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what makes a good shoe and why they cost so much

post #1 of 232
Thread Starter 
I am a bespoke boot and shoemaker. Not famous, not top name by any stretch of the imagination...nor top dollar...but using techniques and materials that only the very best makers use. I see a lot of posts that make me think that many people really don't understand what goes into making a top quality shoe and why they cost like they do. So I would like to offer some opinions from the perspective of a maker.

Not everyone...not even every bespoke maker will agree with me 100%...but many years in the Trade convinces me that such disagreements among shoemakers, in particular, are more in the nature of preferences than any real quibble about techniques or materials.

So...First...the lasts: Lasts are important because theoretically they simultaneously embody both the foot and the shoe. In a very real sense lasts are functional sculpture. They very seldom, except for styling anomalies, have sharp angles. Most of the lines seen on a "good" last are what is known as "fair curves." This is a term drawn from engineering and the aerospace industry but the concept itself is ancient. Simply stated a "fair curve" is one that has no abrupt change of direction, no angles, no corners, no drag co-efficient. Much of this dedication to fair curves is aesthetic and is addressed to the lines and shape of the shoe. But some of it is critical to the structure of the foot and to the topography of the interior of the shoe...and that, in turn, relates to foot comfort.

But the fascination, seen here on SF, with different models of lasts is relevant only to RTW shoes. While each model of last incorporates certain stylistic points that are sometimes unique to that last...sometimes not...such considerations are more or less irrelevant to really top quality bespoke shoes.

Additionally some models of lasts fit different feet better than others--there are lots of ways to distribute substance and thus alter topography, for better or worse. These fit characteristics may also be unalterably linked to a certain models of last but again they are of little significance to a bespoke maker. Why?All of these considerations--the fit, the styling, as well as heel height and toe shape can, if starting with a given model, be adjusted or completely transformed in the bespoke process. And many of the best bespoke makers will carve a pair of lasts for each customer and each foot of that customer.

The backbone of the shoe is the insole. On high end shoes it may be "bark tanned" leather. But just as with any other aspect of shoemaking there are varying degrees of quality. Some of the very best insoling leather in the world comes from J & F.J Baker Co. Ltd, Colyton, Devon, England. These begin with hides that are tanned in pits of tanning liquor that is extracted from oak bark. Hides may be left in the pits for up to a year. Baker is one of only two tanneries world wide that still uses this ancient pit tanning method and it results in superior leather.

Not every top dollar, famous-name brand uses Baker or anything even remotely comparable for their insoles. But not only the ultimate comfort but the longevity of the shoe is highly dependent on what is used for an insole. Some makers...even makers of some renown...use composite or even "paper" insoles. And it is hard to tell in some cases because "composite' insoles can be wholly leather--comprised of scraps and sweepings ground up and made into a kind of "particle board" that might technically be called "shoddy" ("shoddy" is an American Civil War term that referred to woolen fabric made by the same process--ground up and re-felted scraps).

On a good shoe, the upper will be sewn directly to the insole by hand in a process known as "inseaming." This will be done by hand because, although there are machines that do this, only the skilled worker can vary the the length and angle of a stitch to accommodate the shape of the last or to prepare for subsequent and more difficult techniques such as the beveled and fiddleback waist.

Making an inseaming thread is almost an art in and of itself. inseaming threads are generally and historically comprised of multiple strands of linen or hemp yarn, twisted and waxed with a special wax that is both sticky and antibacterial. It is made primarily from pine pitch, pine rosin and some form of softener such as beeswax or oil. The thread is then tipped with a bristle of some sort--originally boar's bristles, but nylon bristles are becoming more common. When the thread is pulled through a hole that is made in the insole, the upper, and the welt, the wax melts and then resets...effectively sealing the hole and locking the thread in the leather.

Some manufacturers...the names might surprise...have taken to gluing a rib of canvas to the under-surface of the insole. This is called "gemming." The upper and the welt are sewn to the canvas rib rather than directly to the insole. The inseam is then only as strong and stable as the glue and the canvas....not very, in other words.

I think I need to break this up into several parts but I think it is important to emphasize one point (and probably over and over again)--each technique, each kind or quality of material, that a good bespoke maker chooses, has evolved over literally hundreds of years to perform at optimum with all the other techniques and materials that are brought together in a shoe. A maker can spend top dollar for Baker insole...and the customer pays for this premium material as much or moreso than the maker...only to have the life and comfort of the shoe undermined by the way in which the inseam is constructed. And so it goes. The customer pays for a premium upper material such as cordovan, perhaps even alligator, only to lose the whole shoe a couple of years down the line because the manufacturer decided to cut costs and use an inferior insole material.

Ultimately you get what you pay for. But as a maker, it is a deep disappointment to me to see the materials...and even the concept of "high end" disrespected.
post #2 of 232
Thread Starter 
Part II.

Upper leathers, and the way they are put together, are just as problematic as any other facet of the shoe. These leathers may be vegetable tanned or mineral tanned...usually the latter is based on chromium salts which can be toxic to some people. But each of these tannages have unique characteristics.

Chrome tan leathers tend to stretch more than vegetable tanned leathers and they accept brighter and more durable top finishes than have been historically applied to vegetable tannages. Both of these attributes are ideal for manufacturing purposes as they cater to both somewhat less than perfect fit and somewhat less than perfect maintenance.

Vegetable tanned leathers have been historically used in every part of the shoe since time immemorial. Although veg tanned leathers are not common in mass produced footwear, they are almost a hallmark of high end footwear. Veg tans form and take a shape much more easily than chrome tans and they do not stretch as much. Both are characteristics that are not just appropriate for high end shoes but shoes in general.

Additionally chrome tanned leathers are often grain corrected even if such amendments are not immediately apparent. Almost all chrome tanned leathers have a top finish which is effectively a "paint job." A lot of sins can be hidden by paint. Veg tanned leathers on the other hand are most often left unfinished with the excebption of burnishing. The patina that develops on a aniline dyed veg tanned calf is the definition of depth. Given the current fascination with antiquing and other after thought finishes that seek to emulate patina and depth before the shoes are ever even worn, it should come as no surprise that most of these shoes are made with veg tanned uppers.

Veg tans are also more often "struck through" meaning that the dye penetrates through the core of the leather. Veg tans are most often used for lining especially on high end shoes (although not always) not only because of the way in which they perform mechanically (less stretch) inside the shoe but because they are generally a little better at wicking moisture away from the foot.

There is probably no consensus or standard that dictates which brand names or which models will utilize one tannage or the other. Even among bespoke makers there is very little rigidity in this regard although a case might be reasonably be made that one tannage or the other is superior for a certain application. There simply is not enough choice to be anything other than flexible.

How a shoe is put together once these leathers have been chosen, however can determine objective quality. On very high end shoes, the lining will be made almost as a separate shell, so to speak. One advantage of this is to facilitate adding "structure" to the shoe. Not only will the shoe have a heel stiffener that extends further towards the toe but an additional layer of leather (the mid-liner) will merge with and extend the heel stiffener so that there is a bridge of sorts from the heel to the toe stiffener. This all takes extra time and effort and very few manufacturers ...even the higher end ones...will go to the effort.

Even the choice of needle for assembly can make a difference with some needle types leaving the thread proud on the surface of the leather and thus subject to premature wearing and failure.
post #3 of 232
Thread Starter 
Before this gets too boring or ponderous (my thanks to the reader for their forbearance) I want to address outsoles.

Again the bottom line is quality of the leather. And again, if it is leather, we are talking about vegetable tannages. Many so called vegetable tanned leathers are actual tanned with synthetic chemicals that accelerate the process so greatly that several batches of salted hides can be tanned and be ready for shipping within weeks. Like everything else such expediency may result in at least an adequate product, but surely not a superlative one. Some of the best outsoling again comes from
J & F.J Baker Co. Ltd, but very good valona tanned (acorn caps) outsoling is also available from Rendenbach (the other company doing pit tanning) and there is some very nice chestnut tannages out there as well. Leather outsoles have many advantages that other materials cannot match or simulate. They wick moisture from the foot. They conform to the foot. They conform to the shoe without stressing the shoe. Perhaps the greatest disadvantage is the perceived lack of traction in ice and snow. I say perceived because all things being equal (including hyperbole) leather outsoles have been used for footwear of all sorts and in all conditions...they even climbed Mt. Everest. And they are just as, or maybe even moreso, environmentally friendly than any other material known to man. For some people that is, and perhaps should be, a critical issue.

But leather outsoles are much harder to produce (one year in the pit?) and much, much harder for the maker to really excel with. Every time I see a supposedly high end shoe with exposed outsole stitching I want to turn away. Outsoles can be stitched by machine or they can be stitched by hand. Doing it by hand not only requires some extraordinary skills to do really distinctive and refined work (and I'm not talking about Gosier stiching) but a comparatively larger investment in time, on all levels. One of the giants of shoemaking (and in some sense one of the "elder shoe gods"),
John F. Rees, wrote in 'Art and Mystery of a Cordwainer' [1813] that when it came to outsole stitching 12 stitches to the inch was considered "middling work." Today 8spi on much hand work is considered good enough (sometimes work as gross as 4spi is even extolled) and machine work at 8spi is felt to be sufficient..and moreimportantly, pushing the limits of the machine. Yet, the shoemakers of Rees' time and the work they were doing set a standard that still holds today among shoemakers that respect skill and refinement and technique, and 10-12 spi is ...or ought to be...the standard. Additionally, when the outsole is stitched the threads will be hidden in a channel that is hand cut into the surface or side of the outsole. This is not only for aesthetic reasons but to protect the stitches from wear.

Exposed outsole stitching is known in the Trade as "stitching aloft." It leaves the stitches vulnerable and they will be damaged upon the first wearing. Stitching aloft, in this context, is nearly the hallmark of a mass manufactured shoe and without exception one that is more about expediency than quality. This may come as a shock to some people, but folks let me assure you that even if the manufacturer cannot see his way to pay a skilled workman to hand stitch the outsole, any modern (or even vintage) outsole stitching machine can easily be set up to cut a vertical channel into which the stitches can be dropped and embedded so deeply that the channel may be re-closed to near invisibility. In my humble opinion, there is no excuse for an exposed outseam on leather soles. No shoe that is stitched aloft qualifies as high end regardless of price.

In passing I want to reiterate something I touched upon in the first part of this essay...all of of the techniques that characterize high end shoes, and particularly high end bespoke shoes, evolved and remained in the shoemaker's repertoire for the simple reason that they provide a certain "continuity" of stability and durability throughout the shoe. The sum of which is greater than its parts but no part of which is a significant weak link. High quality shoes are priced high because they draw on materials, skills and perceptions that are not commonplace in the world...and less so today than in the past. High quality shoes are priced high because they represent an uncommon value. If you pay $2400.00 for a bespoke shoe and it gives you twenty years of comfort and support, and protection from an unfriendly environment; helps you to avoid bunions, fallen metatarsal arches, plantars warts, etc.; eases, or at least doesn't contribute to, stresses that develop when you are tired; why then you've spent $120.00 a year for shoes and saved countless dollars in medical bills. Compare that to any other product in today's market.
post #4 of 232
any pics of your work and do you make trips?
post #5 of 232
Excellent read... Thanks a bunch. I suggest people take the time to read through this material.
post #6 of 232
I'm sold.

Although I will say at age 47, having worn RTW shoes all my life, I am not yet crippled.

- B
post #7 of 232
Originally Posted by voxsartoria View Post
I'm sold.

Although I will say at age 47, having worn RTW shoes all my life, I am not yet crippled.

- B

You meant physcially, of course. I know we agreed not to speak publically of the other "little issue".
post #8 of 232
Thank you for this invaluable post. I look forward learning from each of your cogent messages.
post #9 of 232
Thread Starter 
Originally Posted by dragon8 View Post
any pics of your work and do you make trips?
here and here and here as for trips...I'm too old for all that gallivanting around.
post #10 of 232
Very nice work.
post #11 of 232
Originally Posted by Cary Grant View Post
You meant physcially, of course. I know we agreed not to speak publically of the other "little issue".

I prefer to think of it as the other "large issue."

DWF...can you comment a bit on how bootmaking is the last remaining area of American shoemaking that, with only a few exceptions perhaps, aims at the best traditional standards?

And why have you become attracted to making town shoes?

- B
post #12 of 232
This is fantastic read, that's why I got stuck on styleforum so often .
post #13 of 232
Excellent-very informative. It is nice to have someone from the "industry," aka, a professional, detail the subject of bespoke shoe construction.
post #14 of 232
What a good read. Thanks for posting this.
post #15 of 232
Good stuff DWF, great 'stache too!
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