get a shape that’s close enough to the outsole edges to let me attach bulldog clips while the glue’s drying, but far enough away that if I don’t get things aligned perfectly while gluing it won’t be a disaster.
Two shoes clamped to rubber soles, bulldog clips around the perimeter
The step I truly hate: using barge cement to attach the Vibram rubber to the outsoles. The fumes from the adhesive are very stinky, so I work outside. Here, I’ve smeared glue on the rubber and the outsoles, let them sit for 10-15 min, then pressed them together. I used big bulldog clips to hold the edges of the outsole tight to the rubber while the glue dried for 24 hours.

Trying a new rubber sole type

The final step was to trim the rubber back to the outsole, 24 hours or more after gluing. For these shoes I experimented with a new type of Vibram sole, the Freestone. It was recommended by one of my favorite repair cobblers, so I thought I would see how it compared to the Newporter, which I had used on several previous pairs, but which I thought would be a bit heavy for court shoes. The Freestone is made of IdroGrip, which is supposed to be good for wet environments (thinking of walking on concrete sidewalks in the rain). It has no built up heel, and it also appeared to have a fairly low side-on profile, which is appropriate for court shoes.

To cut a long story short, I’ve not been too impressed with the Freestone so far. It was much harder to cut with basic tools (scapel, knife, shears) than the Newporter. Therefore, it took considerably longer to trim, and I cut my hands more while trimming it. What’s more, it turned out that the profile isn’t actually too enticing for a court shoe, because there is a big height difference between the bottom of the lugs and the base level of the undersole. So it looks more rugged than I would ideally like. We’ll see how it wears: only if it resists wear better than the Newporter will I bother with it again.

How did the process compare with previous pairs?

This pair of shoes took me considerably less time to make than any of my previous pairs. Except for trimming the rubber undersoles, every stage of the process was faster. Altogether, I spent about 90 hours, of which roughly 5 was sole trimming (I went very cautiously after I cut my hand!). I put this increase in speed entirely down to practice.

The stage of construction that took the longest was welting. Even though I had pre-cut the welt to shape and pre-punched the holes, it took about 4-5 hours per shoe to sew the welt on. I realized part-way through that poor lighting conditions were really slowing me down: I found it difficult to see the holes while putting the needles through. Next time, I will try working under a daylight spectrum task light, because the ambient light in my work room was frustratingly low. As ever, it seems that I need to invest more in getting good equipment to make the process quicker and less error-prone.