Bespoke Shoes Unlaced – a shoemaker's blog

Friday, 13 March 2015

Time travelling with an 18th century Shoemaker

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We took a time trip recently when we had a lovely visit from an 18th century shoemaker. Following a very modern introduction via email, Sonrisa flew in from the USA to meet us to talk about shoes, lasts, fitting and making. 

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She was visiting with her lovely parents and they all really cheered up, an otherwise average, Monday morning in London.  

A history major, Sonrisa has landed herself a fabulous job working in a small team in a Moravian shoe shop at the Old Salem Museum and Gardens in Salem, North Carolina. In the past year, Sonrisa has been on a steep learning curve! 

Not only has she learned how to make shoes, but she has also learned how to make and use all of the original materials from melting pitch and making dyes to making threads...all wearing either men's or women's costume from the period! 

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The shop dates back to 1827 and so the shoes that Sonrisa makes are late 18th to mid 19th century construction, on straight lasts! (America had not introduced left and right foot shapes at that stage).

And many are fastened with latchets (see below)! These early buckles have two sets of prongs which are poked through pairs of holes on leather straps that wrap over the top of the foot.
Latchet to fasten an 18th century shoe

It sounded fascinating, but the main reason for her visit was so that we could advise on fit. The shoe shop makes shoes for many of the people working at the Museum and the volunteers, but the fit isn't always great. She wanted to find out if there any way to improve the fit without compromising on the authenticity of the shoe making.

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What a challenge. We started by showing Sonrisa how we measured feet - which is much the same way that she does. To improve the grip between the heel, joint and instep we suggested that they start drawing the side profile of the foot as well, to record the instep height and heel curve. 

Copyright: Fenner Photography
We then looked at the 18th century example last that she had brought with her. This was where the real problems seemed to lie as the last was virtually straight at the back of the heels, they had very little instep, no arch support/shape, low heels and very deep across the joint and toes. 

So we suggested altering the last to reflect a modern foot: 
- curving in the heel at the back 
- reducing the excess material on the top of the joint and toe area
- shaping the last to offer some support at the arch 

The shoemakers already customises the lasts by adding small fittings to the instep but we all felt that the standard last should have a higher instep to start with. Then fittings could be added for each customer to raise the instep to a comfortable height. 

Most of the shoes are unlined and so it was difficult to insert a stiffener or toe puff to help to protect the feet and to keep the shoes on.  We discussed sewing in a counter which could be put in mellow, shaped to the last and so would help the shoes to grip better at the heel.

We also talked about comfort inside the shoe. As they are unlined they risk rubbing and blisters...also they are for people who are on their feet much of the time. It seemed appropriate to include some sort of soft insole material such as felt to cushion the inside of the shoes.  

We hope that we helped. Sonrisa certainly left enthused with thoughts of new lasts and happy customers. We hope that the Salem shoemakers have the chance to develop new lasts and to continue to make wonderful (and more comfortable) shoes for the staff and volunteers who help to bring Salem to life. One day we hope to visit, we really do!

But for now it's goodbye from 18th century Salem and until next week, happy shoemaking!

Brief history of Salem
The town of Salem was founded by a group of Moravian missionaries in 1766. The Moravians came from what is now the Czech Republic and started two settlements one in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (in 1753) and the other, Wachovia, in North Carolina. Salem was at the centre of this settlement of some 100,000 acres.

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The Moravian Church and Salem residents kept meticulous records and accounts of their lives, their interactions, their buildings and landscapes, and their evolution into the town of Winston-Salem. These records, diaries, and accounts provide accurate details to tell the stories of those living and working in Salem.

Salem residents were also well respected for their architecture and attention to detail. The architecture and landscape of Salem are still quite accurate, as many of the Historic Town buildings are original structures.

Salem was also known as a trades town because of the town’s production of essential goods like tools, ceramics, furniture, metals, and food. Today, costumed tradesmen and women re-create life in the 1700s and 1800s by producing these goods using traditional eighteenth and nineteenth century practices.

From the tavern keeper to the doctor, the gunsmith to the boys’ schoolteacher, every person in Salem played a vital role. Today, visitors can interact with costumed staff members through engaging conversation and by participating in hands-on activities. Activities throughout the year include intricate paper cutting (called scherenschnitte), pottery, sewing, writing with quill pens, fireplace cooking, painting, and much more.

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 Click here to find out more about Salem.