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" shoes...so disrespected.
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11/8/09 at 6:54pm