Have you ever wondered if you could make your own historical shoes? I know I have, and a year ago I finished my very first pair. As I have made a few pairs of shoes now, my biggest dream is learning to make shoes with a historically accurate shape. But this is a lot harder than it sounds!
In this article, I will be sharing:
How I recreated a pair of 1820’s boots
Carving my own wooden shoe last to get that historically accurate shape
Patterning and mocking-up my shoe pattern
Sewing the boot uppers
Building a stacked leather heel and attached an outsole
Creating historical ornamentation from the original 1820’s boots.
If you know anything about shoemaking, you will know something about shoe lasts. A shoe last is the wood or plastic shoe-shaped mould around which your shoe is formed and built. The shape of the last has an imperative role in the final shape of the shoe.
What is the hardest part of historical shoe-making? It’s not the shoe-making process itself, but rather, the process of finding, altering, or making from scratch a historically accurate shoe last. Modern shoe lasts are readily available for sale, but have quite a different shape than historical shoe lasts, and are based on the assumption of modern shoe-making techniques and styles, which means a wider and stiffer finished shoe. One of the reasons historical shoes and shoe lasts were so much narrower is because shoes were much thinner and more supple than modern shoes, and fit the foot more like a second skin than the hard shell of modern shoes.
All of this amounted to the fact that I would have to carve my own wooden shoe last to get an accurate shape for my boots. My dad would be proud. Because this was my very first time carving a shoe last, I was not comfortable filming and explaining the process to you, since I had in fact no idea what I was doing.
Something I had to do first was to draft the sole and bottom profile of my desired shoe last. This is very similar to pattern drafting for garments, and was fairly straightforward. But how to carve it out of wood?
Not having a full workshop, I had to work with simple hand tools. I bought a block of basswood and some Japanese saws to rough cut out the shape. Then, I used a massive rasp to bring the last to shape, as well as my belt sander fastened belt side up in a vice. Finally, I finished it off with sand paper.
Pattern and Test Shoe
First, I created a master pattern for my shoe last by wrapping paper around the last, tacking it in place, and drawing the outline on. This master pattern, or “standard” is the shoemaking equivalent of a bodice block. The basic pattern that you can make all other patterns from.
After I made a couple test shoes based on this pattern standard, I altered my last slightly by gluing skived leather onto it where I had sanded it down a little too much. Finally, it was time to make the final, 1820’s boot pattern!
By consulting pictures of the original boot and using some shoe pattern drafting knowledge, I drafted the vamp, quarters, and tongue for these 1820’s boot! I also drafted a lining which was slightly smaller than the outer leather pattern.
Making the Uppers
In terms of materials for my boot uppers: I used dark green kangaroo aniline leather for the uppers, and white linen from my stash for the lining. Why kangaroo leather? Historical leather was tanned differently than modern leather - it was thinner and stretchier than most modern cow, calf, or goat leather we have access to. Kangaroo leather, however, is naturally thin, strong, stretchy, and supple. I bought my kangaroo leather from a family owned company right in Australia that produces their own leather through ecologically-friendly vegetable tanned processes. I was very impressed with the quality! I bought my kangaroo leather here.
Another important choice I made for these boots was to forgo the use of stiffeners for the toe and heel. If you don’t know what stiffeners are, read about them here. Historical shoes often didn’t have any stiffeners, and I was very curious to try out this new type of softer shoe making!
After cutting out my pieces from the leather and fabric, I prepped the leather by skiving the edges, and marking the point in the vamp that it would be slit open up to, to accommodate the eyelets. Split vamps were common in early Victorian ladies shoes.
I stitched the lining and outer leather together using turned seams, and set to work getting the eyelets ready. I reinforced the eyelet lacing area of the lining with a green leather facing with an extra strip of scrap leather beneath. Finally, I attached the shoe lining to the outer shoe around the opening using shoe-making tape, and bound this edge by hand with green silk ribbon.
Then, I punched the holes for my eyelets, and painstakingly hand stitched each eyelet with silk buttonhole thread.
Insole and Lasting
Now it was time to last these boots. I began by preparing the insole. This was cut from 2.5-3mm thick shoulder leather. I wet-moulded it to the bottom of the last, then when dry carefully trimmed around the edges with a shoemaking knife. This was my first time trying this technique since getting my copy of “Bespoke Shoemaking” (an awesome book) and it was so much easier having the right technique! Then it was time to last these shoes. For some reason, lasting these boots was much more difficult than other shoes I have made in the past. I am assuming this is because of my hand-carved last being shaped differently than my commercially-made lasts. After drawing the upper down over the last with lasting pliers, I used shoemaking nails to hold it in place before gluing with water-based contact cement.
Stacked Leather Heel
Now it was time for one of the hardest parts of these boots: making the stacked leather heel. I will say that the first boot I did was much more challenging than the second, because I was figuring the process out as I went. One thing I discovered by the second time was that it was best to create a glued and pegged foundation for the heel in the form of a rand. For more information on what a rand is, check out my Victorian Chelsea Boots article.I also used a rand for the fist shoe, but only glued it, and wished I had used wooden pegs as well for extra stability. Next I cut out many “heel lifts” out of thick sole leather and glued them one by one to the bottom of the sole. After each lift, I would use a rasp to file at the bottom of the heel to level it out. Once they were all in place, it was time to shape the very blocky heel to a nice shape. This took forever! I used a few different rasps to accomplish this, being very careful all the while to avoid sanding the actual boot upper (though I still nicked it at times). This is where the art of shoemaking really comes into play: this process was done completely by eye! Constantly consulting my historical inspiration to replicate the heel shape, and on the second heel, doing my best to replicate the first. Finally, I used successively finer grits of sandpaper to get the heel perfectly smooth and ready for the next steps. Now it was time to add the outsole!
Attaching the Outsole
First, I created a paper template for the outsole, which would have to extend down the front of the heel as well. I cut this out of thick sole leather - in this case, I used saddle skirting leather which I have quite a lot of at the moment. After cutting this out, I skived the edges to be quite thin - this helps the sole make a graceful joining with the shoe when it is glued and attached. I especially skived it in the area that would have to fold down the front of the heel. Finally, I carefully cut a lip or flap around the edge of the sole in the area where it would later be stitched to the uppers. The stitches would sit underneath this lip.
I glued my soles in place with water-based contact cement, and then it was time to stitch the soles in place. I used quite a tricky stitching technique of stitching from the outside of the shoe all the way to the inside and back out on each stitch. Why was this so difficult? Because I had to do most of the stitching, especially in the toe area, completely blindly, AND there was not a lot of space in the toe of the boots for my fingers to maneuver the needle. The result is that I dd manage to completely stitch the first boot, but realized that as a result the toe had become stretched out. On the second boot, I did some of the stitching but really wanted to avoid stretching the toe, so I ended up using wooden pegs to secure the rest of the sole in place. Pegging soles in place was also a historical technique that was used.
It was time to add the final decorative details that make these boots so distinctive! These details were: cotton fringe trimmed with ribbon, and a bow at the toe. I started with some fringe from Etsy, but it needed a lot of work. It was too dense and long for these boots, so I used embroidery scissors to trim it down - kind of like giving a haircut! Then I hand stitched some green ribbon around the top edge to tie in with the other green ribbon used on the boots. I glued this fringe inplace around the top and lacing area of the boots. Finally, I made two green ribbon bows, which were stitched in place at the toe. All finished!
How Do I Like Them?
I love how these boots turned out - and I am forever in love with the fit and feeling of historical shoes. The closest way to describe the feeling is its like wearing soft leather ballet shoes, that are soft and supple and mould to my natural foot shape, but they have a heel on the bottom. These shoes, because they fit so snugly, provide deep pressure therapy to my feet, and feel lovely.
I can’t wait to make more historical shoes!
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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