Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Shoe Mania, Part 1: Desire, Design, and De Soles

I've long been longing to make my own shoes, particularly sandals. It seems like it should be pretty straightforward: find something to use as a sole, and strap it to your feet somehow. Simple, right?

Right. As my older daughter is fond of reminding me, I never like to do things the easy way. And I never start with the easiest version. Nah, that would be too easy!

Now that I've gotten into leather working, it seems to me that the next thing after belts should be shoes. After all, since I'm not a gunslinger, how many tooled holsters do I need?


I'm not a total shoe addict like Imelda Marcos or some of the celebrities and fans of shows like "Sex and the City", but I've owned a few pairs of shoes over the years. The highest count I remember getting to was 83 pairs before I started getting rid of them in earnest (though I haven't counted lately--the count may have crept up again).

I don't tend to go for the really expensive shoes like they show on TV. Fortunately I have pretty "normal" size 7-ish medium-width feet, so I don't have a hard time finding shoes that fit. My most expensive shoes ever are some Dansko clogs ($125) that I wear all the time in the northern California winter, and my current favorite shoes are some faux-fur-lined "tie-dyed" plastic clogs I got for seven bucks on close-out at Walmart.


One big lure for me on making my own shoes is style. I can make them the way I want them, and it doesn't have to follow any particular fashion or fad of the moment. Getting my own style turns out to be harder than just the design and the desire, but that's the general idea.

I've always really liked shoes with strongly upturned toes, or what I think of as "elf" or "Turkish" style toes, just because I think they're cute and different. Of course, those are pretty hard to find at Walmart or any of the usual shoe emporia in my area. However, I did once find some sandals in Singapore with upturned toes, and I love them.

The interesting thing about these sandals is that the upturned toe actually helps me walk. As I move forward, my toes push down on the upturned sole, which then pushes the heel section up like a see-saw, so the heel section actually follows my own heel as it moves upward. So walking in these sandals is more natural-feeling and easy than the scuffing I find I have to do with other mule-type sandals.

I also like the adjustability and security of straps with buckles. Here is my rough sketch of my starting sandal design (which changed a bit before I finished the sandals, of course):

Getting Off Track Right from the Start

Since this was my first pair of sandals, I did a lot of experimentation along the way. I was following Tandy's "Sandal Making" eBook, but while very useful, it was fairly brief and couldn't answer questions I ran into. Also, of course I was doing my own sandal style, rather than one from the book, so I couldn't just follow a recipe. And to make things stray further from the book, I was using different types of leather, dyes, and finishing products. I also wanted to put padding in the sole, since I already know my heels get sore quickly without a lot of padding (I'm used to running shoes and similar cushioned shoes). Oh, and did I mention the upturned toes?

Making the Pattern

I started by making a pattern of my feet. I put ground-up chalk on my feet to get footprints as well as having my daughter draw around my feet (pencil vertical, please) on cardboard. I cut this pattern out, adding an extra quarter inch on each edge as the "seam allowance".

I then traced around that on another piece of cardboard, and added the extra allowance for the pointed toe to the second version. This way I can keep the original pattern for later and make modifications as needed on the pointed version.

Cutting Out the Pieces

Cutting out the pieces for the soles and the heels proved more difficult than I had expected. For the bottom (outer) sole and the heel layers, I was using saddle skirting leather, which is quite heavy and stiff (but not as stiff as an "armor and shield leather bend", which I knew I wouldn't be able to cut without a band saw). I was also cutting from a very large piece, an "extra large side" (that would be "half a cow" in normal English).

This stuff is 13 to 15 oz. in weight. From Tandy's list of leather-related terms: "Leather is usually measured in terms of ounces. One ounce equals 1/64th of an inch thickness."So a weight of 13 to 15 oz. means the leather is 13/64th to 15/64th of an inch thickness. Not quite a quarter of an inch thick. It felt like I was trying to cut out pieces of my favorite clipboard with a utility knife! I found out later that it's a lot easier to cut the leather if it's wet, but that has its own issues, such as waiting for it to dry.

I cut two pieces for each heel so I could stack them.

I used three different thicknesses of leather for my sandals: 13-15 oz. for the soles and heels, 6-7 oz. for the inner sole, and 4-5 oz. for the straps. I tried using the tin snips pictured here, but they didn't work all that well--probably not sharp enough. I found a utility knife worked the best for me. I used a strap cutter for the straps.

Here are my cut pieces:

Gluing on the Heels

I used contact cement to glue the heel pieces together and then onto the bottom soles.

Turning the Toes

Leather can be formed pretty easily by soaking it in water and letting it dry in the desired shape. In the following picture I had just poured out the soaking water from the bin. The leather was pretty floppy at that point.

Since it couldn't hold a shape on its own, I let the leather dry most of the way. Then I pressed it against my feet and shaped it the way I wanted, using rubber bands to hold the pieces together. The heels had come off when I tried to shape the soles, since the water had not completely soaked into the glued layers, so they were stiffer than the main sole.

You might notice that the heel pieces are now smaller and a different shape than they were when I cut them out. The "Sandal Making" book had suggested this slanted design, and when I had tried standing on the heels and soles for shaping, I found that the original heels were too big to be comfortable, so I cut off chunks of the heels.

The rectangle shape in the sole on the right in the following picture is from a piece of the excess heel that I had put there to create arch support while the soles were drying. It made quite an impression, as did the rubber bands holding the heels in their new place and shape. Fortunately those don't affect the final appearance of the sandals.

It took a couple of days to dry the soles completely, after which they were quite hard. I did the same soaking and shaping for the upper soles, though the result was much more flexible.

This forming process is quite fun, though it takes a long time and for most sandals it's really not necessary (those pointy toes require it here).

I'm now ready to build the upper parts of the sandals, which I'll cover in my next article.

Dog Mania

Yup, I got out my white sheet for a photo shoot again, and there was Lacey, offering her services as a model.

"Really, these would look good on me."

"Well, I'm not sure those pointy shoes are quite my style..."

1 comment:

Retro Jordan said...

Thanks for posting, I really enjoyed your most recent post. I think you should post more often, you obviously have natural ability for blogging!