Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Making shoes and making a shoe last!

I am definitely feeling open to new challenges lately and am slowly working my way through all the things I said I would never do! I am not saying 'never' to anything at the moment since I started thinking about making shoes. Shoes, actual shoes!!! It seems like the ultimate handmade item really doesn't it? If I can make shoes then I can make handbags surely, which covers all the bases really on top of the clothes I can sew and knit. Spurred on by seeing these boots in particular by Joost and also these sandals by Jillian I have recently started to believe I can do this. Why not eh?

So where does one start? Well I have done a lot of online research and you need a shoe last (ideally) if you are going to get serious about making shoes. A shoe last is like a mannequin for feet and are actually not very difficult to get hold of. You find them second hand on ebay and Etsy or brand new if you know where to look! UK dwellers can find recommended suppliers on this site.

I have pretty tricky feet (wide with bunions and a high instep which makes most slip on boots a big no), so I was definitely tentative about splashing out on anything too expensive and decided I could have a go at making my own. As I have gained in confidence I now realise I can also modify some pre-made lasts and have a couple of pre-loved pairs on their way. The thing with lasts is that they are specific to heel height and toe shape, so chances are that one style will not be enough for you to play with anyway!

Here are my finished lasts minus their newspaper covering which came shortly after.

The first and fortunate starting point for me was the new winter boots I recently bought. They fit me well and they have a good width at the front. I did buy a size up to get the width though, but they are good enough. Yet another example of compromising with fit for ready to wear items. I wanted to replicate the shape and heel height (mid heel, not too high), but shorten the foot length a touch.

I suppose the main starting point was to create a pattern for the insole. I used the outsole to create this, tracing the foot and bridge of the foot. I held the paper firmly on the sole of the boot and pushed it right into the heel to trace. I then marked notches at the start of the heel and flattening out my template traced the heel onto the back of the main foot. Because I traced the outsole it was a few millimetres wider all around than the insole, so I just marked and cut it a couple of millimetres inside the line. I also folded out the amount of foot length I wanted to lose just after the heel.

I wasn't sure how substantial my last was going to end up being, but I wanted it to have a solid base, so I cut the insole pattern out of a thin wooden board I found knocking around the garage (you could probably use a really thick card). I split it into three sections to cut. The front foot, the arch and the heel. This allowed me more flexibility to get a nice shape for the heel height.

I taped all three sections of each foot together with duct tape so that they were together, but still flexible. I then taped the cardboard toe filler that came with my boots to the front of the insole. I have been thinking of ways that you may be able to achieve this toe shape without a pre-formed filler and maybe if you line the shoe you want to copy with cling film or something similar and push some modelling clay inside up to the start of the foot arch. If you use air drying clay you could wait for it to dry prior to removing for a solid toe to stick straight to your insole.

I have been truly rubbish at photographing this stage, but I created a paper pattern of one side of the boot I was copying (see boot here) from the centre back to the bottom of the laces. With the paper held taught over the boot I just rubbed a pencil around the shape of the top ankle, centre front and arch/heel shape. I made the centre back square with the base of the heel as I added shaping to this area later on in the process. I neatened out my template from this one side of the boot and traced it onto a cereal box, mirroring it so that it would wrap around the outer and inner foot. Apologies for the absence of photos for this bit! My cardboard boot was then positioned onto the insole lining up the centre backs and taped in place. It does wrap over the toe cap and from here various slashes and modifications to the foot shape were made to make it as close to something that would fit me as possible. I also shaped the back heel and ankle at this point, tapering it in slightly. If you have an idea of pattern cutting or model making then you can really draw on this knowledge to achieve a shape you are happy with. I stuffed the form with saw dust as full and compact as possible to create a solid structure. I was thinking along the lines of a tailors ham???

All sealed up I did a quick paper toile and found the foot arch to be too high. I removed some of the saw dust and slashed and modified a bit more until I was happy.

A final stuff to make it really firm and then I closed it up with a section of card taped over the hole.

It was finally covered with some newspaper and PVA to finish. Please excuse the appearance of the beginnings of a shoe upper. This didn't really become anything as I didn't really like it!

Now one thing I realised fairly late on was that there is no shaping from the back heel to the insole, which probably means that this area is too wide at the insole. It should taper in and blend nicely rather than have such a square junction. I might go back and tinker with this pair a bit more, because they seem to have worked out far better than I could have imagined and it would be worth improving them. I also want to seal them up a bit more and open up the top again to pour some plaster of Paris into the main foot for a more solid block.

There are restrictions I am aware of when using my home made lasts, like the style of shoe I am able to make. For instance I would probably not go for a design which would need too much force for removal at the end of the lasting process as I don't think it would be possible without destroying them. I think I can get a full coverage shoe made on them, but it will require some creative thinking to make it work. I really love the shape though so I'm keen to work around this. Maybe one day I might like to carve some out of soft wood to mirror this exact shape and make the refinements I am imagining, oh and also add a hinge. Never say never remember! As with many things, I am finding the self imposed limitations inspiring!

I have started making a pair of shoes from these lasts and I am really pleased with them so far. I have some very thick leather scraps to build a stacked heel which is very exciting and I have gone for a fabric (jacket scraps) upper because I was slightly concerned the fit would be off and didn't want to waste precious leather. I have sneakily removed them from the lasts for a try on and they fit well (I think), but I don't know if it's one of those things that you really cant tell until the whole shoe is finished. I am trying to use only natural materials (apart from steel shanks required to support the arch) and am having great luck in finding pre-loved or surplus materials. Another thing I want to try and achieve is a no glue shoe, but not sure if I am close to knowing how to do that yet!

I was hoping to give you a tutorial to make lasts in the same way I did, but in the end I think that all I can show you is roughly what I did as there is no hard and fast way of achieving 'a thing'. If you are interested in making a pair of lasts then I suggest cruising the internet for ideas and find one that makes sense to you or combine several methods that may work for you! One idea I did particularly like (but don't have shoes I want to ruin) is to take a plaster cast of a pair of well fitting shoes and cut the shoes away to reveal the casts. I guess you would have to then cover the plaster forms with tape or papier mache to stop the plaster from flaking away.

Interestingly I was just browsing for alternative tutorials on making shoe lasts. One of the most common ways I have come across (and a method I was considering) is to take a cast of your actual feet, but this forum here has a fairly indepth discussion of why this might not be the best method. The same rules of wearing ease (negative and positive) apply to the feet, so is something to consider. It actually makes a lot of sense and when I was thinking about bra making and using some form of stand for draping it struck me that a direct mould of my body would be useless because the form for draping on needs the breasts to be in their supported state (if you know what I mean).

It's blooming marvellous what you can do when you start to break an item down into its individual components and I am certainly in the frame of mind where anything is possible at the moment!

Hopefully I'll be back soon-ish with a complete pair of shoes to share with you, but bye for now!