Shoemaking Advice?

oldest known leather shoe

If only my shoes will turn out this well. The oldest surviving leather shoe: 5,500 year-old shoe found in a cave in Armenia. Photo by Gregory Areshian. Via National Geographic

My post about homemade mattresses turned out to be one of the most popular ever on this site. (By the way, I’m still putting up with our old mattress, but one day I will be letting you know what I’ve decided to do about the new mattress) Meanwhile, I’m wondering if this one will be half as popular. Are people as dissatisfied with their shoes as they are with their mattresses? Probably not. I know I am–but this is mostly my own fault. I’ve spent too much time barefoot and my feet don’t seem to fit store bought shoes anymore.

Don’t get excited, shoe questioners: I’ve got nothing for you. I’m asking for help. Have any of you made your own shoes? I’m looking for good resources on shoe making: books, videos, etc.  I’d also love to hear stories of successes or failures or lessons learned.

I’d like to make leather, soft-soled shoes as first project perhaps moccasins, perhaps something more structured.

I have two books right now. One is Shoes for Free People, by David & Inger Runk, published in 1976 in Santa Cruz. As you might expect, it is highly groovy. And as you also might expect, the text is hand lettered and the illustrations are crude line drawings.

(Children, this was the way of things in the 70′s.  In defiance of Gutenberg’s advances, books were hand lettered, and for some equally puzzling reason every kitchen seemed to have a decorative plaque made of lacquered bread dough. The subject matter was usually a mushroom, or a cluster of mushrooms. Sometimes an owl. More rarely a Holly Hobby-type figure. Here endeth the lesson.)

Free People actually seems like a fine book. It basically steps you through making one basic type of shoe that you can modify in different ways. Erik wailed about the horrible hippie-ness of it all when I showed him the illustrations of what I might make, but he wears cheap Chinese martial art shoes, so I don’t think he has moral or aesthetic high ground here.

The other book is The Make it Yourself Shoe Book by Christine Lewis Clark. Not so surprisingly, this one was published in the 1977. The 70′s seems to be the last time anyone tried to make their own shoes–outside of Portland, that is.

Please tell me this is not true.

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61 Comments

  1. The fellow who taught me Tai Chi made shoes at some point – my mother tells me they were very simple leather things – but he is a product of the ’70′s, and he stopped because he was crippling his body, spending so much time at a shoe horse. He now wears cheap canvas shoes (probably martial arts shoes). Sorry, that’s no help at all.

  2. I have reenactor friends who make their own shoes. While you may not care about having authentic medieval or civil war shoes or whatever, there are resources out there, and once you understand the process you can go crazy with it. I’ve been looking into it for myself, and I figure I’ll start with slippers, since it’s easier to sew felt than leather and I can practice the pattern. Good luck!

  3. This is something that I’ve been wanting to do too. Basically I’ve been imagining a canvas or leather upper attached to some old tire tread upcycled for the bottom. Unfortunatly limited sewing skills and zero cobbling skills (not too mention a lack of non steel belted tires) has stymied this idea before I ever really got it off the ground. Maybe someone else has a way to make this work?

    • The tire treads are hard to work with, I hear. But there are lots of other soling materials out there–from rubber to Vibram sheets. You could also re-purpose soles from shoes you don’t wear anymore for something really down and dirty. Also, the Free People book has instructions for making canvas shoes.

  4. I have friends who have made shoes out of old tires (sole) and webbing (straps), somewhat Teva-like; some who have made mocassins out of deer hide and synthetic sinew; and one particularly enterprising lad who used the fabric from an old canvas suitcase to make sneakers – I think he re-purposed soles from some other shoes that had collapsed though, so that’s kind of cheating I guess. The mocassins generally look the best, in my opinion – both comfort-wise and style-wise. Fringe is strictly optional. Much fun!

  5. I also wear cheap Chinese martial arts shoes. I have a pair of soft-soled Minnetonka moccasins that get some wear, but I don’t like the look of moccasins.

    I’ve solved the problem by buying a commercial pattern for slippers and making them from leather and suede. I make an insole out of felted wool so my feet don’t get sweaty from the leather sole. Think ballet slipper, not moccasin.

    There are lots of slipper tutorials on teh interwebs so you should be able to find something to get started. I played with the pattern in fabric first to get just what I wanted, you could, too.

    If you want to use conventional sole material you can get sheets of Vibram cherry from sites that sell shoes for barefoot sandals. A local shoe repair shop may also be able to sell you a sheet. It’s just a few mm thick and is reputed to be easy to work with.

    Of course, if you can make barefoot sandals instead of slippers or moccasins.

  6. OMG Shoes!! LOL! Not sure if you’ve ever seen that cheezy video…

    I read a book a while back from the late 60′s early 70′s about remaking shoes (women’s fashion shoes) but it had good info on how to construct a last etc. that may be useful. Her website is here, but I got the book from the library: http://www.marywalesloomis.com/

    Also, here’s a link on how to make ‘iron age’ shoes: http://earthandliving.blogspot.com/2008/08/viking-shoes-tutorial-sort-of.html

    • If I’m a vegetarian does that mean I need to strap tofu blocks to my feet? Or maybe this is a possible use for extra large zucchini…

    • lol, yes. Or maybe some dried out rubbery tempeh for hardcore hiking sandals :) On the same lines as the zucchini idea, maybe you could get pumpkins slightly bigger than your feet, and hollow out a foot-shaped hole to make pumpkin clogs.

  7. Look up “Outstitched” shoes. The Chicago School of Shoemaking teaches courses on making these. There is also a video/DVD put out by a gentleman’s family who once made them.

    The difference with these shoes is that your foot is the last so there will be little to no binding when you wear them.

    • Well, that just got Pinned. There is a Pinterest board called “Handmade Shoes: Tutorials” that has things I haven’t seen before. Looks promising.

  8. there are lots of patterns out there for making moccasins – have this one Mens & Womens Moccasins Historical Footwear Sewing Craft Butterick 5233 Pattern – although the one time I actually did make moccasins did so from some old book. The question becomes do you want SHOES? or do you want something more flexible? Good moccasins can have a sole of thicker leather than the upper and be replaceable. We do have a local guy who makes shoes, but truth be told, they are more like moccasins made from heavy tanned cow hide. My feet no longer tolerate stiff structured shoes. Good luck with your search

    • Yeah, my feet don’t like stiff shoes anymore either. And since I’m well on the road to being an eccentric senior, I may as well start now by wearing eccentric homemade soft-soled shoes!

  9. Tandy leather here in LA (and online etc) has all the equipment, supplies and patterns for making lots of types of shoes. You can go completely DIY, or they have a few all-you-need-to-do-is-lace-them moccasin kits. I got the latter for house shoes for our family, but I chose not to use the shoe lace material they had with the kit – looks better, IMO, and more comfy etc. to use either the artificial sinew and/or the leather lacing material that they also sell there. The only thing to be careful of is that shoemaking supplies can run you if you start getting into the tooling part of it (eg neat/fancy hole punch thingies and such), but most things you could do at home if you have the right stuff (good cutting board, mallet, strong cutting blade etc). But yeah, outside of that, if you have the time and the gumption, you could easily make some fun shoes with just a few purchased supplies. Good luck! (not affiliated with Tandy, just found them convenient for these supplies ;-)

  10. I have made my own shoes! I found a book at the library called “Crafting Handmade Shoes” by Sharon Raymond. The book is now out of print, but she has an etsy shop where she sells her books and patterns: http://www.etsy.com/ca/shop/simpleshoemaking?ref=exp_listing

    The shoes I made, I used bicycle tires as the soles and padded them with foam that came from computer packaging along with Dr. Scholl’s inserts. I used scrap leather for the uppers, so a lot of my shoes were made from recycled materials. I wrote a bit about them on my blog: http://400squareftliving.blogspot.ca/2011/02/crafting-what-to-do-with-old-bike-tires.html
    It’s been over 6 years since I made them and I still wear my favourite pair all the time. I re-stitch the upper to the sole every once in awhile, but they have held up beautifully!

    • Your shoes are super cute! Really, they are some of the best I’ve seen. I’m totally ripping them off. ;)

      (And sorry your comment got held up in the moderation queue.)

  11. Years ago I made knee high leather shoes with a class from Tandy. Not in CA. The methods are simple, getting the design to be what you like is surprisingly simple if you like soft edges. Those dress shoes, they cost because they’re more complex and less forgiving.

    I know you can read a book or watch a video but you might find taking a class worth it. The feedback from the instructor is useful but I found the range of experiences in my fellow students as well as their suggestions to be more useful than anything. Also the instructor helped me with safer and better uses of the tools at hand.

    • I’ll look into that. I didn’t think of Tandy– but of course! I’m a big proponent of classes, too. Totally worth the money.

  12. I used to hang out at shoe repair shop, and ended up making a pair of black and white wingtip shoes. Even at that very high level of detail, it was not difficult (though I have a lot of sewing, crafting and building experience).

    I did buy a set of lasts, and modified them to match my feet—the shoes fit spectacularly.

    But, I did it all under the tutelage of the shoe repair guy, so it would be pretty intense to do for a first time.

    I haven’t checked out any online resources recently, so I will be following the links in this section. I bought a pair of Vivo Barefoot shoes a couple of years ago, and really like wearing them, so I could see making some simple shoes.

    Probably the biggest step up in awesome will be going from hand stitching to machine stitching. There used be a guy on Whidby Island who was importing a hand-crank patcher sewing machine with walking foot.

    Also, the old, old sewing machines are often used for leather work because they are so heavy duty.

    But the thing about the patcher machine, and the shoe repair machines is you can turn the foot and sew in any direction. Totally awesome.

    • Ruben,

      I have read reviews of that leather patcher and unless something about the design has changed over the last year it is of substandard quality.

      A simple speedy stitcher would would be much cheaper and great for the beginner to use. If you needed to work towards something bigger and better there are more out there that are of better quality.

  13. I have a sociologist friend who made shoes on the streets of New Orleans long ago. He said he grew up and turned to sociology. Since we are the same age, I suppose he was in NO in the 60s and 70s.

    If you lack extensive sewing experience and skills or have never made a pattern, I would suggest buying a pattern and trying that first. Don’t waste money on leather, but do get something in the weight you want. There is a fake leather I used for years, but I forgot the name of it. Get a commercial pattern that approximates what you hope for in a shoe. Don’t use soft, woven fabric to make a dummy shoe. Use the weight you want to wear, otherwise the pattern won’t give or bind as much as you want. A loosely woven fabric will give in the wrong directions and you will be unhappy with the feel of the shoe once you use leather.

    I have a pair of shoes with the perfect last. I save it for future shoe making.

    My shoe/boot pattern was lost to decluttering. I could have lent it to you. I have regretted getting rid of that a hundred times.

    ummm, just read all other comments. Do not buy too many tools at first. You can probably use things you have. For upholstery classes, I only bought one tool instead of the five recommended. I had the others, including a leather mallet that only cost a quarter.

    I did make a pattern for boots, but the cobbler cut the leather sole and sewed upper I designed and cut to sole. I had no pattern. I think that just looking at patterns, at how things are shaped helps to make a pattern freehand. You can make many dummies before you move on to leather.

    This is exciting. I like being barefoot, too.

    • Thanks, Parsimony. I plan to do a first run with thick cloth or something similar, whatever else I do. I have just a few tools and hope to get by with them. It’s hard not to succumb to Craftitis and buy lots of junk you don’t need!

  14. In 2002 Lark Books published a book by Sharon Raymond about crafting shoes. It looks very nice. I own a copy but can’t find it; haven’t used it but want to.

  15. Craft Manual of North American Indian Footwear
    By George M. White

    My Dad and now my husband and I have been making shoes from this book for years.My boots are 21 years old now.
    If you want to contact us my husband would gladly talk with you.

    hrafinstaadataoldotcom

    • Thank you so much. I actually have this book. Or maybe a xerox of it. I like all the many patterns but I find the instructions minimalist for a novice like myself. Your husband could well be hearing from me!

  16. Although I plan on trying to make my own shoes someday, I haven’t done it yet. For several years though I have been into wearing “barefoot” shoes. There are several vendors of this type of shoe but most are goofy looking. The best manufacturers I found are Vivobarefoot and Feelmax. Those two company’s products look good and feel good. It will take quite a while to get used to this type of unpadded, unstructured footwear, but trust me, once you get used to it, you will never go back to restrictive “athletic” footwear again.

  17. I took a class with Sharon Raymond. Her book Crafting Handmade Shoes is expensive on Amazon, but she sold me a xeroxed copy. Perhaps if you contact her you could get one? She now teaches shoe making with a last and sewing machine, but the book is how to make them without either.

    • I have this book, although I confess I’ve mostly just looked at it. I did get some of the conveyor belt material that she suggests if you’d rather sew on soles than use the toxic shoe glue. But, the problem with that stuff seems to be that every bit of lint etc. I step on gets stuck in it. I have been thinking about trying out old bike tires as a sole, but haven’t gotten further than thinking about it.

  18. Although I would absolutely love to make my own shoes at some point in the future, right now my plan is to get some made by a craftsperson who knows what they’re doing, and some that can be repaired and resoled forever. I’m looking at Piper sandals, they are made by a family in Texas and you can get them custom to your foot shape for about what I would pay for quality factory made shoes.

    • Dunno if you are in Los Angeles, but NativEarth is a CA mom and pop company that makes beautiful handcrafted shoes – both premade as well as bespoke ones custom fitted for you. They always have a booth at the SoCal Ren Faire, but they also sell online. http://www.nativearth.net/ They also do repairs/resoles. I have a few pairs from them that I’ve accumulated over the last several years, and they are uber comfy – thick but very soft leather – and have worn beautifully. Their Double Tab Ocotillo sandals look similar to the ones that were used under those fabulous felted boots someone posted about earlier. One of my pairs from them are the ghillie sandals, and those have been comfy both with and without socks, so good for multi-season wear outside of pouring rain etc. So yeah – these have been my happy medium bridging between spendy store boughts and making my own. Not that these aren’t spendy (especially compared to all of the dirt cheap shoe options out there), but it’s always nice to support a mom and pop endeavor/doing the keep it local thing etc. and I know that these are made to last a loooooooong time – especially since they do offer the repair/resole service. :-)

    • Ghillies! Those could be a first project–they’re not as scary as full shoes, and easier than moccasins, too.

    • Funny. I recently met someone who is traveling up to Portland to learn to make shoes in this same class. It’s supposed to be a great class–but it’s held over two weekends usually, so between time and travel its really a class for locals.

  19. I’d love to know some sources for cadmium or heavy metal free leathers (and custom leather shoes) that won’t poison my soles!

  20. greetings, I am so happy to hear about this site and this topic. My life’s mission is to help people make their own footwear. To me it is a most empowering way to disengage from the mainstream way of doing things. Plus the creative opportunities, and the economic advantages, especially when making shoes for children. I have written a lot on this topic so I’ll simply refer you to my website http://www.simpleshoemaking.com and my blog http://www.simpleshoemaking.wordpress.com. Please email me if you have any questions.

  21. Look at medieval reenactment books and websites. You will find a huge amount of information on making shoes…maybe no Jimmy Choos knockoffs, but practical and very do-able.

  22. I am pretty obsessed with shoes that aren’t shoes, as my friends and family call them. Im not comfortable in anything but the most flexable of shoes. So my drug of choice is dance shoes and ballet slippers. I buy them on dancewear websites and fortify the sole by glueing a thicker leather sole on. I am a seamstress so I just use scrap leather and a glue called barge. I’m also toying with crocheting slippers out of linen or cotton and afixing the same kind of leather sole.

  23. I have invested in a pair of hand-made clogs from one of the UK’s last remaining clog makers. They are the most comfortable shoes I have ever had so I am now sold on proper clogs (not the overpriced fashion ones). I like the idea of keeping a craft alive so I shall use this chap again but I’m also learning green wood carving so I can start to make my own soles. Sycamore, which grows like made here and needs regular coppicing, is particularly good for clog soles so that seems to be a low-impact option. For the uppers, I can use sturdy organic cotton canvas or leather off-cuts (from second-hand items or the cobbler’s remnants bucket).

  24. Pingback: Kelly’s Goals for 2014 | Root Simple

  25. You might want to look up the website for Medieval Moccasins. They custom build very simple medieval shoes… perhaps you will find some good ideas there.

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