Beauty in Shoemaking
Updated: Jun 1
What it taught me about writing...and life.
Marimekko fabric, pink leather lining, black leather heels.
I started shoemaking to research my novel, Beauty. The protagonist, Amy, is passionate about fashion, especially when it comes to shoes. She's the type of person who would eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for a month to save up for a pair of boots she wants. She's ultra creative, too, so I knew she would be the type of person to make them, too.
There are basic steps that need to be followed, but the process depends a great deal on design and the materials one uses. I've made about 20 pairs of shoes and boots since I started. No two designs have been the same.
People often ask what shoemaking is like. An easy ballet flat can have over 200 steps, so I'll take you through some for the Marimekko boot, which was, in comparison to the others, much easier to make.
Step One: Drawing Your design.
Step Two: Choosing the Correct Last
A last is basically a hard plastic "foot" or mold. You can make flats with flat lasts and heels with heeled lasts. You can't make flats if you have a pair of heeled lasts and vice versa. This seems pretty obvious, but I've always been slow on the uptake, so it wasn't to me.
Step Three: Taping the Last
The first thing we did was tear off 4-inch strips of masking tape and line them along the edge of a table in front of us. Then we taped a last going diagonally one direction, then virtually the other. We transferred the Design (from Step One) onto the taped last. We also drew a line straight down the front and back of the shoe, bisecting it into the inner and outer parts of each shoe.
With a box cutter, we traced the front and back lines. We peeled up the tape, stuck it flat to manila cardboard, then cut it out. These are the inner and outer formes.
Step Four: Take Measurements
Store bought shoes are set at "standard" sizes. This means you're out of luck if you have wider calves or wish the height was a couple inches taller. With custom-made boots, however, you can make them to your specific measurements.
I learned the hard way there are different measurements for heels than flats!
For flats: For heels:
Step Five: Draw the Full Boot
It was time to use the formes and leg measurements to create a pattern on a piece of paper. I glued it to manila cardboard, added a quarter inch along each edge, then cut it out.
Step Five: Choose Material for the Upper
The uppers are the part of the shoe you see. I love Marimekko fabric, especially this one. It's cheerful, full of life, fun. People usually use leather to make shoes because it's more durable, but I figured this was a chance for me to explore using different materials.
One of Marimekko’s most iconic patterns, it was created by textile designer by Maija Isola. Unikko means "poppy" in Finnish. In her 38 years with the company, Maija designed more than 500 textile patterns!
Step Six: Choose Material for the Lining
No one was going to see the interior except me, but I chose a band pink because enough was going on with the uppers as it was.
Step Seven: Tracing the Pattern onto the Fabric
This was the fun part. I flipped the material to the back side of the fabric, traced the shape with sewing chalk, then cut it out. Shoes come in a pair, so I did this twice before flipping the pattern to the other side and drawing two more.
One of the mistakes I've made was forgetting to flip the pattern. I ended up with the outer of one boot and the inner of the other. The other two I'd cut had to be thrown away. I had to re-trace and cut out the correct side. The only problem was I didn't have enough fabric! I had to go back to the store to get more.
Step Eight: Interfacing
I ironed on mesh-like material called interfacing to the back side of the fabric. This helped to stiffen and stabilize the material so it wouldn't fall like a sock to the floor. (If I was used leather for the uppers, this step wouldn't be necessary.)
Step Nine: Cutting the Lining
This was the back side of the pink lining. It was lambskin which was thinner and softer than cowhide. It was also much smaller. For boots, I needed two skins.
I traced the pattern, adding a 1/4" along the edges, then cut it out.
Step 10: Sewing the Inner and Outer Sides of the Uppers Together
Step 11: Sewing the Inner and Outer Sides of the Linings Together
Step 10: Adding the Zipper
The zipper needed to be lined up correctly so that one side was even with the other. Using double stick tape, I secured it along the inner edge of the fabric. I didn't know how to sew by machine, so my instructor stitched in the zipper.
Step 11: Sewing in the Lining
Like the zipper, the lining needed to be secured with double-stick tape before getting stitched in place.
It was looking like a real boot!
Step 12: Taping the Sole of the Last
Same technique as taping the upper part of the last, but now focusing on the bottom, which created the pattern for the insole of the shoe. This was the inner part you didn't see, the area your foot rested on.
Step 13: Making the Insole
Tracing the pattern onto thick, unfinished leather, I then used a 5-in-1 machine to cut out the shape of the insole.
A 5-in-one cutter has a crank that turns gears with "teeth" that grind through leather.
Step 14: Skiving the leather
With a tool called a skive, which has a handle at one end and a blade at the other, I thinned out the 1/4" edge. Skiving is probably my least favorite part of shoemaking. It requires a lot of skill. On one hand, you need strength; it can be exhausting work. On the other, too much force and the razor can cut straight through the leather, ruining it. Skiving inevitably causes my wrist and hand to hurt.
Step 15: Making the Insole.
Three stacks of leather need to be stacked, glued, and clipped together. Once the insoles are dry, they can be sanded smooth.
Step 16: Nailing the Insole to the Last
The front pad of the insole gets nailed to the last so that it stays in place.
Step 17: Counters
I made a pattern for counters, which cupped and supported the back of the foot and heel. It needs to be skived also. Fortunately, I learned to use an electric tool called the drummel, which had a bit that spun, thinning the leather with sandpaper. It was not a quick process but it was a lot easier on the hands with less chance of ruining the leather.
Shaping the Heel
I ran the counters under hot water and shaped them to the back of the last. When they were dry, I drew a line bisecting the heel in half
Step 18: Toe Pads
Counters support the back of the foot but the front needs a little support also. With a much
thinner leather, I cut half moons the size of large pancakes, molding it to the toe of the last.
Step 19: Setting the Counters in Place
I drew a line down the center of the counters, and now I used scissors to bisect them in half. Once that was done, I glued them between the lining and the fabric. I had to be cautious to glue them on the lining side while being cautious not to get any on the fabric.
Step 20: Attaching the uppers to the last
Once the counters are in place, it was time to bring the two separate parts of the shoe--the uppers and the insole--together. First, the lining gets glue down to the bottom of the last. Once the glue is dry, the bottom of the insole is sanded smooth. Then the Marimekko fabric gets secured in place.
I don't have a photo of this final lasting stage, but when I was done, the bottom of the insole looked like this:
They weren't attached yet, but I balanced the boots over the heels to see how they would look. Yes!
Step 21: Heels
The final touch. I covered the heels with black leather. It was difficult to sole and align heels perfectly. The shoemaking lab at the JCC didn't have the correct machinery to do it correctly, so I brought them to a shoemaker on the Upper East Side. Two weeks later, I picked up my babies and tried them on for the first time.
Since then, I wear them all the time. Like visiting Marimekko NYC...
Hanging out with friends...
...Or reading from my work!