Save by crafting your own shoes

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Take simple steps toward making your own shoes

If you’re in the habit of buying cheap shoes and disposing of them when they’re no longer attractive or serviceable, you’re probably well aware of how much money you waste every year.  But when shoe styles change so frequently, and a pair of good shoes can cost hundreds of pounds, you may have thought discount sellers like Shoe Zone or Wynsors were your only feasible choices.

Fortunately, the resurgent handicrafts movement is reviving the technique of shoemaking, as people learn to fashion their own footwear and share their secrets on the web.  You’ll follow the same steps as a professional shoemaker would, beginning with a set of patterns for cutting out each component of the shoe.  You’ll need a molded three-dimensional foot shape called a last (like a tailor’s dummy for the foot) around which to construct the shoe.

Flatten your edges to make neat seams, stitch the pieces of the upper together, assemble the layers of the sole, and join the upper to the sole.  The process really is that clear-cut, and while there’s no doubt it takes practise to produce a sturdy and neatly stitched product, the basics take surprisingly little time to master.

Collect your supplies

Shoe-making supplies include materials (used to make the upper and sole), trim (add-ons like bows and laces), and thread.  You may need glue.  Tools you’ll need include an awl (for punching holes in leather so you can stitch through it), hammer (to force the awl through the material or to nail on a heel), and sewing needles.  You’ll make a last for each foot using a shoebox and simple casting compounds. To purchase all the resources needed to complete this project you might it useful to visit who could help with funding your project, preventing you eating into your monthly budget or savings.

You can find a diagrammed guide to all possible parts of a shoe here.  Remember, not every shoe style has the same assortment of parts (for example, a slingback shoe lacks a heel quarter).  It’s possible to order what you need from suppliers like Algeos or Jayelco if you can’t find what you’re looking for at your local cobbler’s shop.

Material for the uppers.  In making your own shoes, you’ll begin with a sturdy cloth like canvas or felt and move on to skins and leathers.  The composites of which many cheap shoes are made are unlikely to appeal when you have a free hand in choosing how to create a shoe.

Sole materials.  The current favorite is polyurethane, because it wears well and it cushions the foot somewhat.  Leather is used for dressy shoes, but it’s not especially comfortable because it’s rigid, slippery, and transmits impact rather than absorbing it.  There are also rubber-like materials and sole composites specially formulated to promote a soft and springy walking experience, or you can use a cork sole and heel with a durable synthetic outsole.

Stitching material.  Remember your stitching must be very sturdy indeed, so choose a heavy-duty thread, cord, or bristle.  Waxed thread is the easiest means of attaching an upper to a sole.

Mould and cast your last

The last-making process may be the most enjoyable phase of shoemaking, as you’ll be forming a mould by inserting each foot into a jelly-like substance that hardens within a wooden box.  The substance is a hydrocolloid called alginate, and once you extract your foot from its alginate coating (gently, please) you can pour silicone rubber into the alginate mould to produce a foot shape, after twenty-four hours of curing.

You’ll need one last for each foot, as your feet are not the same shape–sometimes they’re not even the same size, and one overwhelming benefit of making your own shoes is that each foot will have a properly fitting shoe.

Cut out your shoe

You’ll have a pattern, whether it’s one you bought or one you drew.  Wrap your last in a layer of masking tape and transfer the pattern, in ink, onto the tape.  Then cut the pattern into sections, leaving at least an inch of extra material on all sides for seams, and flatten your sections.

Next, trace the flat sections onto your shoe materials, cut out the shapes, and you’ll have your shoe pieces.

Start sewing

If you’re using a lining material as well as materials for the upper and soles, stitch your lining to its outward-facing counterpart for each section.  You can overlap one piece onto another so your stitches will be visible, or you can sew your seams together using your seam allowance and then turn your shoe inside out.  You can find a number of practical tips on sewing shoes successfully here, and if you have a sewing machine so much the better.

Shoe sole

At the very least, you’ll want an insole (padded for comfort) and an outsole (strong, flexible, water-repellent).  When you craft more elaborate shoes, you’ll sometimes add a rounded midsole to support your arches.  Trace your last on materials for each layer of the sole, then cut, again leaving a little extra around the edges.

Soak your insole in water overnight and bind it to the last, shaping the insole carefully with a utility knife so that it fits your foot.  Cut out a third sole form, remove its interior so you’re left with a foot-shaped outline, glue it to the insole, and stitch your upper to the insole through the ring.  Trim away excess material from your upper.

Take the interior of the sole form and glue it back into place, within the ring, on the bottom of the sole.  If you want a heel, add it using a piece of sole material, and finish the remainder of the sole with a thinner layer of material to cover your work with the ring.  That’s it!  Repeat for a second shoe, and congratulate yourself.

Sarah Pinkerton

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