Making Victorian Ballet Flats - Simple Shoemaking
Updated: Nov 10, 2021
Since I was a little girl, I have always wanted to make my own shoes. I even made a pair of ballet toe shoes out of duct tape one time. But as an adult, no one makes shoes, right? Wrong. After finding out, a year or two ago, that there are lots of people out there making shoes in their living rooms, I decided it was time to give it a go. I finished my first pair of shoes in early 2021, and have been wanting to give it another try since then. Well, it’s time. This pair of shoes will be much more approachable than my first pair, and is perfect for any of you out there interested in making your own shoes, but who have never done it before. Let’s jump right in!
After my first pair of shoes which were hand-welted, hand stitched, and took months to complete, I wanted to challenge myself to see how quickly I could whip off a pair of decent shoes.
I was very inspired by Nicole Rudolph’s “simple shoemaking video”, which I will link in the resources section. It outlines the process of making historically inspired shoes which are aimed more towards a beginner. Her video was very informative, approachable, and not going to lie, my pair of shoes ended up even more simplified than her pair, as I used a sewing machine, a simpler design, and no heel of any kind.
Another huge inspiration to me was the book: “Women’s Shoes in America” (linked in the resources section) this book covers the history and designs of women’s shoes from the 1700’s to the 1900’s, and was so much more comprehensive than I had imagined! It gives detailed drawings and diagrams showing the timeline of women’s shoe designs, and is so helpful when it comes to visualizing and creating a pattern for a pair of historically-inspired shoes. Highly recommend!
This book also has many beautiful full colour photographs of real extant shoes, including many simple lady’s slippers which were covered in an outer layer of coloured silk, rather than being entirely made of leather. These were my inspiration for this project. I found this idea so beautiful and inspiring, especially since shoes with a fabric outer layer isn’t something we see very often now a days.
So I started off with a vague idea that I wanted to make simple, historically-inspired shoes with a fabric outer layer. But what next?
The first step was gathering my materials. Some of these materials I already had from my first shoemaking adventure, but for the sake of you all watching this video, I will list all the materials that I think you will need for beginning shoemaking. I will be linking several sources for your materials and tools below, so check that out if you are interested.
The first thing you will need are lasts. Lasts are a shoe-shaped mould made of plastic or wood, which are essential for all modern shoemaking. You will need to find lasts in your shoe size, and also in the style of shoe that you want to create - in this case, flat lasts. Not going to lie, if you are going for an accurate historical shape of shoe, the lasts they used back then were different shapes, and for some time were symmetrical, meaning they didn’t differentiate between left and right shoes. You are going to have a hard time finding lasts like that now a days, so I would recommend, if you are a beginner, to just find a pair of flat lasts in your shoe size and not worry too much about historical accuracy of shape. It just complicates things too much.
The next thing you will need is some leather. Yes, we are making fabric-covered shoes, but leather is still a necessary ingredient for most shoes, not only for the soles of course, but also for the lining and the stiffeners (we will get into that later). I used vegetable-tanned calfskin leather for my shoe lining and stiffeners, thick veg-tanned shoulder leather for my insoles, and some nice pre cut pieces of sole leather* from the great website Leather and Grindery (linked below). These sole pieces still have to be cut to the exact size of your shoes, but they are nice for a beginner because you know it’s the right kind of leather for shoe soles, and it is already nice and polished looking with this cool stamp on the bottom.
The biggest improvement I made in this pair of shoes compared to my first pair was having more of an idea what type of leather would be best to work with. Going with the calfskin for the body of the shoe was so much better, as it is thinner and easier to work with, and can be sewn on machine. Last time I used leather that was thicker, for the outer layer as well as the lining, and that created shoes that were first of all, harder to construct, and now that they are done, they are very stiff.
Finally, I used some scraps of silk taffeta left over from a circle skirt I made a couple months ago. I originally bought this fabric from Burnley and Trowbridge. I think the sheen of silk taffeta is perfect for the outer layer of shoes.
When it comes to tools, you will need some knives, some glue, and some nails. If you want more details on the whys and hows of these tools, I will link my previous “I Made Shoes” video and blog post, where I go into much more detail on all of the shoemaking tools I’ve used as a beginner. I will also link sources for these tools in the description.
I am coming from a beginner perspective, so some of the tools I am using may not be what an experienced shoemaker would recommend, but most of them are easily accessible, relatively inexpensive, and easier to work with (in some cases). High quality shoemaking knives, while they are great, are a big money investment, and also present a learning curve. I did buy a couple new knives this time around and found them super helpful, but in addition I’m still using my old trusty utility knife, and safety skiver. Again, my previous blog post goes into more detail on all these tools.
When it comes to glue, you will need contact cement, either the conventional stuff found at hardware stores, or a water-based contact cement. The water-based stuff isn’t fumey and is therefore safer to use, but I need to do more research into whether it is strong enough for cemented shoe construction which is what we are using in this project. Therefore, I used the water-based stuff for the uppers, but for the lasting and gluing on of the sole, I used the conventional stuff, opened my window, and wore a fume mask.
You will also need nails for the lasting process. I used dedicated lasting nails, but they can be harder to source and I think any type of similarly shaped and sized nails would work fine.
Finally, I used a pair of lasting pliers, and a shoemaking hammer. The lasting pliers are used to pull the leather of the uppers down and around the bottom of the lasts, and then nail it in place. The shoemaking hammer is used to help smooth the leather and to help secure two layers together when you are gluing them.
Making the Pattern
By far the hardest part of making these shoes was the pattern-making, and it’s not because shoe pattern-making is difficult! It’s because I had so many vague ideas of what I wanted to make floating around it my head, and I had a hard time settling for one particular thing. I used to experience this same thing when I was a beginner at garment sewing - I would have a vague idea of what I wanted to make, but couldn’t distill it down into the concrete details of the garment. Hopefully this will change for me in shoemaking the same way it’s changed for me in sewing.
So basically when it comes to making a shoe pattern, the modern technique that is easiest for a beginner is to carefully wrap your last in many overlapping strips of masking tape. I will link a helpful video below that goes into more detail of this process. After doing this, you can draw on your style lines.
The reason ballet flats are so approachable a shoe for a beginner is that there are so few style lines to figure out! You have to figure out the “neckline” of the shoe”, which is the point where the shoe ends and your foot begins, and you draw on some diagonal side seams, as well as marking the centre of the heel - we will use that later.
When it comes to historically inspired slippers, I have noticed that many of them have a higher neckline than modern ballet flats, and I like that look. I went for an almond shaped neckline since the toe of my lasts are also almost shaped. If you had a pair of lasts with pointed or square toe shapes, you could mirror that in your shoe neckline. And we do see all of these variations in historical shoes.
After drawing on my side seams, I used my utility knife to cut the masking tape pattern off of the lasts and lay it down on the paper. For most of the shoe pattern, this works out fine, but around the toe area, you need to make little relief cuts to allow the masking tape pattern to lay flat. At the centre back heel area, it’s customary to make one larger cut which essentially creates a dart. But as opposed to garment sewing, this dart will be cut open, and sewn together to create some extra tightness at the heel, which is liable to stretch over time.
After the masking tape is laid down onto paper (or cardstock), you need to add seam allowance. At the side seams, you should add 5-10 mm at only one of the sides, since in the leather pieces will be overlapped. However, in the silk layer, I added 1 cm of seam allowance for both edges, since I would be making a conventional seam. Finally, you need to add lasting allowance, which is a large “seam allowance” that is added all around the bottom of the shoe uppers, which will allow it to be pulled under the last and glued down to the bottom of the insole. I used a very large lasting allowance of 3 cm, but in hindsight 25 mm would have been just fine.
Finally, I cut this out, labelled the pieces, and I had my pattern! The same pattern pieces can be used for the leather lining. I opted to tape my paper patten together as a type of mock up and lay it over the last to test the fit, but the changes I made were quite minor.
Sewing the Uppers
It was time to cut out my pieces! I used what is called a “clicker” knife with a curved blade to cut out my leather. I loved this knife, but a utility knife can work as well.
For my fabric pieces, I was using a striped silk, so I first had to decide which way I wanted the stripes to go over my foot. I opted to have stripes going vertically over the toe area, and then going upwards at the sides of my feet. To cut out my silk pattern pieces, I just used scissors.
I also cut out some extra reinforcement pieces called stiffeners, from the same leather as the lining. As sewers, we can think of these as the interfacing of the shoes. I used my original pattern as a base to make the shape of these, having one piece go over the top of the toe, and the back piece go halfway up the heel and curve around to where the balls of the feet begin. If I had been making slippers with a lining and outer made of leather, I wouldn’t have added the stiffeners, but the outer was silk and so I felt I needed the extra reinforcement.
Before sewing my leather, I had to skive the edges. I used my safety skiver, which is kind of like a vegetable peeler, and you carefully skive the edges which will be overlapping so that they won’t form an uncomfortable or unsightly ridge.
I sewed both the leather and the silk layers of the shoe uppers on my trusty vintage sewing machine, which worked just fine. For the leather, it is customary in shoemaking to first glue the pieces together, then stitch. I used two rows of stitching at the side seams, and one row of stitching for the back dart. I sewed the silk layer just as you would expect in garment sewing, and pressed my seams afterward.
Now it was time to reinforce my seams. I opted to first use shoemaking reinforcement tape over the inside of the side and back seams. This step is optional. Then, I used bias tape to sew over the outside of the side and back seams on the silk layer. This reinforces the seam and helps it to look nicer and more historical.
Finally, it was time to attach the leather to the silk layers around the neckline of the shoes. You could do this first with glue, but I opted to use double-sided shoemaking tape. Then, you sew bias tape around the neckline edge to permanently attach the layers and finish that edge. I did the first pass on this on machine, then hand-stitched the binding to the outside of the shoes.
Lasting the Shoes
Our uppers are done, and now it’s time for the funnest part: lasting the shoes! The first step is making an insole. It is easier to first make a template for your insole, and cut it out, rather than attempting to cut it to shape on the last, which is the traditional approach. So that’s what I did! I used thick shoulder leather for my insoles, which I first dampened, then cut them to shape, before tying to the bottom of my lasts so they would mould to shape. This becomes more necessary on high heel shoes, but I chose to do it anyways. I then skived the edges to be thinner. I’m not sure if that was the right thing to do, but it’s just what I did.
I fastened the insoles to the bottom of my lasts using three nails, then fastened my shoe upper at the back neckline to the last using a single nail in an inconspicuous area. Then, I did what I call the first pass of the lasting: Getting the uppers lined up evenly on the last using a few nails, at the toe, sides, and heel. These nails went through both layers of the shoe upper.
After that was done, I carefully would remove one nail at a time before reapplying it in the same spot to the leather lining only. That’s because we will be lasting in three stages: first the lining, then the stiffeners (which we will talk about in a moment) then the outer silk layer. Lasting is a process - first it is rough, and there are lots of wrinkles at the toe and heel area that go right up into the shoe. But gradually, we refine it by removing one or two nails at a time, then using our lasting pliers to pull that one large wrinkle into two smaller, shorter wrinkles, before reapplying the nail to hold that in place. We keep going with this process until there are no wrinkles at the sides, and the wrinkles at the toe and heel and as small and short as they can be.
Now it is time to glue. We glue in sections - first I would remove the nails from one side, and apply my contact cement to the insole and the upper in that area. Then, while that was curing, I would repeat on the other side. Once the first side was “cured” for a few minutes, I pulled and pressed it onto the insole, hammering to smooth in place. I repeated this until the entire circumference of shoe upper glued down smoothly. Feel free to use your shoemaking hammer at the toe area to help smooth those wrinkles.
Once everything is glued, it’s time to clean this up with a knife. I used my utility knife, but in hindsight something more precise might have worked better. We are going to be trimming the lasting upper leather down so it is just long enough to be concealed under the outer sole. You will want to do many light passes with the knife, so you don’t accidentally cut through your insole. Finally, we can use our knife to carfeully shave down the wrinkly areas at the toes and heel. We want this to be as flat as possible. Again, make sure that none of your cuts go so far as to be visible once the outer sole is in place.
Phew! We are done with the lasting of the lining! Now it is time to get the stiffeners in place, those pieces of leather that we talked about earlier. First, you will want to skive the top edge of these pieces, or else they will make a visible ridge on the finished shoe. Don’t be shy with this stage! We want the edge to be feather thin. Next, we will be using a stiffening paste - I am using this type which I can’t pronounce, but I will link it below. But you can make your own using anything starchy. Believe it or not, on my first pair of shoes I used cream of wheat to make my stiffening paste, and it worked beautifully!
Use your stiffening paste to apply on the lining and the stiffener, then place it down and use a couple nails at the top of the stiffeners to hold in place. We will then proceed to last these stiffeners in the same way we did with the lining. Then we will glue them down and trim in exactly the same way.
When they are fully lasted, glued, and trimmed, we will apply a second layer of stiffening paste to the outside of the stiffeners. All this in combination will create a firm shape for the toe and heel of our finished shoes.
Now it is time to last the silk outer layer! This part felt easier to me because the silk was less bulky than the leather, but you still need to be careful to avoid air bubbles and wrinkles in the part of the silk that will be visible. I wasn’t totally successful at this, but I did my best. I'm trying to ditch my perfectionism at this point. We will glue down and trim our silk in the same way as the leather, though it may not be necessary to shave down the wrinkles.
Adding the Outsole
It is time to finish up these shoes with an outsole! I toyed with the idea of doing a small lift heel, but decided to keep these shoes as simple as possible instead. I used my pieces of sole leather which already looked so pretty, and used my paper template to cut out my insoles. I then feather the edges (on the flesh side of the leather) to make them look neater and more streamlined, before sanding them smooth with a metal rasp and some sandpaper, and using my burnishing tool to finish them off. Not going to lie, finishing edges of sole and heel leather is still something I have a lot of room for improvement on, but I did my best, and it was better than my first pair of shoes, so I’ve made some progress!
After this was done, I used my contact cement to glue them in place, but I first traced the outline of where the sole would be on the shoe, so I knew exactly where to apply the glue. After allowing the glue to cure, I stuck the sole in place, and hammered it really hard to get it to stick. My first pair of shoes was hand welted, and I had a hard time having faith that these soles would really stay in place with glue alone, but they did, and the shoes were complete!
Removing the Last
Finally, it was time to remove the last. I used a screwdriver to stick into the hole at the top of the lasts, to do what is called “breaking the last”. We aren’t really breaking it, we are simply activating the built in hinge that allows these lasts to get smaller and be easily removed from our shoes.
And there we go, the finished shoes! An optional last step would be making a "sock liner", which is simply cutting out another thin piece of leather in the shape of the insole and laying it inside the shoe.
How Do I Like them?
Apart from the pattern-making, these shoes took just over a week to complete, which is a big improvement from my previous shoes, which took months to finish! I’m usually a person who likes to do things the hard and complicated way the first time around, so I’m proud of myself for being able to just keep things simple and basic and get something done in a way that took the least time and caused the least stress possible.
I'm really happy with how these turned out! They are slimming and flattering to my feet, which are on the larger size, and very comfortable. The toe and heel have the perfect shape. The only issue is the top-line of the shoe being a tad loose, which I will hopefully avoid next time by reinforcing that edge more effectively to prevent stretching.
Learning and Inspiration
Materials and Tools
https://www.vickydincecco.com/collections/all (Historical shoe lasts)
https://etsy.me/3nMnkCu (Lasting nails)
"Womens Shoes in America, 1795-1930"
"Handmade Shoes for Men"
"The Art of Boot and Shoemaking: A Practical Handbook Including Measurement, Last-Fitting, Cutting-Out, Closing, and Making"
"Designing, Cutting and Grading Boot and Shoe Patterns, and Complete Manual for the Stitching Room, by an Expert of Thirty Years"
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org