Bespoke Shoes Unlaced – a shoemaker's blog

Friday, 18 December 2009

Super Natural

You plug away, week after week, trying your hardest, and then it happens. Serendipity, coincidence, happenstance. You see something, hear something and the ideas arrive, germinate and grow.

I think we have a possible signature finish. Most makers leave their mark. Mostly it is a pattern on the heel top piece with the nails. I have a couple of favourites. And I have seen some beautiful examples. But I want something more recognisable.

The finish to the shoe is very important. It's what customers judge a shoe by. You might construct a shoe perfectly, strong and durable, but if it is not finished well, the customer will be disappointed.

A bespoke shoe is never perfect. I have never made a shoe I am totally happy with. It is one of the things that marks a bespoke shoe out, the imperfections and flaws. It's part of the beauty of it, the mark of the artisan. Factory shoes, on the other hand, are perfect, flawless. This might appeal, or not, but it is a fact.

So how can we distinguish our shoes from the rest? Perhaps it is the finish on the sole and edges. Normally we finish high gloss black on a black shoe and brown on a brown shoe. Occasionally we might do a natural finish on a pale shoe. But this is just habit. Why not do a natural finish on every shoe? On brown shoes for sure, but why not on black? I am going to try it. It may look awful, but you have to try.
I love a natural finish, seeing the grain of the leather.

Here is the patented jimmyshoe method of achieving a perfect natural finish. And check out the canvas shoe. I like it. It fits in well with our recent use of tweed and leather. We are going to explore this one.

Ok, you have built your heels; shaped them with a knife; rasped assiduously; and glassed them smooth. You are ready to sand them. The first grade is an 80 grit aluminium oxide paper. Cut a piece and wrap it round a sanding block. Now sand that heel! There is no trick to sanding, just hard and fast. Keep going and then do it some more. The more you do it, the better the finish. You should work up a sweat. Get rid of all those lumps and bumps.

Remember to sand the heel breast too, right up to the sole, making sure you don't damage it. When you have done both, do it again with a 120 grit paper.

At this point I sand the edges too, but more of that another time.
Wet the heels and heel breast with a toothbrush.

Next is the special part. You need to buy a sanding block. One of those foam ones with 2 grades of fine grit abrasive on that you use in decorating. Using the finer grit, sand again, but this time only in one direction; fast hard strokes. Before, you could sand both ways, forward and back. This time, just forward. You will see how the surface turns darker and glassy smooth. Don't forget the breast, same procedure.

The last stage is to polish. You can use neutral or a darker colour, depending on the upper and the tone you wish to achieve. Note that the polish will darken the leather. Put a layer on, buff it off and do it again. Make sure you get into the seat. It should now gleam, but remain natural and beautiful. I like it. No, I love it!

By the way, what do you think about these canvas shoes? I was unconvinced but have been swayed. I think I would have preferred more leather on the upper with the canvas, but it works as a summer shoe.

There will be no post next week as it is Christmas. So have a great one and all the best for 2010.

Friday, 11 December 2009

The Best Of Welts, The Worst Of Welts...

Another week, another week closer to Christmas. Yikes! Am I alone in having done no shopping yet? Am I alone in feeling a tad anxious about it? Pull your finger out, Ducker!

The Winkers stride on. They are now in Pickett (32-33 & 41 Burlington Arcade, Piccadilly, W1J 0PZ), makers of handmade leather goods, made in England. From leather luggage to wallets, jewellery to cashmere, Pickett epitomises the qualities of English artisanal tradition - elegance, attention to detail, and craftsmanship. So where better to place the Winkers?
We visited the shop yesterday to find the charming Mr Trevor Pickett in the midst of a Christmas shopping frenzy at his invitation event. The tills were ringing; the sherry flowing; and the cashmere gloves flying out of the door. Bloomin marvelous!

And talking of retail, we have a very exciting new venture starting in February next year in Notting Hill. But more of that later (I am sworn to secrecy).

Now, welts. Very important little strips of leather in the sole of a bespoke shoe. Surprisingly important. You have 2 choices - the nasty bought stuff you buy by the metre, which saves you time and effort; or the skillfully crafted handmade variety favoured by the English bespoke shoe making traditon. Any guesses as to which one I prefer?
Pros and cons. The bought welt is quick and easy, but of an inferior quality, plus, it is glued together to make huge reels, with an inherent weakness. The handmade welt is stronger and of better quality materials, but takes a little longer to make. The other advantage is that if you know how to make a welt, you will always be able to make a shoe and not be reliant on a manufacturer making a product (or not, as the case may be).

This is an example of the bought welt.

So, on to the handmade welt, you soak it and mark it in half lengthways with a pair of dividers.

Then cut it in half along that line.

Place the welt on your cutting board or glass. Next with your dividers set at 5mm, mark a line along the edge on the flesh side.

With the very tip of the knife, score along this line. No more than 1mm deep.

Open this up with a screwdriver. Then do the same with the other welt.

Turn it over and mark the line again with the dividers on the skin side (again set at 5mm).

This time skive to the edge at an angle of 45 degrees, so you end up with a bevelled edge.

Do the same with the other welt and you are ready to roll. It does not take too long, once you have mastered it. Good luck.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

It's a double hit today - The Other One AND The Master.

As you may have noticed we've been out and about showing off our bespoke shoes and wonderful new Winkers. Last night was no different, so we rocked up to The Dorchester, shoe case in hand, for a very special evening for Savile Row tailor Alexandra Wood, hosted by none other than Rory Bremner.

The Dorchester is a heavenly venue - awash with old and modern style glamour. I have to thank Simon on The Concierge desk and Lee for tracking down our bespoke cases (momentarily lost, but actually efficiently delivered to the Halston Suite). With order and bespoke shoes restored I took a moment to appreciate the beautiful room we were in. Light oak panelling, gilt and understated lighting gave the air of a gentleman's club. Perfect! By 6.30pm the room was awash with well-suited gents and exquisite women and I had a fantastic time chatting about the merits of bespoke (aided by a glass or two of the sparkly stuff)!

Now I don't know about you, but I'm highly critical when it comes to men in suits. I have been known to shout at the TV when a particularly heinous style crime is committed...and there are certain comedic celebs who desperately need tailoring...Dara what's with the baggy strides, for instance?

But Mr Bremner, well he tends to look dapper - safe, but dapper - but (forgive me) his suits haven't always been the best fitting. Not so last night. Since he's been 'bespoked' by Alexandra in a soft grey pinstripe, he's the epitome of modern - lean silhouette, good colour, lightweight cloth and brown accessories (yes, that's brown accessories). Now Mr Bremner, what about those shoes?

Talking of shoes, here's the Master's musings on a 'snappy' pair he's been working on:

Crocodile shoes, very beautiful. Not to everyone's taste, but unquestionably striking. I love them and want a pair, but even getting the making free, I cannot afford them...they are eye-poppingly expensive.
And the king of crocodile shoes, for me, is the wholecut. Why? Because it is effortlessly elegant; and because you need two big skins to make the uppers (big animals cost more because they must be farmed for longer to get them to the right size). And why two? To match the scales. If you are going to do it, do it right.

A beautiful, but very pricey proposition.
But if money is no object, then they are sumptuous, extravagant and sexy! And forget all that stuff about ostentation, they are cool. One more thing, it has to be the high gloss version rather than the matt skins. They are too half-hearted.
This lovely client ordered two pairs. And what do you hear me hum when I write this? La la la la la I'm loving it.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Back In Blighty

Back home, safe and sound. I am sat here in the studio feeling slightly disconcerted because it is spotless, dust free and beautifully tidy. Good enough to present to the public, in fact. And that, funnily enough, is what we are about to do. It's the Cockpit Open Studios today, tomorrow and Sunday here in Holborn. And again next weekend in Deptford (we are doing both).
It is a great visit, with an array of designer/makers in most craft disciplines - highly recommended.

Now, a few things to catch up on. Firstly those shots of the Mr Fox model in Bergdorf Goodman. We went and it is there, which is quite exciting (the only way we will ever get in, you cry? I don't think so). Please forgive my lack of layout skills. I can welt in a straight line, but laying out 3 photos similarly is beyond me.

You can just about see the lasts and our boxes. It's very cute.

Staying in New York, a couple of shots of the Leffot trunk show. The table looked lovely with the Winkers in pride of place, and the womens bespoke shoes shown for the first time Stateside. It really is a beautiful shop and the interior shows the shoes off in their best light.
Now that the Winkers are stocked there, it was a good chance for fans to see the other colourways. The McDougal Check was, again, a favourite.

I only got a chance to shoot those Norwegian welted Half-cut boots with the client in them, but you get an idea of how they look. He was really pleased and so were we. I think they look great and the Other One says they are her favourite thing we make. But then she has a boot fetish. I think the style does work very well as a boot and we have discussed making a Limited Edition from it. My worry is that men don't tend to wear boots. Am I wrong? Do you guys wear boots? And what percentage of the time?

And finally, some shots of the Hepburn being modelled. This is a lovely bespoke shoe and looks great on, I think you will agree. The model this time is not Mother Ducker (who is coming to visit today with friends and taking me out for lunch), but our lovely friend Jesse (the cheque is in the post). That scooped down top edge is a real success and we will be using it more in our women's collection.

Saturday, 21 November 2009


It's now confirmed, we are in Bergdorf Goodman. In the window. You can just about see the Cobblers Shop, obscured by a huge dummy. But it's there. And you can see our boxes in the window. It's cute. I have photos which I will post when we get home.

My feet are now officially throbbing after a day of pounding the hard streets of new York.

I also have shots of those finished Norwegian welted boots. Delivered them on Tuesday and the client was delighted. They looked amazing, it must be said. Again will post on Monday.

Friday, 20 November 2009

New York City

Here we are then! The day after our trunk show at Leffot. I am exhausted.

After an unwanted run in with officialdom, we managed to get there and set up by the skin of our teeth. Steven and Hiroko were as welcoming as usual, and helped in every way.

It was a grey wet day, which did not help, but the atmosphere in the shop was great. The Winkers took pride of place, sitting happily along with the 2 colourways Leffot already carry. The McDougal check was a particular favourite.
We also had some conversations about our carreducker shoemaking course in May, which is very promising seeing as it is so far away (I say that but it will be upon us before we know it). The new Special tweed boot was also a popular style. It is beautiful and seems to be the way forward for our bespoke shoes. Leather and tweed, gorgeous!

We met some old faces and some new, so all in it was a successful day.

Today we are visiting some retailers to hawk our wares from a trunk. Should be good. This will include a trip to Bergdorf Goodman to see the fabled Fantastic Mr Fox window display. Pics when we get home (muppet boy here forgot the cables for the camera).The sun has just come out, so bring it on.

My family is driving down from Maine this afternoon, with my brother arriving from Utah tomorrow, so I am really looking forward to seeing them. It's been over a year.

So that is a little taster of what we have been doing. More later.

Friday, 13 November 2009

A Bit More Norwegian

So here we are again. News this week? Well, after some abortive trips by friends to Bergdorf Goodman, my friend Nelson has confirmed that the Fantastic Mr Fox models are in their windows till New Year. We will go next week and take pics ourselves. But thank you Paul and Dan's mate for trying.

Happy birthday to Lodger. We went to their party last night, which was fun. Met a fellow shoe man, the exceptional Mr Hare, of blog fame. We talked design, wear and manufacturing. It was great to meet him after reading his blog for so long. His shoes are great in the flesh too. So thanks Nathan for a great party.

Back to Norwegian welts. We left it with the upper lasted and ready to welt. Welt as normal, but the awl will come out on the upper which will fell a bit freaky but don't worry. Just make sure it comes out at the same level to create a straight line of stitches. Also, make sure the stitch length is even. This is why I prefer to make the holes in the holdfast as I go rather than before you start. Begin at the heel point and go round to the other heel point.

At this point, fold back the upper to create a 90 degree angle to the upper and run the sleeking bone round to secure this fold. Hammer the stitches and the fold. It all looks a bit unusual, but bear with me, it will all turn out ok.

Put in a shank and cork as usual.

Because this is a sturdy construction, the sole is generally thicker, so normally I put a midsole on. This is a piece of leather, similar to the shank material. It needs to be stiff enough to be hard and easy to finish. The midsole also makes the welt stiffer and easier to trim. Put rubber solution or neoprene glue on both surfaces, leave for 15 minutes and glue it on. Start at the toe and lay it on backwards, making sure the welt stays flat, with no lumps or creases.

You might need to skive the midsole to flatten the sole area or the waist. It should not be too curved. You can now trim the welt to the required width. Again this is a sturdy shoe so a wider welt is better. Also, the Norwegian welt tends to shrink a bit when you stitch the sole. So wide is better.
Attach the sole with rubber solution, having skived as usual to the desired thickness. Trim round the heel and nail in as usual. Trim to the welt and cut your channel. Fudge the welt to mark the stitches and you are ready to stitch. Make the holes nearer than normal to the upper, because the stitches tend to pull the upper/welt inwards and you can end up with it narrower than the sole you have trimmed. And don't pull the stitches too tight for the same reason. Go all the way round and hey presto! You have a finished Norwegian welt. Build heel and finish as normal. Good luck and let me know how you get on.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Fancy A Bit Of Norwegian?

So, another week over. And a good week it has been.

The QEST Craft fair at GTC in Sloane Square was very good. We met a lot of new clients in a fantastic location. I was strangely tickled by a crocodile of local school children in bergundy corduroy britches; yellow wooly jerkins; and green overalls which passed the window. It was like a scene from Dickens, and I thought how odd. But then I remembered we were in Chelsea. West London is another world.

We also had our first group meeting with the Crafted programme and met the other people involved. It was really interesting to see how other designer/makers deal with common problems. We also met some craftspeople we could collaborate with. More to come with that one. It's a very exciting opportunity for us and we are hoping to meet the Amex people who are funding it when we are in New York in a couple of weeks.

On my way in this morning I was also thinking about what to blog about in terms of shoemaking. I sat down at my table, picked up the next shoe to start lacking inspiration, and out of nowhere comes a Norwegian welt to save the day. A curious thing the Norwegian welt. I have never really understood it's purpose, but the theory is that it is more robust and slightly more waterproof. I have my doubts, but it does look great and really shows off the handsewn nature of bespoke shoes.

Normally the welt is a separate strip of leather which you sew on, to be used later to attach the sole. I n the Norwegian version, the welt is the upper which is folded out and then used to stitch through to attach the sole. It's easier to demonstrate than describe, as with most things shoe.

First you prepare the insole. Trim like a normal one, but instead of the normal holdfast, you ignore the outside part and just do the second cut, the inside part.

This looks a bit half-baked, but it will be fine. Most people prepare the holes at this point like a normal insole. In this case, I prefer to make the holes when I am stitching on the sole as I go along, because I find it easier to make sure the stitches are an even size and in a straight line. You'll see.
Because this is a boot, I put a fitting on the last, so that the upper does not bend and crease when it is being made. Use a straight piece of leather and make a cut near the bottom on both sides. Nail it on as in the picture.

Next last the upper as per normal. The only thing you need to watch is leaving more of the lasting allowance when you trim, because you will be using it as the welt.

That is as far as I got with it today, so more next week. Have a good one

Friday, 30 October 2009

Bergdorf Goodman Here We Come

Strange old world we live in. We are in Bergdorf Goodman in New York. In the Window display no less.
But hold on, it's not what you think. Check this. I have a good friend called Nelson who makes movies. He was the Production Designer for The Fantastic Mr Fox, the Wes Anderson stop animation version of the Roald Dahl book with George Clooney and Meryl Streep.
Anyway, there is a scene in the film where the animal protagonists are running down a street past a row of shops, one of which is a shoemakers. When they were designing the scene, the film makers came to the workshop to shoot some pics to inspire them. So they shot all our tools, my table, the lasts etc, and we thought nothing more of it.
At the beginning of the year, Nelson invited us to go to Three Mills Studios in Bow, to see the set. It was an amazing visit. An unimaginable level of detail. Think nerdy, obsessive model making children who have grown up and found themselves in modelers paradise. Over 200 people in a massive workshop making puppets; knitting tiny ties on tiny matchsticks; making minute fruits for a supermarket scene; hand painting each one; then doing it all over again, but smaller, for a longer shot; building whole landscapes from foam and twigs and dust; building complete towns for the puppets to move round in. It was mind-blowing and fascinating.
Apparently Wes Anderson refused to use any CGI, so the studio had to find physical solutions to all the scenes. It was a little wonderland. And the puppeteers are superstars in their field, traveling the world making these movies and earning fortunes. Who would have thought, eh?

Anyway, we were looking at the town set and Nelson said come look at this, and it was the shoemakers shop. And inside was our studio (more or less) reproduced in miniature. My table; all my tools; my famous red handled hammers; the lasts; everything! It was brilliant.

The movie premiered here and as a promotional tool, the film company sends the puppets and scenery to places around the world. And one of the places is Bergdorf Goodman on 5th Ave in New York, who have 9 of the scenes in their windows. One of them is the shoemakers shop. So by a very circuitous route, we are in Bergdorf Goodman. Ha ha, what a pip!

If any of you dear readers is in New York, we would really appreciate a picture. We will be there at Leffot on the 19th of November, but we don't know if the dispaly will still be there.

On a different tack, we had a visit from a student from the summer course, who has set up a studio in San Francisco to make shoes. Well done Brian, and great to see you. Good luck with it.
Another student from the same course is visiting next week after spending a couple of months with our friend Marcell at Koronya in Budapest, continuing his making education. It will be interesting to see how he got on.

That's it then for another week. Sorry no images this week, but I thought the movie story was fun.

Happy making!

Friday, 23 October 2009

Good Times

I know I have wittered on about Origin, but what I have not done is show you pictures. So here you are. It was a typical carreducker confection on a sought after corner stand. We tried to emphasize the craft side of what we do, hence the tools and shoes hung on the wall. I think it worked well and we got lots of positive feedback.

Next come the people. The Other One and me, doing our thing. Look at those Winkers winking! They are so cool.

Look at the crush of visitors. One great thing about Origin is the constantly high visitor numbers. There were no lulls.

Finally look at Mama Ducker in the Dietrich. Gorgeous! And the shoes look lovely too. It's funny how things turn out. Of the 3 women's bespoke samples we made, this was the least favourite on paper, but once the alchemy of making had been done, they reversed that position. They are so elegant and very flattering.

On Wednesday, we went for a coffee with Nathan Brown from Lodger. Great concept, beautiful shop and a lovely guy. Always good to meet other shoe people and see how they get to where they are. Good on you Nathan for supporting the British shoe industry with such conviction. We chewed the cud and put the industry to rights. Very interesting.

We have been invited to participate in a year long programme for up and coming luxury brands designed to stimulate both our entrepneurial skills and promote the craft element of luxury. It's called Crafted, and, funded by the American Express Foundation, it is run by Walpole and Arts and Business.
Yesterday we had our first meeting with our new business mentor, Mark Henderson (Gieves and Hawkes). This guy knows the industry backwards; is amazingly well connected; and will be a fantastic asset to us. We talked about our product offering, from bespoke shoes to the Winkers, and planned our year working together. We are very excited about this. Will keep you posted on how it develops. Good times!

Friday, 16 October 2009

Blind Welt 3

So, after a triumphant debut at Origin (yes triumphant!), here we are back in the studio. All in all it was a very successful show for us. We took orders, both bespoke and ready to wear; met plenty of journos and trade; have many interested punters to follow up; and, most importantly, a certificate to hang on our wall. We have already had follow-up emails from a few of the people we met. So it should mean more orders down the line. Excellent!

We have more shows on the way too. First up is the QEST British Craft Fair, 4th and 5th November at General Trading Company in Sloane Square (click link for details and see you there).

12th November we have a bespoke event in Blackburn, Lancashire in association with Edwards Of Manchester shoe shop. More details to come.

Then comes the show at Leffot, 10 Christopher St in New York, 19th November, 12 till 7pm. This should be exciting. A chance to do the fittings for our customers who ordered bespoke shoes in May; to measure up some new ones; and to showcase the Winkers. The store will have had 2 colourways on sale by then and we will be able to show people the other 7 tweed options available. A date for your diaries.

We also have the Cockpit Arts Open Studios, 27, 28 29 November (address and times through link). Your chance to see our workshop; buy those hard to find Christmas presents; and generally have a behind the scenes look at designer makers at work. Nice!

And so to bespoke shoemaking. We left the blind welt with the sole glued on and trimmed all the way round to 3/16" from the welt. Hammer up the sole very hard so that it gets as close to the upper as possible. Now for the fun bit. From heel to heel, you need to cut a line along the edge to the thickness just thicker than required (1/4" in this case).

Wet the cut you have made and peen it close to the upper with the french shape hammer. You will have to work this, but don't hit the upper! Get it as close as you can. Then hammer it flat with the other end of the hammer to remove the peening marks. At this point, you must cut the channel as you would with any shoe. Make sure you don't cut through the sole! Open up the channel with a screwdriver and open up the sole where it touches the upper. Use the sleeking bone. You are now ready to stitch. Start at the heel and stitch towards yourself. Stitch about 4 to the inch.

Squish (technical term) the stitches flat with the sleeking bone. Close down the channel with it and hammer flat. This is a bit counter intuitive, but it sets the leather in place and gets rid of wrinkles before you glue it.

Open the channel again and glue it with neoprene, let it dry and then close it again. Hammer as before and smooth the sole with the smoothing stick (a sanded chair leg?).

Now we have to tidy up the top edge. This is a quarter inch sole so, mark a line with a pen this width. You will have to do this freehand. Make it as even as you can.

More fun now. Open the sole up a bit so it sits away from the upper. Wet it and cut the line, clean and flat. You can use a piece of plastic to protect the upper.

You will see now that the top of the line is neat and straight but quite thick. You need to cut this thin. Sharpen your knife and wet the offending area. Cut this edge to nearly nothing all the way round.

Peen the edge back to the upper. To finish off sand the edge like you would any other edge. Glass it; sand it; and set it with a bevelled waist iron. Hey presto, a finished blind welt.
If you have got this far well done. And remember I did this for the first time with this bespoke shoe, so I know how nerve wracking it is. But shoemaking is about bravery. Go for it!