This article was published on a thread on Styleforum by the user A Harris many years ago, and we are reviving it here, implemented with pictures, for everyone to enjoy.
Throughout the years, Styleforum members have shared a wealth of knowledge on the forum pages, and if you have the time and patience to browse through them, you can check out the list at the bottom of this article. Bonne lecture!
Most classic shoe models can be traced back to bespoke shoemakers. Nearly all of them first appeared at least 75 years ago, and some have been around for more than one hundred years. They have evolved and have been refined, but most are still obviously connected to their original form. The driving force behind shoe design is really the silhouette of the clothes they are meant to be worn with – especially the trousers. Slim pants with a narrow (pegged) bottom require a slim fitting shoe unless you want your feet to appear larger than they actually are. Conversely, fuller-cut clothing requires heavier shoes. As a general rule, your trousers should cover the lacing of your shoes – approximately two-thirds of the shoe’s length.
The most important factor to consider when choosing a shoe is the last. The last is the wooden form that the shoe is constructed around. It determines both the final shape of the shoe and its fitting characteristics. Master lastmakers are, in a way, part scientist, doctor, architect, and artist.
Also crucially important is the leather that the shoe is clicked (cut) from. The leather used to make the shoe upper is almost always chrome-salt (mineral) tanned in large rotating vats. Most fine shoe uppers are made from high-grade calfskin. Thicker cowhide is sometimes used for pebble-grained uppers and to a lesser extent, you will see fine shoes made from shell cordovan (horse leather) and even exotic leathers like alligator and crocodile. A fine shoe will have an insole and sole of thicker pit-tanned cowhide. This leather is vegetable-tanned using actual vegetable matter, not vegetable extracts. Most shoe linings are also vegetable tanned.
There are a huge variety of methods used to construct shoes. Most require mass production and lots of glue – we will not concern ourselves with those. Most truly high-quality shoes are either welted, reverse welted or a variation. Some fine shoes are Blake-stitched or use an Italian moccasin construction. Let’s examine each method:
GOODYEAR WELTED SHOES OR HAND WELTED SHOES
Welted shoes consist primarily of a leather upper, a welt, an insole, and an outsole (sole.) First, the insole is tacked to the bottom of the last. The insole is the thick (usually about 1/8″) piece of vegetable-tanned leather that your foot rests on. It has a “feather” on the bottom of it. On a world-class bespoke shoe (and on a few elite ready-to-wear shoes like those of Vass) the feather is “skived” into (cut from) the insole itself. However, most all ready-to-wear welted shoes use a glued-on feather made of linen.
Next, the upper (with its inner stiffening layers and lining already attached, which layers are either natural leather or celastic depending on the quality of the shoe) is stretched around and tacked to the last. On a really fine shoe, the upper is splashed with water and beaten with a hammer to compress the leather fibers, and to permanently mold them to the shape of the last. The leather is then allowed to dry completely and the process is repeated, often multiple times. It should be noted that the majority of shoes, even very expensive ones, are lasted by machine.
Once the upper has been shaped the shoes are welted. The welt is a thin strip of leather – often two feet or more in length, about three-quarters of an inch wide and an eighth of an inch thick. In this step, the shoemaker uses a single row of lock-stitching (two interlocking stitches) to sew the welt to the upper leather to the feather (in that order.) Generally, this is done with the aid of a Goodyear welting machine. In a very few small workshops, the shoes are welted by hand. Once the shoes have been welted, the excess leather is trimmed away from above the seam, and the whole area is compressed with a hammer. Then the shallow, hollow section in the middle of the shoe (created by the attaching, and in some cases the skiving, of the insole) is filled. In most cases, a shank (thin metal or wood strip that stabilizes the sole and heel,) and a leather covering used to hold it in place, fill the back half. The front half is sometimes filled with cork.
The sole is then affixed with glue and sewn to the portion of the welt that protrudes from the front and sides of the shoe. The sewing of the sole is almost always done on a machine, with very few exceptions. On a top-quality shoe, the sole stitching is hidden in a “channel” and is not visible on the bottom of the sole. Finally, the heel is either built from layers of leather fixed together with wood and brass pegs, or a pre-made heel is attached, and the shoe is finished.
WHY ARE WELTED SHOES SUPERIOR?
Welted shoes are considered superior by most because they are very durable and are easily resoled. A top-quality welted shoe can almost always be sent back to the maker for resoling, or even re-crafting. The heel can be removed, the sole stitching undone, and a new sole and heel can then be attached. In cases of more extreme wear, the insole and welt can be removed as well. The shoe can then be stretched back over the original last and remade. These processes can be repeated many times. As a result, a truly great pair of shoes can, with proper care and rotation, be worn for 10-20 years. And in some cases, men get 40 years or more out of them.
HOW ARE WATER-RESISTANT SHOES MADE?
When a shoe needs to be highly water resistant, it is made differently. There are many methods – reverse welted, double-stitched, Norwegian-stitched, norvegese, veldtschoen etc. For the sake of brevity, I will not go into the specific differences. The main similarity is the welt and/or the upper leather curves out and away from the shoe, instead of down and in – the advantage being that that water cannot easily penetrate and wet the insole, like it can with a regular-welted shoe. Thus, reverse-welted shoes are more water-resistant and more casual than a regular-welted shoe. They can generally be recognized by the double or triple row of stitching on the outside of the shoe where the upper meets the sole. It should be noted that some Italian makers will add a braided stitch just for looks, so buyer beware.
BLAKE STITCH AND MOCCASIN
Blake-stitching and moccasin constructions are used primarily by Italian shoemakers. A traditional moccasin is made without an insole. The upper leather wraps all the way around the foot and is sewn by hand to a flat vamp that sits on top of your toes and instep. The sole is then sewn directly to the upper on a machine. The most famous example of this method is the classic Gucci slip-on.
Blake-stitched shoes have an upper, an insole, and a sole – like a welted shoe. But they do not have a welt. The insole (which is flat – no feather) and upper are attached to the last. Then the sole is glued on and a single row of machine-stitching is used to stitch through and attach the sole, the insole, and the upper. The one advantage of this method is that it can make for a very light, thin-soled shoe. However, Blake-stitched shoes are not as water resistant, as durable, or as easily repaired as a welted shoe. If the manufacturer has not covered the insole with a full-length insole-cover, you can recognize a Blake-stitched shoe by looking inside it. You will see a single row of stitching around the forepart of the shoe.
Italian shoemakers are also incredibly good at coming up with alternate ways of making shoes. They employ a bewildering array of methods and combinations of shoemaking that I could not possibly cover here. Some of the methods are labor-saving shortcuts that allow for a combination of machine and handwork, and some involve very complicated handwork that can make for exquisite shoes.
CLASSIC SHOE DESIGNS
While the last, the leather, and the construction of the shoe are vital, you must like its design as well.
Most high-end shoes are variations on a few classic models. Lace-up shoes are generally divided into those with open lacing and those with closed lacing. Before I indicate the difference between open and closed lacing, I must define two crucial terms. The vamp is the forepart of the shoe that covers the toes and instep. The quarters are exactly what they sound like – the two back quarters of the shoe, which extend from the center-back seam and generally end at the midpoint of the shoe. On a shoe with closed lacing, the vamp is sewn on top of the quarters, and the tongue is usually a separate piece. On a shoe with open lacing, the quarters are sewn on top of the vamp, and the tongue is usually an extension of the vamp. Shoes with closed lacing are often called oxfords or balmorals, and shoes with open lacing are called derbys or bluchers.
In addition, formal lace-up shoes are often referred to as “plain,” or as “half brogues” or “full brogues.” A plain shoe is just as it sounds – there are no decorations other than perhaps a double row of stitching on the toe-cap. Brogueing refers to a pattern of decorative punched holes along a shoe’s seams. “Half-brogue” usually indicates a shoe with a straight toe-cap and extensive brogueing. “Full-brogue” indicates a wingtip shoe with extensive brogueing. Half-brogues and full brogues almost always have a punched “medallion” decoration on the toe.
Lace-up shoes can also be whole-cut. This means that that the entire upper is cut from a single piece of leather. This takes a lot of skill and usually increases the price of the shoe. Shoes can also close with a buckle, in which case they are referred to as “monkstraps” or “monks.” Generally, monkstraps are a variation on the derby. Another version of the derby is called the “Norwegian.” Most Norwegians have three-piece vamp with a hand-stitched apron-front and split toe. In some versions of the Norwegian, the quarters extend all the way to the front of the shoe and join at the middle of the toe. Finally, there are slip-on shoes. They can be made in any number of ways – moccasin, welted, reverse welted, Blake-stitched etc. They can be constructed and decorated in many ways, can resemble brogues or Norwegians, can have saddles or tassels, or they can be completely plain. There are innumerable variations.
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