Monday, August 25, 2008

How to make a shoe

Oh my gosh, I actually made a shoe!

(Originally published February 29, 2008 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel)

I just finished my first shoe…and it fits! It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time—ever since I first realized that you could make a shoe. “Crafting Handmade Shoes” by Sharon Raymond first made me think I could, until I couldn’t find retail soling material online. When I again revisited the idea of making shoes from scratch, I tried my local shoe repair shop, where the owner was kind enough to cut and sell me a 12” x 12” piece of Vibram Pyramid soling. What could stand in my way now?

Well, the biggest obstacle in making my first shoe turned out to be the book itself. When I finally had all the materials assembled, the project instructions confused my utterly. I searched for additional shoe-making references, but as one Amazon reviewer puts it, “Go ahead - just TRY to find a book on hand-crafting sandals and shoes on a small scale that wasn't written before 1973.” Apparently Ms. Raymond’s book is one-of-a-kind. I’m still not clear on why shoe-making is such a lost art, because, notwithstanding the hard-to-follow instructions, it wasn’t that difficult.

Although most of the projects in “Crafting Handmade Shoes” are casual leather flats and sandals, I decided to start with fleece slippers (with soles) because fabric sounded more familiar and forgiving than leather. (The slipper pattern is similar in concept to the shoe and sandal patterns, and a good place to hone your skills before working in leather.) Here’s a brief outline of the how-tos, but you may have to find the book (out of print, but still available online) for more specifics.

What you need:

  • Purple and brown fleece scraps (or any two colors)
  • Non-corrugated cardboard
  • Heavy-duty foil
  • Sharpie
  • Two 30-inch shoelaces or ribbon
  • Foam or gel insoles, with flat, unshaped heel
  • Polyester thread, scissors, ruler, straight pins, safety pin, strong needles
  • Sewing machine
  • Fabric glue
  • Clothes pins
  • 12” x 12” piece Vibram Pyramid soling, ¼” thick
  • Stitching awl
  • Artificial sinew
  • Dry-bonding cement (avoid the fumes, use outdoors)

What you need to know:

First, you need to understand that a shoe—any shoe—is basically three layers:

  • the top (upper)
  • the middle (insole)
  • the bottom (outsole).

The upper is usually composed of the vamp—the forepart of the upper—and the heel—the back of the upper. If the shoe has laces, there is usually a tongue underneath those laces. The insole provides a comfortable bed for your foot and is the structural anchor for the upper. The outsole must be durable since it contacts the ground, and can be made from leather, rubber or a synthetic material.

What you do:

1. INSOLE PATTERN: Stand with both feet on a piece of non-corrugated cardboard, and have a friend trace the outline of your feet with a pencil held upright. In front of the longest toe, add 5/8 inch to the pattern, and draw a rounded line in a shape that you like around all the toes. Smooth the rest of the lines. Measure the insole pattern from heel to toe and make a line across it at the halfway point. Create one for each foot, or use one flipped over for the second foot.

2. INSOLE: Trace the insole pattern onto purple fleece and cut out one for each foot. Fabric glue the bottom of each piece of fleece to the top of the purchased foam/gel insoles, leaving a rim of fleece all around. Glue the rim and the bottom of the insoles to another piece of fleece (any color) to hide the foam/gel insole inside. Trim the second piece of fleece to match the purple insole outline. Use clothes pins to hold secure until glue is dry.

3. VAMP PATTERN: Stand with one foot on your insole pattern. Put padding in front and under your toes to elevate them. Fold a big piece of foil in half to make a straight line, and place this edge over your foot, aligned with the halfway line you marked on the insole pattern. Smooth the foil over the front of your foot, then make a crease with your thumbnail where the foil touches the floor around the insole pattern. Draw over the line with Sharpie. Flatten the foil on a table and add about 1/8 inch to the rounded edge before cutting it out. Create one for each foot, or use one flipped over for the second foot.

4. HEEL PATTERN: Measure the perimeter of the bottom half of the insole pattern with a piece of string (or the shoelace). Cut out two paper pattern pieces (see photo).

5. UPPER. The 2” edge of the heel pattern is taped to the straight edge of the foil (see photo), one on either side, right-angles aligned with the edge. Pin the resulting one-piece upper pattern to two layers of fleece—purple for the upper, and brown for lining—and cut out for each foot. Baste the edges with a straight stitch, then zigzag stitch the upper and the lining together all the way around. Baste, then zigzag stitch the back heel seam together.

6. CHANNEL: The shoelace is threaded through a channel along the top edge of the upper, ending at the vamp. Use a 1 1/2” wide strip of fleece, sewn first to the outside (1/2” from the top), then inside with narrow zigzag stitching. Thread the shoelace or ribbon through the channel using a safety pin.

7. TONGUE: The tongue is shaped like a slice of bread without corners (see photo). Use two pieces of brown fleece and one slightly smaller piece of purple fleece, and baste, then zigzag stitch them altogether. Match the indentations in the tongue with the corners on the straight edge of the upper and zigzag in place around the edge of the tongue.

8. SEAM BINDING: Use a 2” strip of brown fleece and baste it along the bottom edge of the upper, overlapping the ends where the foot arches. Pin and baste the insole to the upper, easing the upper as necessary. Zigzag the three layers together all the way around the shoe. Pull the seam binding down to the bottom of the insole and fabric glue in place, making slits in the seam binding to ease the fullness. Secure with clothes pins until dry.

9. OUTSOLE: Trace around each slipper onto the Vibram soling with a pencil (note that the Vibram soling is slightly rougher on one side). Cut out the outsoles with scissors, then sand the edges smooth to fit the insole. Apply dry-bond cement to the smooth side of the outsole material. When the cement is tacky dry, adhere the slipper, and hold in place with wooden clamps, clothes pins or heavy books until secure. Thread two strong needles onto both ends of a long piece of artificial sinew. Use your stitching awl to poke holes ¼” from the outsole edge, and stitch the soling to the shoe in a figure eight pattern, hiding the stitches where the seam binding meets the upper.

Although books on shoemaking are hard to come by, there are several good books on embellishing shoes, including “A Closet Full of Shoes—Simple Ways to Make them Chic” by Jo Packham and Sara Toliver.

In addition, the Peninsula Wearable Arts Group (PenWAG), which meets in Saratoga monthly, will host a workshop on painting and embellishing shoes in March. See and for details.


Watson said...

I love my insoles which got from They are more comfortable and nice!!

Anonymous said...

I was wondering if u'd sell your book I can't find one anywhere?

Tina Baine said...

I find most of the books I use in the Santa Clara County Library system. Their collection surpasses all other libraries I've visited.