24 October, 2009

Making Shoes

I just completed the last week of my shoe design course. During these final five days we were going to attempt the realization of a shoe design we'd worked on before leaving for Italy. For beginners like myself, five days to see a design all the way through from sketch to actual shoe is a pretty bold undertaking- especially considering the sort of designs a couple of us had in mind. I had three designs sketched out, and they were all very science fiction-y, but I settled on the one that was most complex in terms of pattern drafting. My teacher encouraged me to challenge myself.

Since I plan on actually making the other designs at a later date, I will only share those with you later. For now, here is the design I started with when I began to make the shoes:

Several changes would be made due to practicality and time, but the essence of the sketch stayed the same throughout the process of making. And now I'd like to take you through a very quick run through of my last five days, from that sketch to the actual (nearly) finished shoes.

So first we had to make a pattern. Using a last (the wood or plastic foot form), we began by taping them up and drawing on the form. We then carefully cut the patterns off and flattened them before tracing them off, adding and refining and finally creating something that would fit the foot perfectly. (I left a large block of fabric where the heel would be because at the time we weren't sure the shape of the heel I would be using.)

After much crankiness and confusion over my colors and materials I settled on a deep navy patent leather and found a beautiful warm mustard vegetable tanned leather for details. The project began as a (warning: pretentiousness ahead) "meditation on duality", so the mix of shiny and craftsmen-style leather suited my concept perfectly.

So now it was time to start making the shoes. First up, the veg tan leather toe caps. Veg tan leather is very stiff and difficult to work with. The trick to making the toe caps was to soak the leather in luke warm water and shape the toes around the lasts to let them dry.

While they were drying I began sewing all my pieces together. Adding stiffeners, shaping tape, and all the bits and bobs required to make the shoe upper and lining. I chose the bright blue suede lining because I thought it would brighten the shoe and make it look luscious and luminescent. Once the little toe caps were dried (aren't they cute?) I saw the colors and the pieces beginning to take shape and only had to put the whole thing together.

First I lasted the blue suede lining, as you can see below. Then I did a similar lasting technique to the upper (the outside layer), before gluing it all together. Next I had to shave all the edges of leather down to create a flat surface to walk on. As you can see I then filled in the bottom with a cork/acetone mixture that helps to even out the bottom surface of the shoe.

After everything was sewn up, nailed down, glued together, and attached, I began to worry because I hadn't found a heel. My original design called for a wedge, so I began to carve one out of very dense cork. In the end I realized what I really wanted was a heel and later scrapped the cork, but not before I'd put a fair amount of blood and sweat into hand shaving layers of this very very hard cork.

So the shoes were nearly finished, short of finding or carving a new heel for them. Because of the lack of heel, the big block of leather was still hanging off the back of the shoe when I presented my design to the panel of teachers on the last day. They didn't seem to mind. All in all, I have to say I'm pretty damn pleased with myself. This is only the second pair of shoes I've ever made, and I didn't even get to design the first pair.

Unlike fashion, I found to my surprise that I actually enjoyed the process of making the shoes. I loved the craft and the detail and working with the variety of materials. I loved working with tools and making a mess. Shoes are amazing. I want to do more. And more. And more and more.

I learned so much about shoes during this project. I've come to see that although I can use some of the skills I picked up in my fashion training, shoes are a different monster. For example, when pattern cutting and planning clothing, you can anticipate and use gravity to your advantage. But in footwear, you don't have points of the body to hang fabric off of, such as shoulders or hips. You have to work against gravity because the bulk of the shoe is at the bottom. So a shoe designer/pattern cutter has to think upwards instead of downwards.

I also began to appreciate how difficult it is to line things up perfectly. I realize there is a margin for error in shoes- I mean, when's the last time you stared at the stitching on your mass-produced shoes to see if it was perfectly aligned- but I have noticed that my toe caps are about 2mm different and it annoys me! On top of all of that, I have a new appreciation for working with difficult things like patent leather. That wasn't an easy choice for a beginner.

I have been getting a fantastic response about these shoes ever since I began showing them around. Even my teachers complimented my design, and I have the utmost respect for my teachers and their work. That was high praise.

My plan is to focus on making the rest of the mini-collection I designed during this class with the help of my FABULOUS teachers and mentors, and we'll see where things go from there...

What do you know- I have finally found something I love doing.


The Writer said...

That is sooo terrific. Looking at the prices of shoes I always wondered why...you seem to be clearing that up for me. I really appreciate you taking the time to educate us on how shoes are made. Great stuff.

Anonymous said...

Something is afoot with this shoe-making business. A passion being discovered??

richm0nd said...
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Anonymous said...

Very good work! Really... There are a lot of good design schools in Italy and expecially in Florence: I appreciated also laba.biz for design courses but also for painting ones. W Italy and W Florence ! :)