Bespoke Shoes Unlaced – a shoemaker's blog

Saturday, 31 December 2011

Getting The Fit

As bespoke shoemakers, we spend much of our time finessing a customer’s lasts to ensure a good fit. The lasts do not replicate the foot exactly, but instead are an approximation of its shape and volume to accommodate this flexible limb that keeps us upright and active.
We take a series of drawings and measurements to create the lasts - the distance around the instep and the heel (this holds the foot in a shoe or boot); the measurement around the instep and arch; the width of the joint at its widest point; and the space around the toes themselves.
We also take foam impressions of the feet so that we can understand where the weight is distributed and where arch support is needed. All of this information helps to inform us as designers and shoemakers.
But what of the high street? With the big January sales well under way, how do you avoid being swept up in the moment and buying shoes that don’t fit? What should you look for? How do you know if the shoe fits?
There are so many things to consider when buying shoes, but these are our top tips to help you to get a good fit.
  • Never buy a pair of shoes ‘in your size’ without trying them on. Standard sizes vary from brand to brand so you do need to try them.
  • Some styles will suit your feet better than others. For instance if your feet swell during the day, a Derby will be more comfortable than an Oxford. This is because the front laced section of a Derby can be opened up/loosened more than an Oxford which is closed at the front. This also applies when you fly or in warm weather.
  • Brands from northern Europe tend to have a wider joint as standard and southern European/Mediterranean brands tend to have a narrower, slimmer fit at the joint.
  • Remember that one foot is usually bigger than the other so always try on both shoes.
The check list when you try on a pair of shoes:
o Is there enough space for your toes when you are standing upright and walking?
o Does the back of the shoe feel comfortable and cup your heel?
o Does the heel slip at all when you walk?
o Is there enough room on your instep (the top part of your foot)?
o Is there enough room for your foot across the widest part of the shoe, at the joint?
o Do your toes clench up when you walk? (This suggests your foot may be slipping in the shoe).
o Does the shoe support the arch of your foot?
And ultimately the main question is “Does it hurt”? I can assure you, after years of wearing ill-fitting shoes and super high heels that if it hurts when you try the shoes on, it will still hurt many, many months later!
So gentlemen beware! Please don’t use your feet to stretch a shoe to fit, enjoy the sales but choose carefully. (Words of advice from one who has been there, seen it, done it and is now paying the price with painful sesamoids not what you think – actually two small bones under the big toe joint).
We always prefer our bespoke customers to come to us through desire rather than necessity ;).
Until midnight tonight, when we wish everyone a very happy New Year and 2012!

Friday, 23 December 2011

Christmas deliveries

Even though our clients don't often make special requests for shoes to be delivered by a certain date i.e. patent shoes for a party or the red carpet we do like to deliver to them ahead of the promised date if at all possible. (And of course there are a certain pair of magical boots that need to be ready well in advance of 25 December - but we don't name names!)

One client's shoes have been following him around the globe in an effort to deliver them in time for an event, but sadly to no avail so far. They have been to Tokyo and back to London so far. He has been to Tokyo, New York and Washington state but it is physically impossible to get them to him there by Boxing Day. So instead, we have persuaded him to wait until he is in London to collect them - we couldn't bear for them to disappear in transit!

In contrast, we were thrilled to deliver this pair to a very fashionable client this week - just in time for the seasonal festivities! They are a slightly streamlined version of an earlier design, but with a sloped toe box.
Our particular favourite detail was the client's choice of lining - a beautiful pale blue - contrasting nicely with the jet black and jutting, spade welt.

Another client project taking us through to the New Year, and a personal favourite, is this pair of hunting boots.

Already braced but with the design still being finessed, they are designed for maximum durability out on the moors and heathland.

They will also have a pair of gaiters to go over the top, but not until the client has signed off the design and fit of the boots themselves.

So that's it from us this Christmas. We wish you all a very Merry Christmas and fantastic holidays...
Warmest wishes until next week

Deborah & James

Friday, 16 December 2011

The Leather We Use: Toe Puff/Stiffener Belly And Shoulder

Greetings once more, fellow shoemakers of the world. Not long now till Christmas and a well earned break. I am lucky enough to be going to Venice for a week next Friday, which I am inordinately excited about. And a week's holiday is going to be bliss. Much as I love what I do, I am more than ready for a holiday.
If any of you know any shoemakers in Venice, then let me know as I always like to meet colleagues.

This week I am going to continue the series of posts about the leather that we use. Last time I spoke about insole shoulders, and now is the turn of toe puffs and stiffeners.

The toe puff we take from the belly of the cow. This is where the hide is split to take it off the carcass, and the two thin strips either side are the belly. This is a relatively thin, low grade part of the hide, but perfect for toe puffs which must be thin, but have some rigidity. You can imagine what it is like - have you seen a pregnant cow? Just think how stretchy and loose that skin becomes.

Again we use the Bakers oak bark tanned bellies which are natural, breathable, and locally sourced. They measure between 3 and 4 iron (an iron being 1/48th of an inch I am told). This is the thinnest leather we use in the making process.

Parts of the bellies are very poor quality. You can tell these parts as they are covered with stretch marks and when you work it, the grain is very fluffy and loose. It is better not to use these parts in all honesty, because it causes problems at the hour of shaping the toe puff.

A Particularly Poor Piece of Toe Puff belly

This is the thickness of an average toe puff belly. When we work it, we soak it ion water for about 10 minutes and that way it is easier to cut and skive.

On a ladies shoe or most gent's shoes, we use the belly for stiffeners too (the part which strengthens the heel/counter area of the shoe). This means that less skiving is required on the stiffener, which saves us work without compromising strength.

On a very robust shoe or a boot, we would use the slightly thicker stiffener shoulder. Again, this is a poorer grade part of the hide and is the upper part of the shoulder which goes into the neck. It differs from the belly in that it is a bit thicker - 4 to 6 iron. Obviously this gives a greater stiffening effect to the heel area.
It also requires more skiving to get it to the right thickness, because you have a balance between strength and  weight. The more leather you have in your shoes, the heavier they are, and most customers want a light, flexible shoe.
This is the thickness of the stiffener shoulder.

On a riding boot, where a tremendous strength and rigidity is required in the heel, the stiffener is stitched in by the closer and is barely skived at all, only around the edges so that the seams can be closed. This means you have to soak the whole boot upper in water before you last them. This also helps with the lasting which can be quite tough because the leather is much heavier. We generally use reverse calf from Bakers which is the flesh side of the calf on the outside, but it is specially waxed and appears to be like a regular calf. The difference is that when you ride through vegetation and the boots get scratched, because it is the flesh side, you simply have to bone the scratches flat with a sleeking bone to return the calf to its pristine state. If you scratch the skin side of calf, it remains scratched whatever you do. But I digress. I must finish as I have an urgent pair to finish before Tuesday.

That is all folks. Have a great week, and until next Friday, happy shoemaking!

Friday, 9 December 2011

Drastic Measures

Greetings to all of you. I hope you are having a good day, about to be made better by our tasty blog.

First off, if you are in the West End today, (Friday 9 December), I will be making shoes in the window of Gieves and Hawkes, all day with the odd break, of course. It looks really great (we are told), especially when it is dark.

Next up, a new shoe. The final piece in the carréducker Mayfair Collection. Sober, classic and very stylish. Love the chisel toe and elegant lines (like a 60s sports car).
We put some brogue punching on one of the caps, just to let customers see what possibilities are available.

New Stay Stitch

Houston, we have a problem.

We make every effort possible to make sure our shoes fit well. We always do fittings and make sure the customer signs off the final fit. At this point we make the shoes. 99 times out 100, this works perfectly and the shoes fit very well.

Occasionally, they don't. And this week, we had a pair which didn't fit. We delivered the shoes and the customer said the heel lifted at the back which is very bad. It means your toes clench to compensate for the heel slip and this can lead to problems over time.
I can only think that when we pulled the backs down when lasting, we went slightly below the desired line. It may only have been a tiny amount, but that can make all the difference

When you have finished a pair of shoes, there are always small tweaks you can make, but it is never easy and never pleasant. Much better to get it right first time!

With this particular problem, we had a few choices. We could unpick the top seam, reduce it (or put in some padding), and re-stitch it. A bit tricky with this shoe because of the counter and all the layers leather we had to deal with.

So, the option we went for is to soak the heel in water, reduce the last or trees and shrink the heel down with a giant elastic band. It is a horrible thing to do, soak your beautiful bespoke shoes in water. Especially in this case because the lining is natural veg tanned calf and will stain. So we had to make sure the whole of the lining was wet.
We soaked the heels for a good 20 minutes to make sure the stiffeners were good and wet. This allows for the desired shrinkage to happen.

Soaking the heels

Usually you would have use your lasts to do this. Luckily we had bespoke trees which made life a lot easier because it is a bit tricky getting the lasts back in once you have finished a pair of shoes.

We marked what we wanted to remove on the trees.

We then rasped off the excess wood and put the trees or lasts back into the shoes. Use lots of French chalk or talcum powder to help get them in.

The last stage is to put on your big elastic bands. In this case, we used two pieces of tyre inner tube cut to size. We stretched them on and then wedged heel lifts in there to make it tight.

Heel lift inserted to add tension to the inner tube

We made sure the rubber was over the offending area.

And this is how it looks at the end. The shoes are drying on our shelves now and we let them rest for a week. To make sure everything is totally dry and to make sure the leather has adopted the new shape in the remarkable way that leather does.

But, dear reader, do not think that this is a good solution to a problem. It was a poor fix at the last chance saloon. We hate doing stuff like this, but, at times, needs must and you have to take drastic measures. Rather do this than take the shoes apart and remake them.

Fingers crossed that the fix has worked. Wish us luck!

Until next week, happy shoemaking.

Friday, 2 December 2011

The Leather We Use: Insole Shoulders

Another week. Where does the time go for a busy shoemaker about town? And here we are in December already. Yikes! It's nearly Christmas. Carols were on in the shop yesterday, so it really is that time of year again - bah humbug!

After the success of the living windows for St Crispin's Day in October, we are doing it again next week. From Wednesday 7th till Friday the 9th one or other of us will be in the shop window on Vigo St along with a selection of elves (unfortunately not the sort who will make the shoes for us at night, although I am ever hopeful).

Finished a particularly interesting boot this week. Sometimes you get a commission which you think, hmmm, not sure how this is going to turn out, but that when it is finished, you absolutely fall in love with. Well, this is one of them.

Chocolate brown lizard skin with natural whip snake slip beading (piping). Square waist, 3/8" sole, 5" high, natural finish throughout. We split the vamp because it is hard to find a skin large enough to make a whole vamp and it means it does not need blocking (can you block lizard?) I like the proportions and the lines, but most of all I like that lizard skin. It's beautiful. I wouldn't mind a pair...

Elegant Profile

Check Out That Slip Beading 

Our Signature carréducker Crow's Foot Stay Stitch

Chisel Toe And Natural Stitching

Wing Cap And Split Vamp

And so to shoemaking. We get asked about what leather we use for what bits of the shoes. So here is a little information about insoles. Insoles are the foundation of a strong hand welted shoe. If the insole gives out, the shoe is unwearable and will fall apart.

We use insole shoulders from Bakers of Colyton, Devon, England. This is the shoulder area of an adult cow, across the shoulder from top of leg to top of leg, without the neck. As you can see, they are huge and it is staggering how much surface area a cow hide covers.

Bakers are the last tanners in England who use the traditional oak bark method. Oak bark is full of tannin (which is the stuff in tea which makes it dark). Hence tanning, which is the process of preserving the hide. It involves many stages of scraping and soaking in different pits in the ground and different tanning solutions. The leather comes out at the end preserved and durable, but still supple and breathable with its protein structure intact which allows us shoemakers to do our work. Under the right conditions, leather tanned like this can last for centuries.
Other advantages of using leather tanned like this is that it is kind to the skin; breathable; absorbs sweat; dries out well; has a natural water resistance; is abrasion resistant; and is very long lasting when in contact with the ground.
Bakers use a very traditional method which takes up to 12 months to carry out. The processes are sustainable and relatively green, as the oak bark is from renewable sources.
We love their leathers (which are of the highest quality) and like to support brands made in England.

Another reputable high quality tanner of oak bark cow hides is Rendenbach from Germany which has a larger production and is more widely available.

The insole shoulders have a natural grain to them and it is important to cut your insoles along the grain not across it. This will help your shoes last longer.

We use two weights of insole. For standard gent's shoes and for boots, we use 7-9 iron shoulders (no idea what an iron is) like the picture below

For lighter weight gent's shoes and ladies work, we use 5-7 iron insole shoulders. These are lighter and more flexible. It does make cutting the holdfast/feather more difficult though.

We buy our insole shoulders roughed which means the skin side has been roughed up taking off the top surface layer. If you buy them intact, you have to glass the surface before you start, so it saves us a job. This prevents the insoles cracking and squeaking.

The flesh side can be dense and compact or slightly fluffy like this one. we always skive off the fluffy stuff once we have welted the shoes because this helps prevent squeaking too.

So that is about all I can tell you about insole shoulders. Hope it was interesting and useful.

Until next week, happy shoemaking!

Friday, 25 November 2011

Fiddle Waist

So, dear shoemakers of the world, another week goes by. Today sees the start of the twice yearly Cockpit Arts Open Studios. The public's chance to see our working studios and either buy or commission work from the over 90 designer/makers who work here. So if you are in Central London this weekend, why not pop in and see us. It is a great visit and you could buy some of those tricky Christmas presents

Opening times are

Friday 26 November 11am till 9pm
Saturday 27 November 11am till 6pm
Sunday 28 November 11am till 6pm

£5 in.

And so to shoemaking. We have seen recently the rise of the fiddle waist in high end men's shoes, and of course we are not immune to it. Our recent Mayfair Collection features them, and rather beautiful they are too

But I have been wondering about the origin and purpose of them. The internet did not throw up very much useful information (maybe the old fiddle is too arcane), so I went to visit my old friends at John Lobb to see what they had to say on the subject.
There were a few disagreements about the finer points, but this is what I learned.

The essential elements seem to be a pulled in waist and the Y shaped ridge up the middle (some thought this was not essential, but the consensus was that it was).
Most seemed to think that the origin was on women's shoes with high heels where the waist becomes very important for the integrity of the shoe.
Most also thought that it was basically a decorative addition without much structural significance, but that the Y shaped ridge adds strength to the waist, because the higher the heel and the more pulled in it is, the more strength you need to support the weight of the wearer.
Most also thought that they were not generally used in men's shoes. However, if the main use is aesthetics, then they are permitted in any shoes, men's included.
One person said they thought they were used in equestrian boots and cowboy boots, but was not entirely sure.
Any feedback about this would be greatly appreciated.
As for the name, it is because the waist looks like a violin (fiddle), but, frankly, I don't see it. Ho hum.

And here's how you do it.

Start with a welted shoe with a shank and cork filler. Welt trimmed and ready to prepare the sole. You can do this with a square waist or a bevelled waist in this case.

I like to draw the line of the Y shaped ridge.

Usually you would make the fiddle with leather for strength and durability, but as these are sample shoes and will never be worn in anger, I did it with cork.
Cut out a piece of cork to cover the whole area and glue both surfaces (contact adhesive or rubber solution).

Let it dry and glue it in place.

Skive the edges down with your knife. I forgot to say that the cork/leather should extend back behind the heel mark so that the finished ridge disappears in to the heel.

Make another piece of cork but narrower this time to start building up the ridge. Glue both surfaces and let them dry.

Glue it in place.

Again, skive the edges to build up the ridge.

Repeat the process with a third piece of cork, but narrower again.

This is my final piece, but for a bigger, bolder ridge add a fourth piece of cork.
Start to rasp the cork into shape. If you use leather, use your knife to shape the ridge.

You should be aiming for a sharp pointed ridge all the way along which splits to form the Y shape.

At the joint, there will be a big raised platform of cork. You have to blend this into the fiddle waist with your knife.

Then rasp it into shape.

And then the fun bit starts. You have to make the other one and they have to look the same! I do each process on both shoes at the same time s that I can match each stage to make a pair.

This is how I would normally prepare my sole on a normal shoe.

 But on a fiddle waist, you want the Y shape to be accentuated, so I always skive away right across the waist area like this. This thins the sole and when you glue it on, it is easier to get a nice ridge.

Once the sole is glued into place with rubber solution, you have to use your hammer to shape the waist. Gently tap the leather along the contours of the Y shaped ridge. Be gentle, tap it rather than bash it. This really helps define the shape because the leather is still mellow (a little wet) and is easy to shape with the hammer.

The results can be lovely. I like the fiddle waist a lot.

And that, as they say, is that. For this week at least. We wish you all a good week, especially our US friends who have a big holiday right now.

Until next week, happy shoemaking!