Handsewn shoemaking dates back many centuries and the tools, materials and techniques remain largely unchanged to this day. Shoemaking is a highly skilled craft, involving over 200 steps to construct each pair of shoes, using only hand-held tools and naturally tanned, oak bark leather.
The qualities of bespoke handsewn shoes are their style, fit, lightness, strength and durability.
Our handsewn shoes also have great environmental credentials and provenance. They are designed to last a lifetime, if they are well looked after and repaired from time to time; the only materials in the finished shoes are leather, cork and around 20 nails in each heel and, of course, the wooden shoe trees; the majority of the leathers we work with are naturally vegetable tanned; our skilled last makers, pattern makers and closers (who sew the uppers) are dotted around the UK; and we hand sew the shoes here at our workshop in London’s iconic Oxo Tower on the South Bank.
Handsewn shoe making
The following is a brief explanation of how our handsewn bespoke shoes are made:-
- All the leather for the shoe components is cut from English oak-bark tanned hides – the insole, sole, welt, heel lifts, toe puffs and stiffeners – soaked in water and allowed to mellow.
- The leather insole is nailed to the underside of the last and allowed to dry; before being shaped and a ridge (or holdfast) created by hand around the edge with stitch holes punched through it using a sharp awl.
- Then the heel stiffeners are thinned out around the edges and pasted in place between the upper and lining before the upper is stretched over the last and nailed to the insole. The lining is lasted at the toe, a toe puff (a thinned piece of leather that gives the toe strength) is pasted in place and the upper is lasted over.
- Now the shoemaker checks the design is straight, that the shoes match and the measurements are correct before carefully hammering the uppers to smooth and shape them. Then they are left to sit on the last for several days to take shape.
- This is the hand sewing technique from which Goodyear welt manufacturing is derived. (Although the welt stitches are not visible once the shoe is finished, they are vital to give the shoe strength and durability). The welt is a strip of leather sewn around the edge of the shoe and the threads are made from waxed, twisted hemp or linen thread.
- An awl is pushed through the holes in the ridge, then through the upper material and out through the welt; the threads are then pulled through the hole, in opposite directions, to create a stitch and the process is repeated all the way around the shoe from heel mark to heel mark.
- A tough piece of leather (a shank) is glued in the arch of the shoe for support and strength; the front of the shoe is filled with cork for stability and comfort; and then the sole is cut to shape and glued in place.
- The heel position is marked on the sole and secured with small tacks; the stitch spacing is marked on the welt with a heated wheel; and a channel is cut into the bottom edge of
the sole to take the stitches.
- The sole is stitched by hand using a square awl, a lighter weight thread and the same stitch process as before. Then the channel is glued over the stitches
- The heels are built from thin layers of leather, nailed and glued one on top of the other and then trimmed to shape with a knife. When the heel is the correct height a hard-wearing leather and rubber top piece is glued and nailed in place.
- The shoe edges are now smoothed and shaped with a rasp, glass and then several different grades of sandpaper; the bottoms of the soles and heels are either dyed or polished and then rubbed with a warm iron to help their water-resistance; and the edges are either dyed and waxed or polished to the right colour and a warmed edge iron is used to seal them too.
Rough stuff leathers (insoles, soles, heels etc.)
Founded in 1862, J&FJ Baker of Colyton, Devon in England still make some of the best oak bark, pit tanned leathers in the world.
Over a period of some 12 months the pelts are limed, washed, hung and then laid in the tanning pits – resulting in leather that is hard wearing but lightweight and responsive. Over time it delivers a ‘like a glove’ experience.
Vegetable Tanned Leather
This beautiful, straw coloured leather has natural tanning properties that wick away moisture making it a healthy choice inside the shoe.
Our kid skin leathers come from the Shrut & Asch Leather Company in Boston, USA. We choose their leathers for lining the quarters of our shoes because of the quality of the tanning, the colour-fastness of the skins and the choice and vibrancy of colour.
This is our leather of choice, the finest skins sourced from tanneries in France, Italy and Poland. Box calf takes and holds the shape of the last well, is durable and it can be brought to a high, military shine.
St Crispin’s Baby Calf
Vegetable tanned in Italy, this supple, lightweight calf arrives from the tannery unglazed. Once the shoe is finished, we burnish the uppers to deepen the colour and bring out the subtle variations in tone.
Auctioneers Reverse Suede
Velvety reverse suede in a series of autumnal colours. This suede is made from the first split of the calf skin which means it has the “skin” side on the reverse, making it more durable and hard wearing.
Genuine Cordovan and Chromexcel
The Horween Leather Company of Chicago, founded in 1905 makes some of the best upper leather in the world.
Their Cordovan is an example of aniline tanning at its finest. Over a period of more than six months, each piece of leather – or shell, as it is known – is hand curried, shaved, dyed and glazed by highly skilled artisans employing techniques unchanged for generations. Prized by craftsmen, Cordovan is much-sought after for its glossy rich, deep colour; durability; and for the beautiful way it wears with age.
Chromexcel is the original pull-up leather, water resistant, durable and so ideal for riding and field boots. It is created using time honoured techniques, old world craftsmanship and formulas that were developed nearly 100 years ago, (but with more modern-day substitutes for certain ingredients e.g. whale oil is no longer used) and carries on a long history of superior comfort and durability.
Our crocodile, cayman, lizard and other exotic skins come from specialist leather merchants in the UK and are imported only under permit or Cites (the Convention on International Trade in endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).
Lasts and trees
Our bespoke shoe and boot lasts are made to our measurements and instruction by Spring Line in Northampton. Once we have finished making your bespoke shoes, they are sent back to Spring Line, along with the lasts, so that their experienced last makers can create bespoke trees. We believe that shoe trees are vital to the longevity of your shoes, to keep them looking good. Each pair is personalised with the customer’s initials and come as easy-to-remove, three-piece trees with a brass ring pull.