Bespoke Shoes Unlaced – a shoemaker's blog

Thursday, 18 September 2014

An Experiment

Welcome back once more, dear readers, to the wonderful world of bespoke shoes. Aren't we lucky to have found such an absorbing trade? We hope you have had a productive week and have had your hands on some oak bark pit tanned cow hide - a treat for anyone, if only they knew!

We have been working to prepare a travelling exhibition which will feature two of our shoes and some assorted tools, leathers and sundry shoemaking  paraphanalia. It is run by Fife Contemporary Art and Craft and will be touring public libraries in Scotland over the next year. Our shoes will be housed in two Craft Pods along with a description of our craft and something about Carréducker. Looking forward to seeing some pictures of the launch which happens on the 23rd of September.

Onwards and upwards. While making a pair of bottle green oiled nubuck stalking boots (as you do), I had a bit of an idea. This does happen occasionally and I wanted to try it out. BTW Horween make the oiled nubuck and it's really luscious, waxy and alive - check it out

I wanted to insert a midsole made of a thin piece of Topy (brand name) sticker sole - a synthetic sheet 2mm thick. This would create a thin black line between the natural welt and natural sole and would look quite stylish

And here's the problem. Our understanding was always that you can't hand stitch these synthetic materials by hand because when you pull the awl out of the hole, the hole closes up - unlike the leather where the awl actually leaves a hole because the leather compresses when the awl goes in.

When a customer asks for a synthetic sole (Dainite, commando, Ridgeway or such) from us (it does occasionally happen), we last and welt the shoes as normal, except that we welt round the seat as well.

See this blog post for details of how we do it.

At this point we send the shoes to a company which stitches on the desired sole with a sole stitching machine.

Now I had never tried out the theory explained above and being a doubting kind of person, I wanted to test it.

So, here's what happened

The synthetic sandwich was made

And the awl was put through.

The bristle was then inserted and as suspected, it didn't come out the other side. The theory was proved correct. To be honest, I did push the awl through so far and wiggled it that I was able to put one bristle through, but the second was impossible.

The next step is to find a way of doing it. The only thing we can think of is to make a hollow awl which actually punches a whole in the synthetic material, much like what they use for body piercing. Something which takes out a little piece of the rubber.

Sounds like a project. Any tool makers out there?

Or, dear readers, is there another way? Do you know how to do it and make an old shoemaker happy? Let us know and we will be forever grateful.

Till next week (in hope and anticipation), happy shoemaking!


Al Muckart said...

are you opposed to using a machine on technical grounds, or is it just that you don't have one? Something small and hand cranked like a Junker & Ruh SD28 or a Frobana/Gritzner would do the job.

The other thing to do would be to mark and pre drill the synthetic at a known spacing and then awl through those holes.

Magnus said...

The problem is that the bristle is not stiff enough to reopen the hole from the awl. Why not try to use bent needles instead?

DWFII said...


If you can get one bristle through you can get both through.

Use the old channel stitching method...let's see if I can remember and describe it clearly:

Send the first bristle through, and pull the thread half way through. Then, use an awl to pierce the thread...right down the center of the thread. Embed the tip of the second bristle in the center of the thread and twist the thread tightly around it. Now pull the thread and second bristle through the hole, leaving behind the first bristle and enough of the thread to resume the stitch. Free the second bristle from the hole in the thread and tighten down the stitch.


I've done this and, in fact have a pair I'm working on that require channel stitching.

DWFII said...


In Garsault's 1767 Art du Cordonnier, the author actually describes this technique but instead of embedding the tip of the bristle inside the thread, the bristle is fed through a hole in the thread and then folded back on itself.

All else is the same.

Aaron Strauss said...

A less traditional, possibly more tedious option:

Trace the outline of the insole+welt of each shoe onto the Topy and midsole/outsole.

Measure in and draw the line of stitching on the Topy. This line is the same as the line of channel stitches on the outsole)

Mark where the stitches will go on the Topy with a pricking wheel.

Punch then with your smallest punch.

Transfer these stitch holes to the outsole with a removeable marker, or pre-make them by pushing your awl through the Topy into the outsole.

You now have holes in the rubber Topy to put your bristle through, and a way to find those holes with your awl when it is between the layers of leather.

You may need to use a bit fewer stitches per inch than normal to account for the size of the punched holes in the leather. With a very small punch the difference would probably only be noticed by you and DWF ;D

jimmyshoe said...

Hi Al Muckart, we are not opposed to machines per se, but we pride ourselves on making a truly handmade product where possible. We do use a sole stitcher when the customer wants a synthetic sole, but the results are a bit crude for our liking, big stitches, thick thread. So we would prefer to hand stitch. Best, jimmyshoe

Anonymous said...

Hi Magnus, needles would be even thicker than bristles and would be harder to get through, I think. I have stitched with them but I prefer bristles. Best, jimmyshoe

jimmyshoe said...

Hello DW, I was hoping for some feedback from you. That method would certainly work, but one, the first bristle is hard to get through and two, without appearing lazy, it would take an eternity to stitch a pair.I suppose you have to suffer for your principles! Best, James

jimmyshoe said...

Hi Aaron, this method is plausible. I'm not sure I am precise enough to pull it off though. Have you ever tried it? Best, jimmyshoe

Aaron Strauss said...


I did something similar once on a pair of boots. I was attaching a Vibram soling sheet ( cut from or similar) to the bottom of boots. At the time, my method didn't need to be quite as intricate because I could see the holes punched in the vibram sheet.

Thinking more, a way to be a bit more precise would be to measure and punch the holes, then glue the Topy to the outsole. Make holes in the outsole with your awl, through the Topy holes. Since they are glued together, these sets of holes won't get off-register when attaching to the shoes.

DWFII said...


Well, I don't suppose I'm telling you anything new when I say that it might help to closely follow the tip of the awl out of the hole.

Beyond that, another alternative would be to make some twisted steel bristles.

Nine inches per of guitar string wires folded in half and twisted tightly. I can't remember the exact size string--.011 or .11. You'll know how fine you want to go when you see it.

Bend the middle of the nine inch section over the handle of your lasting plyer, line up the two ends and twist tightly. I use a pair of "vise grips" (locking plyers?) to do this.

Then clip the ends even and twirl the ends against a piece of medium sandpaper to round the rough edges.

Now you have two bristles that can forcefully be pushed through the rubber.

DWFII said...

PS...these bristles, although rough, will be not all that much thicker than a nylon bristle.

Of course, you have to fold back the taw. But if you pull one bristle through while both are in the hole and then grab the second bristle with a portion of the thread you already pulled through, you won't have any problem with too much thickness.

And it should be near as fast as sewing with nylon bristles in leather.

I use steel bristles regularly for difficult situations and quick applications. But I know makers who use them all the time.

Anyway I hope that helps.

DWFII said...

Oh! ... sorry this is so fragmented...

A packet of guitar wire, in a coil long enough to make about four pairs of bristles, cost about a dollar here in the States.

jimmyshoe said...

Thanks guys, plenty of options to try. I have used metal bristles which are an advance on needles but my one gripe is the wear and tear on the thread where it is attached to the bristle. And I'm not sure what a taw is DW. Thanks again for the input, James

DWFII said...


The "taw" is the taper on the thread. One of my good friends is the head shoemaker at Colonial Williamsburg and a protege of June Swann. And one of the foremost shoe historians in the world. the term comes from him and may be out of date but shoemaking words are never obsolete, IMO.

Just like "lingel"--a Scots word for "waxed end" or "coad" another really old term for hand wax.

And yes, the wire is hard on the thread, although I am pretty sure you can complete the work with no problems. As I said, I know makers who only use steel bristles. But that's why I only use them for odd jobs. But this job you're contemplating is odd enough to warrant, if you ask me.

Or maybe not.

Just seems like the most straightforward approach. Except for the bristles all else remains the same.


jimmyshoe said...

Taw, I like that and I'm going to use it. I have met June a couple of times and she is, indeed, a veritable fountain of knowledge. Have also read her book which is fascinating. I wonder who is going to take up the mantle? Among my vast array of talents, historical research is not amongst them unfortunately. Best, James

Anonymous said...

I tried to post yesterday...did not take. I have used long needles with a channel along the shaft very successfully, and it is fast. I simply press them into an awl, or hand drill chuck. I have even heated them and rounded them to follow hard curves in heavy leather in combination with heavy awls.