Shoe Making 101 - Handcrafted vs. Handmade

HELM Handmade Boots

Table of Contents:

Stating The Difference
Varying Methods of Shoemaking and Construction
Tools of the Trade
The Role of the Last
Leaders in Lasting and The Return of Handcrafted Shoes
Making A Decision
Current Trends In Shoemaking
What It All Means

     

    The evolution towards individuality and style and away from what’s trending and least expensive is an interesting topic to understand. It seems the interest in personalized, well-made products is on the rise once more, challenging an era where mass production was king.
     
    And while the US market is crowded with over produced goods of similar design and low quality materials, a large percentage of the world has always maintained an interest in bespoke—or handmade—goods. In 2011, an article published in the New York Times featured European master tailor and shoemaker company, Rudolf Scheer & Söhne. Located in Vienna, the company has made shoes since 1816. Their “impeccable workmanship and almost medical focus on fit” is the sole reason for the brand’s worldwide appeal.
     
    But even as recent as 2011, the piece hinted at the notion that an interest in custom-made products were becoming modern again, citing craftsmen as the bridge between tradition and modernity.

    Despite this newfound interest, though, there is still a lot of confusion with what actually constitutes itself as handmade—especially when it comes to shoes. What, if any, are the similarities and differences between buzzwords like handcrafted, custom made, and bespoke?
     
    In this piece we’ll touch upon the differences between handmade and handcrafted, while highlighting the evolution of shoemaking, industry trends, and what we can expect from a handmade and handcrafted industry.

    Stating The Differences

    In its most basic definition, the use of machinery constitutes an item as handcrafted, while a product made entirely by hand lends the title of being handmade. This difference is not to be confused with products that are custom-made, though. That’s because a product that is, or was, made for you and only you, bypasses the confines of the handmade or handcrafted label. Simply put, if a product was designed to fit, in this case your foot, that product is therefore custom-made, regardless of the shoemaker’s process from start to finish.

    According to the Technology Innovation Management Review, handmade goods and products use “only traditional tools and techniques [that] involve personal delivery by highly skilled individuals in their capacity to command high prices beyond the general reach of the general population.” Not only does this process require age-old techniques of custom shoe production, but it also demands certain patience for the shoe to be made. From the initial design to the last stitch sewn, handmade products avoid new technologies and are made entirely by hand.

    Bespoke shoes are a prime example of handmade products; such products are strictly made by hand, not by machine. It’s a process that’s rooted in decades of traditions. Even the last—or a replicated mold of your foot—is created by hand. Keep in mind, though, that more than one individual can help along in the process. For example, one individual can create the last, another can design the pattern, while another still can cut and stitch the leather to create the final product.

    Handcrafted products, while they do include help from machines, are no less challenging, though, as many elements are still done by hand. It’s a faster process, but still requires the attention to detail and traditional methods of shoemaking to produce a quality product. The main difference is that the final product is arranged with the help of machinery and modern technology.

    Varying Methods of Shoemaking and Construction

    Whether a product is handmade or handcrafted, there’s a method and technique that’s used to successfully produce a new design. Some craftsmen use handheld tools while others use machinery. Either way, one of the following methods is typically used.

    Cementing is the cheapest, fastest, and most common method of modern shoemaking. It involves attaching the sole of a shoe once the upper is shaped and completed around the last; no welting is used. This fast-pace method comes with some downfalls, though. Once the upper begins to separate from the sole, the shoe needs to be replaced, as the design isn’t equipped for resoling.

    The Blake stitch, or McKay stitch, and the Bologna construction are two of the more basic methods in shoemaking. The Blake stitch sews the shoe together through the insole, uppers, and outsole. The stitching is done on the inside of the shoe and, as a result, can’t be completed by hand; one single stitch attaches the entire shoe together. Furthermore, due to it’s design—the final product is made of just a few layers—the sole of the shoe is unable to withstand moisture, as water can easily make its way through the seams. Unlike cementing, though, the Blake stitch is flexible and lends itself the possibility of resoling.

    Another common design is the Bologna method. Similar in design to the Blake stitch, the Bologna runs its seams through the outsole to the insole. The main difference is that the final product has the uppers folded and stitched together like a sock, creating a softer, more finished shoe.

    Goodyear welting is one of the more common construction methods used for designing quality shoes. While it’s the oldest method used, and the most labor intensive of the construction methods, the final product is the most durable. Different from the Blake stitch, this method can be completed by machine or by hand.

    The three-part process involved with Goodyear welting includes preparing the insole for stitching, lasting the shoe, and finally, welting. Using a shoe-specific thread, shoemakers sew through the welt, the upper, and the insole rib to connect the three. A separate stitch, however, is used to attach the welt to the outsole. This two-part stitching constructs a more water resistant and supportive shoe. Furthermore, it’s easy to resole by hand or machine.

    Tools of the Trade

    To further understand the differences between handmade and handcrafted products—and the methods used to construct each—it’s imperative to know and recognize the tools used during either process. 

    When it comes to handmade shoemaking, the shoemaker needs to have a number of different tools, as each is typically limited for something specific and a particular style of shoe. The edge iron, for example, is used to set the sole edges; the process is meant to create a straight, hard, and even surface to the edges. While one edge iron is used for a specific shoe’s thickness, a different iron is used for designs that feature a thinner or thicker sole.

    Another example is the awl, like the welting awl blade, which is used to bring in the scoop of the waist when narrowing the shape of the sole. Others include the fudge wheel, a tool used to impress and hide the stitches, a plough, used for removing excess off the insole, and heel iron, a high-quality steel iron used for finishing the heels.

    While these tools are essential, they aren’t so easy to come by in today’s market. The rise of new technologies caused the market to shift away from handmade goods for quite some time, and as a result, only a few producers were left to make new tools. Many shoemakers still use the tools that were passed down to them by their teachers.
    Though bespoke or handmade shoemaking tools are still used by some, the majority of shoemakers—and those who design handcrafted products—rely on new technologies and machinery to push their designs forward. For every stage of the shoemaking process, there’s a machine that can quickly and efficiently get the job done.

    One of the first machines to replace handmade methods was designed by David Meade Randolph in 1809. The machine fastened the soles and heels to the inner soles, and then the soles to the lasts. This is done by nailing wooden plugs to the metal plates located at the bottom of the lasts. The foundation of modern-day boot making is attributed to this invention. Two more inventions surfaced in the following year. M. I. Brunel invented a number of machines used to fasten soles to uppers with metallic pins or nails; Richard Woodman enhanced the same design by using screws and staples.

    The pegging machine was invented not too long after. The machine tackles one of the three principle methods of attaching soles to uppers called “pegging.” According to its description, the machine mainly consists “of a rotating toothed cutter or burr, by which the protruding end of the peg and the leather turned up around it is cut and smoothed off to a uniform level surface as the stock is fed forward on the horn to receive the successive pegs.”  

    The Blake stitch, as mentioned above, is one of the more common methods for designing high-quality shoes. Ultimately refined and now known as the Mackay sole-sewing machine, the Blake machine was the first machine invented to overcome the challenges shoemakers faced when sewing together soles and uppers. The machine was improved just in time for the onset of the Civil War in America and was the main machine used in the designing and creation of soldier’s boots.

    Despite the success and innovation of the Blake-Mackay sewing machine, the Goodyear & Mackay machines for welting shoes made even more headway in terms of shoemaking. It was the first machine to sew soles on lasted boots and shoes.
    There are a number of inventions that led the shoemaking industry away from handmade goods. But, today, even more are required for every step of the shoemaking process. There are machines for cutting leather, pressing rollers for sole leather, machines for trimming and paring, and machines for smoothing the edges of soles and heels. There are also machines for finishing, like burnishing machines for the soles, stamping machines, and nail-rasping machines for smoothing, cleaning out, and dressing the surface of the insole.

    The Role of the Last

    Whether a shoemaker constructs a new shoe or boot by hand or embraces the help of modern technology, every tool is necessary and vital to completing their craft. And of those tools, the last is an instrument that remains essential, regardless of the shoemaker’s method of choice. The word itself reflects its relationship with foot, as “last” in Old English, or “laest,” means footprint.

    For a shoe to have form the required shape, it’s necessary to build it up on a frame, or in shoemaking, what’s called a last. It’s said, “a design starts with a last and finishes on the foot.” In other words, every step of the shoemaking process revolves around the last. From pulling the upper around the last to determining a specific heel height to determining the shape of the shoe, the last is present in every process of the shoemaking journey.

    Despite its importance, there are a few misconceptions surrounding the last and its purpose. One of those misconceptions surrounds the notion that the last should be the shape of the shoe owner’s foot, but slightly larger in size. Small differences  are inherent due to the manufacturing process, though. One example is the space left at the toes for slight movement during walking. But constructing a slightly larger last, and thus shoe, will result in chafing and blisters at the owner’s heel.

    Up until the 1800s, all last were made by hand. They used to be hand carved from hardwoods like maple or beech by bespoke shoemakers. Today, though, most lasts are made from high-density plastic that is 100% recyclable. The switch of materials better served the industry’s focus on mass production. Not surprisingly, though, the shift towards quickly manufactured goods and services resulted from new technologies and inventions within the industry. 

    Similar to the other technologies briefly discusses above, the invention of the lasting machine had a substantial impact on the shoe production industry. Created by Jan E. Matzeliger in 1883, the machine made it possible to pull the upper leather over the last; the machine also held the last in place while it nailed the leather to the last. Matzeliger had been working in a shoe factory in Massachusetts when he set out to create the machine. He was originally from Suriname.

    The invention of the lasting machine is considered one of the biggest advancements for the shoemaking industry. For one, it drastically lowered the cost of a pair of shoes—the result of the speed in which the shoes were being made. While a skilled lasting worker could last roughly 50 pairs of shoes a day, Matzeliger’s machine could last between 200-700 in the same timeframe. 

    Leaders in Lasting and The Return of Handcrafted Shoes

    To offset the time and effort that goes into creating a custom last, many companies and brands are now creating their own signature lasts. They’re using them to design ready-to-wear collections that can fit standard foot shapes and sizes. Doing so also decreases the price one would have to pay for a custom made last and pair of shoes.

    The main reason for the success of these signature designs is the ability to focus on a particular point of reference for the consumer. For example, the Alden Barrie last is known to be on the wider side of the spectrum with plenty of toe space. Given its design, this last is best used when making heavier shoes.

    US Army doctor Edward Munson patented another popular last design in 1912. Contrary to shoe designs that came before it, this last incorporated a natural toe box that fit the foot’s natural shape. Munson’s last became the standard infantry footwear for WWI and WWII.

    While this trend of designing signature lasts has become the norm around the United States, there are still quite a few brands that continue the bespoke tradition of shoemaking around the world. Berluti, for example, prides itself on cutting, sewing, and burnishing each piece and final product by hand. Located in Paris, France, this brand designs and crafts truly bespoke, or handmade, shoes. Bionda Castana is another exclusively bespoke shoemaking brand, and it sets itself apart from modern day shoemaking brands with its focus on women’s handmade shoes.


    Other bespoke shoemakers include Buchanan Bespoke, Crockett & Jones, a brand that uses only the Goodyear welting method, and Edward Green, an English brand known for their classic, elegant lasts.

    Despite the current shoe industry’s reliance on machinery and modern technology, there’s been a rise in the shoemaking craft over the past few years. It seems the interest in quality, made-to-last items is making a comeback. As they say, what’s old is new again, and the affinity for a craft forgotten has increased the demand for handcrafted shoes now more ever. It might even be safe to say that these brands won’t be the only handmade brands for much longer.

    Making A Decision

    Decided between a handmade and handcrafted shoe can be a tough decision—especially if the appeal rests in the intrigue of a personally made design just for you. Just like every decision, though, there are pros and cons to both sides of the seesaw.

    Let’s go back to the most common methods in shoemaking—in both handmade and handcrafted designs. Cementing is the first. Because this method is simple and quick, the cost of this shoe is much less. But for the same reasons, the shoe’s durability is affected and easily damaged, especially if exposed to moisture. If you’re looking for shoes with a similar feel and style to sneakers, chukkas, or other designs with a rubber sole, this simple, handcrafted style is the best choice. 

    The next method we discussed is Blake welting. If you’re looking for a more elevated design but with a flexible finish, shoes that are Blake welted, completed by machinery alone, is the right choice for you. And while these shoes are more expensive than cemented designs, Blake welted shoes are more durable and will last longer. Furthermore, they can be resoled if needed.

    The final and most labor-intensive method is Goodyear welting. As previously mentioned, this two-level stitching method is more water resistant and supportive. But because of its lengthy and arduous means, shoes and boots crafted following this method are more costly than the others.

    While Goodyear welting can be done by hand, the most laborious shoemaking process is the bespoke, or fully handmade product. This method depends greatly on the highest quality materials and designs. This made-to-order process requires not only a costly price tag, but patience as well. From hand making the lasts to cutting the leather to pulling the upper over the last to sewing it all together, handmade shoes are for those looking not just for the satisfaction of a perfect fit, but to actively support the craft of an age-old tradition.

    Handmade shoes are costly and time consuming, and while many consumers express their desires to own a pair of handmade or bespoke shoes, they aren’t willing to spend the time or the money.

    Current Trends In Shoemaking

    In 2015, according to a Global Industry Analysts, Inc. report, the global footwear market experienced steady growth. Though new trends aided to the growth and shift towards fashion-forward designs, the focus within the footwear consumer community was again redirected towards mission-driven products like eco-footwear and a demand for personalized footwear in recent years. The same report signaled the return to timeless classics, like a simple black pump for women and Oxfords and Derbies for men.

    According to World Footwear, a research initiative of Portuguese Footwear, Components and Leather Goods Manufacturers’ Association (APICCAPS), the average footwear industry consumer in 2030 will be influenced by three main factors: sustainability, fashion, and the rising costs of labor and leather. This means that while this new consumer base is aware of higher costs of goods, their desires to support local, environmentally conscious brands is stronger than ever.

    A shift towards sustainability is not only pertinent to the shoe industry, though. It’s a mindset that’s sweeping across all industries, and as a result, shoemakers have had to reevaluate the impact of their carbon footprints. One way to improve this is to design shoes that can be taken apart. The LYF, or Love your Footprint, shoe is a perfect example. The company is seeking to produce the brand commercially “with a goal to set up local assembly points that produce modular custom-fit shoes.” The brand gives customers the ability to design or choose a fabric upper, and the foot bed will be made from recycled cork from wine bottles. This endeavor could bridge the desires for custom-made products with ones that are environmentally friendly and less expensive.

    One important element is shoe quality. Galahad Clark, founder of Vivo Barefoot and descendent of the Clarks shoe family, says “if the shoes look good and are good for your feet people will wear them for longer, rather than just getting rid of them and buying new ones.” This is especially true of handcrafted and handmade shoes. When shoes are made with the right materials and crafted with precision and technique, people will be inclined to keep them for longer.

    Another trend is the rise in athleisurewear. Athletic shoes are more prevalent than ever. And while not everyone will be wearing a pair of running shoes to work, handmade and handcrafted shoe brands can use the interests behind the athleisure trend to successfully cater to their customers. Using cutting edge materials and “smart” textiles is one way brands will be able to give consumers what they want in a shoe.

    What It All Means

    Matt Powell, VP of industry analysis, sports and leisure trends at Footwear News (FN), stated at a FN Platform discussion in 2015, “Millennials and Gen Z will radically change the shoe business. Millennials represent 25 percent of the U.S. population [and] they want to interact with your brand and talk about your products.”

    So whether a brand is creating eco-friendly footwear or incorporating athletic shoe elements in their designs, brands will have to gain their customer’s trust and loyalty. And when competing with already established brands, establishing a loyal consumer base is especially significant for smaller shoemaking companies that focus on handcrafted and handmade products. 

    Brand loyalty also signifies the return to the importance of relationships between the consumer and his or her shoemaker. Mass production created an impersonal industry, and as a result, consumers are now looking to foster that personal relationship with their tailors and shoemakers. This relationship further supports the notion that modern shoemakers have the ability to weave together traditional shoemaking techniques with the fashion tastes and desires of modern men and women. 

    With the rise of a la carte services like Netflix, the appeal for custom-made and hand selected products has trickled into other industries as well, including the shoemaking industry. And while it’s unclear whether the handmade or handcrafted shoe industry will take over modern day technologies and mass productions, it is, however, reasonable to say the craft is steadily gaining traction.