I Made Downton Abbey Shoes by Hand! | 1920's Shoe-Making
I recently finished a pair of 1920’s shoes inspired by (of course) Downton Abbey, and in this article I will be bringing you along for the process! I’ll show you my original shoe inspiration, how I selected and built up a shoe last to fit me (also, some mistakes I made in that area), how I created the patterns for the shoes, cut out the leather, closed the uppers, carved wooden heels, and built the shoe. Stay tuned to the end for the final reveal of the shoe, and to hear how they fit and how I like them!
If you are interested in shoemaking, I have a few other shoe making videos on this blog that you may also enjoy. Find them in "related posts"
So let’s jump into it!
The Last and the Pattern
Other than Downton Abbey, my concrete inspiration shoe was a pair from 1922, which I saw in the book "Footwear" from the School of Historical Dress. I loved the curvy Louis heels and the intricate strap detailing of these shoes - though I decided to make mine in a (for me) more wearable colour of brown rather than red.
The last I chose was a reproduction of a vintage last, which had a very similar shape to Edwardian and 1920’s shoes, with their dramatic curves. This last was actually a cowboy boot last bought from Lisa Sorrell, and I did have to do some reshaping of the toe. I also did some building up of the last because I purposely bought it in a more narrow width so I would have more control over the fit. I built up the ball of the foot quite a bit, the heel a little bit, and kept the waist of the last the same, as I like a snug fit in that area.
Now it was time to make the pattern. I wrapped the last in masking tape which provides a great representation of very curved and complex shapes. I then peeled this off and laid it onto paper to create a standard pattern for this last. Sort of the shoemaking equivalent of a bodice block. I used this standard to create the pattern for my particular inspiration shoe. I cut my patterns out of cardstock with seam and folding allowance added, and cut notches into the card stock to indicate the fitting lines - where the two panels needed to meet up.
Clicking & Closing the Uppers
I cut out my outer leather by first marking the outlines and the notches from my pattern pieces with a heat erasable leather pen. I then cut around the outside lines with what’s called a clicking knife. I also cut out stiffeners for the toe and heel, and cut out my shoe lining pieces.
Next it was time to prep all of these pieces. For shoemaking, prep means skiving the edges, and also folding under the edges that would be visible on the outside of the shoes. The trickiest area to do this in was with the straps! In hindsight I should have left more a folding allowance to enable the leather to stay stuck down after I had folded it, and be caught in the later stage of stitching. Small refinements though.
Now it was time to stitch my uppers! This was one of my first pairs of shoe uppers stitched on my beautiful new post bed sewing machine, which is designed for shoe making. I first joined my leather pieces together using double sided shoe making tape, or glue in some spots - sometimes the tape would gum up the machine needle, whereas the glue did not, so I am still deciding which approach works best and where.
Stitching was nerve-wracking. Unlike garment sewing, one wrong stitch will leave a permanent hole in the leather. Needless to say, this process was very slow because of that. I did top stitching around the straps and the neckline of the shoe, and these stitches also served to hold the lining in place on the inside. The excess lining would later be trimmed off.
Finally, I added my buckles to the straps. These buckles are real 1925 antique art deco shoe buckles, and I was thrilled to find them for these shoes!
Shaping the Insole
This turned out to be a tricky part of the process - mostly due to mistakes on my part and a too-dull knife that I was having trouble sharpening. Have I mentioned how important sharp knives are for shoe-making? I began by cutting out my insole leather with a generous extra margin. I used 2 mm thick veg-tanned shoulder leather for this. Starting with thoroughly wet leather, I used a bicycle tire inner tube to tightly wrap the wet leather around the last, leaving it overnight to dry and mould to shape.
The next day, I used my knife to trim off the excess leather. There is quite a technique to this, and I am still getting the hang of it, so I actually had to start fresh at least once due to cutting off too much.
One of the coolest things about historical shoes and corsets is how they managed to use cardboard for structural elements successfully. This pair of shoes was no exception - it included cardboard shoe shanks! What is a shoe shank? It is an extra piece of material put into almost all shoes, to support the arch of the foot and prevent the shoe from collapsing. This is especially important in high-heeled footwear. Today, shoe shanks are made from steel or fibreglass. Historically, wood, leather, and cardboard were used.
Using a technique I learned from Nicole Rudolph (a very talented historical shoemaker on Youtube), I cemented several layers of thin cardboard together over the bottom of the last. I graduated the shapes so they became smaller the more the shank was built up. Finally, I cemented this to the bottom of the leather insole, and sure enough, it felt extremely sturdy and supportive, and really held the curvy shape of the bottom of the last!
Lasting and Stiffeners
Now it was time for lasting. This is the process of drawing the uppers down and fastening them over the last, to the bottom of the insole. Here I want to mention an invaluable resource, the textbook Bespoke Shoemaking by Tim Skyrme. It goes over every aspect of the shoemaking process so diligently, and has really helped me improve my shoe-making technique. I used a method he recommends in the book, of putting the damp heel counter into the uppers before lasting, applying paste, and lasting it along with the uppers. What is the heel counter? It is one of the main stiffeners used in a shoe (the other being the "toe puff") and traditionally was made from veg-tanned belly leather, and moulded to the shape of the last.
I went on to last the rest of the shoe, and added the toe puff as well. After the final lasting, I used a knife and rasp to create a perfectly flat surface at the bottom of the shoe.
I had some serious issues occur during the lasting process, due to a leather that didn't react well to being wet! However, with the curvy shoe last and veg-tanned leather I was using, wetting seemed to be a must to get it to conform to shape! What was the problem? Some large areas of the leather finish completely rubbed off! This was horrifying, to say the least. Thank goodness, I was able to fix it later with some Angelus leather paint. Using two similar shades, I mixed them to create a perfect match, and a couple coats completely filled in the chipped areas. Phew! On to the heels.
Adding the Heels
I carved the high heels for these shoes out of basswood! I first created a template of the top view, profile, bottom, and front view. I then traced the profile view onto a small block of basswood, cut it out roughly with a Japanese saw, and got it precisely shaped to my outline used a die-grinder with a cylindrical "typhoon" bit. Then I traced the top outline and shaped around that, and got it shaped down gradually to where I wanted it using the die-grinder. I finished off with a light sanding, and it was time for the next step! In most historical shoes, the wooden high heels are wrapped in matching leather or fabric to the shoes. The tricky part about this was that as I was using contact cement to do this, I couldn't work with wet leather. I also didn't really want to wet the leather, given the horrendous damage that had happened during the lasting process! I cut out my leather from a template, applied contact cement to both surfaces, and gradually attached the leather. I then used a bone folding tool to rub all of the creases out. This was much easier said than done!
Finally, I applied contact cement to the heels and bottom of the shoes, and attached them firmly. Nails would also be used to attach the heels from inside the shoes at a later stage. I had prepped the bottom of the shoes for soling and heels by filling the hollow area in the centre with scrap velvet, and roughing up any leather that would be later adhered to the sole. Time for the final steps - the shoe soles!
Adding the Outsole
When I first bought materials back in 2020 for my first shoe-making journey, I decided to buy a whole side of thick saddle skirting leather for shoe soles. While this isn't what I would ideally buy today for shoe soles, I still have plenty of it left and so in the interests of economy and respect for the animal I am going to keep making my shoe soles with this leather until it runs out.
I first created a template for the shoe soles by tracing the bottom of the shoe onto paper, and adding a section that would curve down around the heel breast. I cut the two soles out of my (wet) saddle skirting leather, and then thinned the edges down quite a bit. One of the main distinguishing features between feminine and masculine style shoes is the thickness or thinness of the edge of the shoe sole, where it is visible. The edges of the shoe sole had to be paper-thin around the heel area where it would have to curve down quite a bit. I finished the sole edges off with a sanding and burnishing, and I decided to use my leather paint to colour them a matching colour to the shoe uppers.
Then, using a couple coats of contact cement, I cemented the shoe soles and heel bottom pieces in place. I made sure this was well adhered with my shoe-making hammer and for good measure, used my bicycle inner tube to wrap it in place as well.
Here are the finishing touches I did. As mentioned earlier, I used four finishing nails per shoe, and a narrow magnetized upholstery hammer to nail them into the heels from the inside, before gluing in a "sock liner". This was just an insole-shaped piece of lining leather, glued into the inside of the shoe to give a polished appearance to the inside.
Let's talk about the bottoms of the soles. Before cementing them on, I had sanded the bottom to completely remove the grain surface and get it smooth and sueded. Once the shoes were finished, I decided to apply leather paint from the waist of the shoe down the front of the heel, since these parts wouldn't be in contact with the ground. For the forepart of the shoe and heel bottom piece, I applied burnishing wax and did my best to burnish it in, despite not currently owning a shoe making iron. I improvised by heating the narrow end of my shoemaking hammer and rubbing the hot metal over the soles. This was to get the burnishing wax to really soak in, and to create a smooth and shiny surface.
All finished! How did I like them, and how did this fit?
How Do I Like Them?
Visually, I love how these shoes turned out, which seems a bit of a miracle given how ambitious a project this was for my current skill level, and how many serious things went wrong along the way! Trust me, a lot more things went wrong than what may have been shown on the video. I wasn’t trying to hide my mistakes per-say, which is why I am telling you this now, but when you are in the middle of a big mess up it is so stressful that it’s easier to simply leave the camera off until you’ve figured out how you are going to move forward. But the biggest mess up was when the leather finish was coming off, and it really seems miraculous that I was able to fix it with some leather paint! And the best part is that if these shoes ever get scuffed through wear, I will know how to fix it with the same leather paint!
Now. Let’s get on to the fit of these shoes! Let’s give a bit of a background here. First of all, in modern shoe making, the last should represent almost exactly the actual shape and size of the foot, since most modern shoes are fairly stiff and structured, so they cannot be too tight. In historical shoe-making of the 18th, 19th, and even the early 20th century, ladies shoes were much softer and more flexible and stretchy than they are currently.
What this meant was that the shoe last could be smaller around than the actual measurements of the foot, since the uppers would easily stretch and flex with the foot, and they needed to fit like a second skin. The last pair of shoes I made were my 1820’s boots, which were made on a hand carved last which was ridiculously narrow. Nevertheless, those 1820's boots fit my foot fine, and were quite comfortable. So, going into making these shoes, I thought I could likewise get away with a more narrow last. Now, the big difference between this pair of shoes and the 1820’s ones, were the use the the stiffeners in the heel and toe.
The use of these stiffeners meant that the shoes did end up more comparable to the stiffer fit of a modern shoes than a soft historical one. So, all that being said, the last could have been built up a bit more in the ball of the foot, especially for my right foot, which is a bit wider. Now, after several wearings of these shoes, they have stretched out to be more comfortable, but this has caused some wrinkling across the vamp of the right hand shoe. All of this to say, that the next time I make a pair of shoes on these lasts, I will build them up to be a a little wider.
What do you think? Would you ever try shoe-making? Is there anything you would like to know about shoe-making? Don't hesitate to reach out!
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