I made shoes!

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As regular Root Simple readers know, I’ve been obsessing on making shoes for some time now, but was not able to wrap my mind around the process without help. Help arrived this weekend in the form of the wonderful–and wonderfully patient– Randy Fritz, who taught me and four other intrepid souls how to make turnshoes over the course of the last 4 days.

Lesson 1: As we have all suspected, shoes are not easy to make. Seriously not easy.

Four full days of work may seem like a lot for a pair of shoes, but it was just barely enough for us all to reach the finish line. I think all of us walked away with a new respect for the craft and complexity of the cordwainer’s art.

Lesson 2: Cordwainer is the proper term for a shoe maker. A cobbler repairs shoes. Who knew?

Randy estimates he could make a pair of turnshoes in about 10 hours, but leading a pack of wayward newbies through the process takes 32 hours. More, really, as we had homework. I’d say 40 hours went into each pair of shoes. After doing this, I will never again balk at the price of a pair of bespoke shoes.

Lesson 3: It is, in fact, worthwhile to make your own shoes.

Turnshoes are very much like gloves for the feet. We crafted custom patterns for our feet, and the resulting shoes were as unique as we five students are in every other way. To see our same-yet-different shoes lined up in a row was to realize that how much we are cheating ourselves when we shove our feet into standardized prefabricated “foot coffins”.

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Casts of our feet on their way to become patterns

Lesson 4: Crafting is more fun in groups.

I know some people are very content as solo crafters, puttering away alone in their work rooms and man caves, but for me, one of the best parts of the last four days was getting to know four other fascinating people; to gossip, bitch and celebrate together as the shoes started to take shape. As I know from outdoor adventuring, nothing facilitates bonding like shared adversity! It really was very much an adventure, and it also felt strangely like a vacation. I know many people would balk at a 4 day class, but believe me, it was no hardship. I would happily just keep on doing it.

Lisa, Lee, Pilar and Ruth, I salute you!

The Shoes Themselves

Turnshoes are soft soled leather foot gloves, very like moccasins.Β  I like to call them “Euro moccasins” — they are patterned on a shoe style prevalent in Europe, particularly Northern Europe, from about 900 to 1400AD. The shoe is constructed inside out, and only turned right way around in the final stages. Thus, “turnshoe.”. (The act of turning the shoes inside out takes time and considerable finger strength. We called the turning “shoe birthing” — as it required a good deal of grunting and cursing, but resulted in a beautiful newborn shoe.) The result of this technique is that all of the stitching is hidden inside the shoe, even the sole stitching. The only visible stitching is the decorative lashing around the top.

We started the process by making patterns off our feet, both tracing our soles and using duct tape (a common medieval technology) to make casts of our feet. Then we cut open and flattened those 3D casts to form the pattern for the uppers. The uppers were made of buffalo hide, which is strong and buttery soft, and the soles of latigo, a thick leather which is a traditional soling material. We stitched the leather together with strong waxed thread.

The shoes are meant to fit like gloves–and they do. As I said above, each one was a perfect expression of their maker’s foot. Mine have a distinctive duck foot shape. Don’t get me wrong–I like my feet. I think they are quite fetching in profile, actually, but years of flip-flopping and barefooting have spread my toes wide.Β  As a result, most shoes are uncomfortable for me. It is amazing to have a perfectly fitting pair at last.

The finished shoes were so pretty and soft that three of the five of us decided to reserve them as house shoes, for which they are ideal. I want to tramp around in mine, though, so I opted to paint a layer of protective gunk made out of shredded tires on my pretty red soles. That gunk is drying right now. I’m itching to take them on a hike!

More Shoes?

The key to mastery is repetition, so I should make another pair soon. Right now, with my fingers still sore and tingling from all the scraping and punching and pulling, the idea sounds less than appealing. As a compromise I’m going to find myself a nice sheet of felt and make a pair of house slippers with the same pattern, just to walk through the process again while all that information is still floating around my sieve-like brain. Later, though, I’d really like to make another pair. Perhaps with an ankle extension to make booties.

A Fantastic Teacher

Hats off to the inimitable Randy Fritz for teaching this class with such grace and wisdom. I cannot adequately describe the Zen-like patience he displayed as he shepherded the five us on this journey full of inexplicable and sharp tools for four full days. I think I tried him the most, because I was very good at goofing things up.Β  (Common Kelly phrases: “Oh, I wasn’t supposed to cut that?” and “Is this supposed to look like this?”) Randy was always there to save my bacon–and my shoes.

If you are now wildly jealous and want to make a pair of turnshoes of your own with Randy, there will be chances to do so in the future. He’s working on his website, so I have no linkage for you, but we’ll keep you informed as things develop, and announce his future classes. We’re hoping to see a sandal class from him next year!Β  Ooh ah. You could also send him an email to get on his mailing list, or to invite him to teach a class for a group: fritzr(at)cox(dot)net

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We worship the shoe god. I’m second from the right.

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32 Comments

  1. Thank you, Mrs. Homegrown, for escorting me into new worlds, new experiences, and new things to think about!

  2. Can we just add that Mr. H was the best host EVAH?! We were also spoiled with delicious libacious and snacks (including some of the bread/recipes from Josey Baker’s book and pizza fresh from the backyard adobe cob oven they made in a previous workshop – oh yeah – that Randy started by literally making fire happen old school style). I can’t say that you’ll get all of THAT at future workshops LOL, but I can SO heartily second everything that Mrs. H. writes about our experience with the workshop & Randy’s talent as an instructor above.

    Oh – and Randy also has other mad DIY skills like knowing how to brain-tan hides and such, so we’re trying to talk him into doing a workshop for that some time too!

    Can’t recommend this class enough!
    &
    Thanks again to Randy & to casa de Root Simple for hosting!!!
    XO – P

    • Yes, Erik was our loyal “shoe concierge” for the event, and kept us all well fed and watered. What a sweetheart!

      And yes, Randy is amazing, in so many ways. Hopefully we can have him back in LA to teach many things, from fire starting to tanning fish hides.

      Thank you, too, for your participation, Pilar! It was a good journey, wasn’t it? (I hope your shoes aren’t so stinky anymore–mine are offgassing in the shed. I’m about to go out and try them on.)

    • Ah yes, FISH shoes!!! That’s the other thing we talked about (he showed us a sample of a kid’s pair made with salmon skin, so we’re wondering if we might use tilapia since some local folk use them for hydroponic farming and whatnot)

      The goop is still a bit stinky, so yes, mine are enjoying the fresh air right now (hard to find a spot in my yard that is non-critter accessible AND sunny and warm πŸ˜‰ Will likely give the the inaugural stroll later today or tomorrow! πŸ™‚

  3. Oh, very cool! I’ve wanted to learn how to make my own pair of shoes for a while. Maybe there’s a class somewhere near where I live. Yours look wonderful!

  4. Isn’t the wad of leather inside at the seams uncomfortable?

    How long can you expect the soles to hold up if you were to wear them for normal daily activities?

    Making a felt pair sounds very interesting. Where would you get felt thick enough to make them sturdy?

    • –Isn’t the wad of leather inside at the seams uncomfortable?

      No–they’re designed so that works out. Also, we shave down the edges of the leather so the seams aren’t bulky, and we pounded the seams with a hammer to flatten them.

      –How long can you expect the soles to hold up if you were to wear them for normal daily activities?

      Good question! The bare soles would not last long outdoors, I think, which is why for outdoor use we coated the soles with tire gunk. That coat can be renewed as needed. Cared for that way, these shoes should last a very long time.

      –Making a felt pair sounds very interesting. Where would you get felt thick enough to make them sturdy?

      That’s what I have to work on. I’m only making house slippers, so they don’t have to be very sturdy.

    • I think Randy said that the un-gooped up soles could last about 4-5 years, depending on how often you are wearing them and under what conditions etc. I have a few plain leather-bottom shoes that I wear often outside and have had for several years, but I try to avoid doing that if it’s wet, as that wears them out faster. My Stepdad almost exclusively wears one pair of plain bottom shoes now EVERY day (rain or shine), and I think he goes through the bottom about every 2 years or so, but those are also suede, which is less durable than the latigo we used for ours.

      HTH, but I’m sure you could also email Randy directly & ask πŸ™‚ P

    • Yes, those estimates sound spot on.

      Weather and wear make all the difference of course–Are they your only shoes? How often does it rain? What surfaces are you walking on? etc.

    • For felt, perhaps you could use a woolen blanket which has been felted by someone machine-washing and drying it. I paid $2. at a thrift shop for one of those, which I assume was felted by accident. I made some oven mitts from part of it. Now, seeing the beautiful turn shoes, I think it could work for that, too. Older woolens which have not been processed to be machine washable would probably felt most easily. There are also instructions online for fulling and felting woolen items. I’d like to attend one of Randy’s workshops; too bad I live on the east coast.

  5. “wayward newbies” Kelly, you really know how to turn a phrase.

    Could you use a very tiny punch and a block of wood so you would not have to work so hard sewing by hand. My hands tingling and aching is why I gave up chair caning.

    Everything in a shoe bothers me, the princess and the pea of feet and shoes.

    There are different grades of felt. But, I think if you look, you can find something to work better than felt for the sole. Have you ever seen the material that is used for baby pajamas, the soles? If you go into a fabric store, they can lead you to something non-slip and sturdy.

    I am very impressed by the finished product. I wish I could have been in attendance.

    My feet are not narrow but my heels are, but the joint at the base of the big toes is wider, just from living and walking. Maybe my predilection for sandals even in frigid winter weather has contributed to my foot widening–plus getting older and gaining weight. I share your consternation about buying shoes that fit. A boxy toe helps and it sooo sexy…NOT.

    The red soles will give a Louboutin look to your handmade shoes.

    • –Could you use a very tiny punch and a block of wood so you would not have to work so hard sewing by hand. My hands tingling and aching is why I gave up chair caning.

      We did pre-punch the holes with a block of wood and an awl. That was hard on the hands itself. As was shaving the leather. As was pulling the thread tight after each stitch. It’s just a craft that wants strong hands.

      –Have you ever seen the material that is used for baby pajamas, the soles? If you go into a fabric store, they can lead you to something non-slip and sturdy.

      That’s a good idea! Thanks!

      The red soles are beautiful. I’m sorry I had to cover mine with gunk.

  6. What is the official name of the shredded tire gunk? I’m interested in making my own turnshoes, following various internet tutorials, and this is the first I’ve heard of shredded tire gunk, so I’d like to know where I can buy some.

    • I don’t know. I have seen it sold by the jar by some shoe makers I’ve come across on the Internets, but I can’t remember which ones. We made our own with the fine siftings of shredded tires, which Randy got from a tire place, mixed with a good deal of Barge cement.

    • My friend told me that while she and her husband were in college getting their professional degrees that they got Shoe Goo and built up the heels of their shoes where they had worn them down. They also put patches in the soles. Then, they shaved off the parts that needing to be eliminated to make the heel square once again and to just get off bits of the Shoe Goo that were not needed. She said they were amazed at how well it held up and how long they could go without repairs again. This product is sold in Walmart.

  7. this sounds so cool! I am a devoted fan of the Little House books, and in Farmer Boy the author describes how the cobbler (now we know he wasn’t a cobbler really!!) would come to the house every autumn and make the family shoes out of the previous years’ cowhides. I think it took at least 2 days for a pair. I was always fascinated by this. I believe the soles were made of wood.

  8. Great post Kelly and I love the shoes you made. Randy sounds like the perfect teacher. Pity I live in Australia rather than LA, otherwise I’d be signing up straight away to do a course!

  9. For those in the eastern part of the country, Michael Ismerio gives classes on making turnshoes out of his home in Ashville, NC. I believe he may also travel to teach classes as well. I am hoping to make a pilgrimage next spring, especially after reading how much fun Kelly had becoming a novice cordwainer. Check out Michael’s website at michaelismerio.com to see samples of his work as well as some of the other cool stuff he is involved with.

  10. First time here and look where I landed! I call my duck feet “paddle feet” and the older I get, the more my toes spread. I’ve never understood the style of pointy toed shoes or why anyone would cause such suffering to their feet. I’m the only woman I know with no corns, callouses, or bunions and I would love to have a custom pair of those shoes. Thank you for explaining that the pattern is laid out FLAT. I was trying to figure out how I could wrap material around the duct tape mold without collapsing it. Again: THANK YOU.

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  12. That’s so cool; I am also in Portland and will see about taking a class!

    This reminds me of the work Katy Bowman does on shoes and overall body health (even links of schizophrenia and high heel use). I think you guys might enjoy her scientific but humorous look at the “diseases of captivity” humans get from not moving the way we did before modern society.

    She’s at Katysays.com

    (And as far as your mattress-making plan, she thinks you can train your body over a few years to sleep on only a few blankets with no pain. It might be easier to just make a less-toxic mattress, but I’m stoked to get healthy enough to sleep on the floor!)

    • (Also in Portland as in= I saw the previous comment from someone in Portland. I think you guys are the first good thing I’ve heard about or experienced in LA, though you’ve obviously pointed out lots of other folks in your area doing good work.)

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