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shoe construction...behind the veil

post #1 of 137
Thread Starter 
The introduction... This thread is about shoe construction techniques. I've been asked to do this. As far as I'm concerned it can cover or broach any technique. But, per request, I'll start it by talking about gemming. My perspective is that of a boot and shoemaker. I have nearly forty years in the Trade, full time...my sole source of income...and not just as a hobby or as a groupie-cum-afficianado. My priorities are different from that of a consumer. My sensibilities esp. regarding the care and deliberation that goes into making shoes are different from the consumer or the manufacturer. It would not be too strong a word to say that I love shoemaking. I love the materials I work with. I love the process of creating, of designing, of ultimately making something that is not only beautiful but satisfyingly functional. I love the techniques. I love the logic--the intentional evolution of materials and method that underlies every choice. Combine that with a strong sense of history and Tradition and I suspect it is a unique perspective to which few people have access. Fundamentally, my thesis is that shoes made with traditional materials and techniques embody a far different logic, a far different rationale...and a far different set of values...than shoes made for a mass market. And, objectively, demonstrably, different results. My motives are not to disparage any particular manufacturer, or maker, or brand, or model of shoe. If I have an ulterior motive it is simply to remind readers that underneath the "shine" of fame, hyperbole and marketing, things are often very different from what we are led to believe or think we know. My intent is to offer some insights into what a shoemaker thinks and values and how he arrives at a set of conclusions that may differ from the consumer. Beyond that, I want to see people respecting and honouring the effort and forethought that has characterized shoemaking and those who have, for centuries, chosen to pursue it. I want to see the consumer getting something that has a real value and not just a perceived glamour associated with a "famous" name. I'd like to think that I can bring a little clarity and rationality and even understanding to the manner in which we think about not just shoes but all kinds of products.
post #2 of 137
Thread Starter 
The materials: Leather At its most essential a shoe is fundamentally a leather product. It evolved from the recognition that the hides of animals made a protective covering for the foot that was unequaled by any other natural material in the world. Over the millennia, efforts have been made to substitute other material...wood, fabric, plastic, etc.. None have really caught on. Even people who dismiss the criticisms of such materials look to leather as the premier material for making shoes. Even plastic shoes emulate leather. No other material known to man, brings to the table the unique blend of characteristics that leather has--the durability, the "breathability," the "conformability," the longevity, the resilience, and, from the shoemaker's point of view, the malleability--workability. And it has an integrity, functional and otherwise, that no other product has...not even composites made of leather. Fiberboard or leatherboard is not in any way equivalent to the leather it replaces. It is not as strong as leather. It is not as conformable as leather. It does not share any of the attributes of leather except in the most nominal ways. Just as particleboard is a composite of wood, it is, nevertheless, not wood. It doesn't really even share all that much of wood's character. Most people understand this...understand the distinction...and would not choose to use particle board in any construction where the character of wood--aesthetic or structural--was wanted. Most people would be dismayed to buy a top dollar piece of furniture and discover that significant portions or structural elements were made of particleboard. DuroSteel epoxy is not steel although it has steel particles in it. And few would trust it in critical situations to replicate the strength of steel. Yet many who see those distinctions right away will not only accept the leather equivalent--leatherboard--but actually associate leather board with a desirable level of quality.To make matters worse leatherboard itself is now almost so expensive (?) exotic (?) scarce (?) that something more akin to actual cardboard is being substituted. I suspect the scarcity is because once you understand and embrace the deficiencies of leatherboard, the less expensive fiberboard is not a significant step down. But so far I have only talked about insoles and toe stiffeners, heel stiffeners, and heels lifts--the components most often...and increasingly...made of synthetics or composites. When it comes to uppers, even the most ignorant consumers seem obsessed by distinctions that are less about strength and resilience than appearance. This is especially surprising since there is less significant difference between the best calf and corrected grain cow than there is between a decent piece of insole shoulder and leatherboard. In the end, one is forced to conclude that, in all of this, the issue is really more about appearance--the superficial--than about substance. Thread The use of thread as a binding agent goes all the way back to the sinew that held those original skin bags into some sort of shape that would not fall off the foot. During the long history of shoes, thread became such a focal point...it evolved so deliberately...that even the number of strands composing a length of inseaming thread became important. It was considered an important factor in how the thread would lie on the surface as well as how strong it ultimately would be. A thread that was composed of an odd number of strands was thought to be "rounder" than an even number of strands and lie more proud to the surface. The yarns that comprised thread were studied and carefully selected...some being heavier or made of different fibers. The wax that adhered all the strands together was so specialized that certain kinds of pitch (a refined sap from trees) and pitches from certain countries were prized above all others. And the techniques that developed for preparing the thread..including "bristling"...are almost unique in all the world of Traditional crafts. I know of no other Trade that developed and preserved the use of board's bristle, in lieu of a needle, for sewing. None of this happened willy-nilly. Of all the possible choices of materials, of all the "new," "modern," experimental, materials that appeared and were tried, most, by any calculation, failed to meet the test of strength and resilience, longevity and compatibility with surrounding materials. Traditionally made shoes do not appear on the timeline of human history by happen-chance. None of the substitutes--leatherboard, cardboard, celastic, plastic, vinyl, canvas, wood--bring anything to the table...embody any attribute or virtue...that isn't already better served by leather and thread. Except expediency. Cheaper materials (in every sense of the word--lower quality, less expensive, easier to implement, easier quality control (albeit to a significantly diminished standard), easier access--less human resources involved, with all the attendant fallibility. The only problems that such materials solve, the only advantages conferred, are the issues of how to increase the profit margin. Not one...not one friggin material or technique...brings greater strength or greater durability. Or even elevated aesthetics.
post #3 of 137
Subscribing! Awesome!
post #4 of 137
Thread Starter 
Techniques The current president of John Lobb has famously said "We have turned our backs on the machine." You can dislike the styling of John Lobb shoes but anyone who is really and truly concerned with quality--the quality of life, the quality of shoes--has to admire that sentiment. Especially in the case of behaviors, and artifacts, and skill sets that human beings have been evolving for literally thousands of years...that on some level are almost genetically part of what makes us human...machines bring little of real worth to the table. If they can handle some processes better and more accurately than human hands they also make those hands meaningless. They homogenize standards of quality, learned and perfected skills, ways of thinking and perceiving, achievement and ultimately, even lives. And the result is almost always a dumbing down of the very things that make us unique. Machines, and our fascination...obsession, really...with them and all they can do, are a perfect metaphor for an Age of Relativism. In a world of machines...there is no "good, better, best." Only endless copies and the hoopla of promotion. It is no coincidence that the manufacturing technique that I have the most problem with--gemming--is hidden from the consumer's eyes. Or that it seeks to covertly substitute materials that share few of those attributes of quality for Traditional materials and techniques that are perceived as too expensive, too time consuming and too hard to deconstruct to effect an optimal profit margin. And, most disingenuously...to my mind...it is a technique which seeks to represent itself as the legitimate offspring of those older, more deliberate and more "human" sensibilities. Which it definitely is not. At the same time, it is no coincidence that those makers with the very best reputations for attention to detail, care and forethought--quality, IOW--nearly always (in every instance that I am aware of) insist on hand welting for their premier lines. To me gemming represents everything that is reprehensible about manufacturing, marketing, and the surrounding hype and price that defines "Style." When a shoe is handwelted we have a leather to leather bond. Ideally all those leathers will have not only a tight and compact connection, one with the other, but the materials themselves will share common attributes such as temper and flexibility and so forth. The end result is stable, flexible, reasonably impervious to wear and the elements...and, like Occams Razor, simple! It is the same philosophy that makes a welded bond of iron to iron preferable to a riveted joint. The same principle that makes using epoxy (even the most technically advanced epoxies) to connect structurally critical beams in a tunnel so irresponsible. When a shoe is gemmed, we have a leather to canvas to glue to (often) fiberboard bond. Fundamentally any connection is only as strong as its weakest component. At the most basic level a gemmed shoe is held together by glue. Is it going to explode? No. I never said it would. If worn in a light rotation in carefully controlled environments, a gemmed shoe may last a lifetime. The same could be said of a shoe comprised entirely of paper, however. Is it a reasonable approach to mass marketing (if not mass hysteria)? Yes, it probably is. But the only reason to implement a Goodyear welted shoe...as opposed to a hand-welted shoe...is to cut the cost of manufacturing and increase the profit margin. ["Margin" in all I have said refers to the disparity between all manufacturing costs--human and material--and the walk away booty.] But none of that puts it in the same league as an all leather shoe that is constructed along the same lines as a hand-welted shoe. I mention this because there are machines...for those so enamored...that will do a credible facsimile of a hand-welted inseam. Given that, there is, in fact, no good, functional, technical reason to choose the Goodyear method. It does not make a better shoe. Make no mistake, even the most altruistic manufacturer does not choose a construction method solely because it will allow the masses to better afford a pair of shoes. They choose it because it maximizes some part of the profit stream and sometimes affords access to a market niche that they would otherwise miss. As mentioned in another thread, I spent a lot of my early years doing shoe repair when I was not making boots. I saw a lot of problems with Goodyear construction but I never anticipated having to document those issues. As a consequence I didn't take photographs. At the same time, I don't do much repair these days--one pair of boots or shoes in a six month period is a lot. So imagine my delight... About two months ago, I took in two pair of ostrich boots from the same customer...different manufacturers. They had been purchased roughly at the same time...I would guess within months of each other. They received roughly the same amount of wear...and may have even been in an alternating rotation, as who should say. That said, they were used...regularly. They may have been "ridden hard and put up wet" on more than one occasion. They did not live in a closet. The customer requested new outsoles. Both had holes in the outsole and dust underneath...inside and up against the bottom of the insole. Upon taking the old soles off, I noticed and photographed the following: In these two photos you see that the boot has been gemmed. I have circled areas where the glue holding the gemming to the insole (cardboard) has given out. And another area where the gemming has simply deteriorated ...rotted. This boot would need to be "re-crafted" to be returned to its original size and shape accurately. Replacing outsoles, I was guessing as to where the inseam should be. In this photo you see the other pair of boots. Here the insole is leather and a machine has been used to welt the boot. Functionally, and even visually, the result is not much different from a fairly crude version of hand-welting. There was no section or area where the welt had come loose or the inseam had failed or the insole had broken through. Coincidentally, about a month later, I took an order for a pair of shoes. The customer brought in several pairs of his favourites and while it was evident that the customer took care of his shoes, he implied that they were part of a larger rotation. I did not tear them apart. They had never been repaired. If I recall correctly, he said the pair below was less than five years old. This photo is of a pair of highly touted, brand name, English shoes that were GY welted. What you are seeing is irrefutable evidence that the gemming has slipped...and not even in an area that gets a lot of strain. What are you and I, dear reader, to conclude from these examples...this essay, as who should say? Well, if past is prologue, some will take offense and will consider it a personal attack. Needlessly so in my opinion, for two reasons... No one who is not a maker has to take responsibility (or defend) the choices of those who are. If you made the shoes, well, that's one thing. If not...its no reflection on you or your character. Very simply, it is what it is. And beyond that, I simply don't have a dog in this fight...never have. I have deliberately refrained from promoting my business to any great extent and I have even more assiduously avoided attacking or even mentioning other makers...large and small. I don't personally care how a person spends their money or even what they think is the very thing of the age. But having said that, I would wish that folks understood what they pay for. And that they understood that what they are getting is very often is not the time-honoured skills and traditions and quality that they think they ought to be getting. That they've been sold. That's my only conclusion...my only message--it is what it is.
post #5 of 137
Thank you, DW, for taking the time and effort to educate us. I just hope, and ask, that the extreme literalist nitpickers keep their ressentiment to themselves.
post #6 of 137
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by emptym View Post
Thank you, DW, for taking the time and effort to educate us. I just hope, and ask, that the extreme literalist nitpickers keep their ressentiment to themselves.
You're quite welcome...it did take some time. And it's not a perfect representation of what or all I believe or have to say about it. But it will have to do till a better one comes along. That said, I am always...and I acknowledge naively so...optimistic that people will read both entirely and for substance/intent before drawing a conclusion.
post #7 of 137
Thread Starter 
An addendum (of sorts) to this thread.... Lasts Depending on how you look at it, lasts aren't really within the purview of a thread about shoe construction, but I think it is important to point out that lasts are models of both the foot and the finished shoe. Templates upon which the shoe is built. So there is some relevance. For the foot to be really comfortable it has to be held in something like, or very close to, its natural configuration. A bespoke maker will take a tracing of the foot and some will even take a weight-on foot print. The objective, in either case, is to collect data on how wide the foot spreads...in the tread area and in the heel area...and at the same time to determine the rigidity and/or muscularity of the foot. A last...and the resulting shoe...should be as wide as, but not significantly wider than, the foot. For instance, if the heel of the foot prints at 6cm wide, the heelseat of the last and the corresponding insole should probably be no wider than 6.5 cm. A bespoke maker will make some effort to match the last to the print of the foot. A great deal is made about lasts and their shapes and their widths on this forum. As far as I'm concerned it's mostly bunk--horsefeathers, as who should say. When a manufacturer offers a last that differs from another last in the line, it is often, mostly, usually more for the styling than for fit. It is like the haute couture designer raising a hem or adding a pleat for the fall fashion season. It's new, it's different, if it makes it down the runway without tripping it will sell more dresses simply because it's not last season's passe' reject. That's all fine as far as it goes. To the degree that a shoe manufacturer offers a last that is wider in the tread or narrower in the heelseat, it both increases the possibility of accommodating customers on the far ends of the bell curve but it also limits that model to people with feet that are similar in shape. Now there's nothing wrong with that approach, on the face of it...except that while ostensibly offering the customer something like a unique fit, it throws the whole thing right back on the shoulders of the customer--who, in many cases doesn't know enough about his own feet to make an informed decision. People say..."Oh, I have a narrow foot. I must need a narrow last." Well, yes and no. Where is the foot narrow? In the forepart? In the heelseat? All over? Of those three choices only the third can accurately be said to be a narrow foot. People with narrow heels, for instance (a very common configuration) may find most of their choices unsatisfactory short of going to a bespoke or MTO option. But they are not going to get any more satisfaction in a last just because it is perceived or touted as generically narrow. Beyond that, "narrow" is a relative term...as is "wide". If the insole width is narrower than the foot...even if the rest of the shoe fits fine--girths are correct, length is correct, etc....the foot will not be entirely comfortable hanging over the edge of the insole. Understand that I am not dismissing the concept of narrower lasts for narrower feet even in the context of RTW. But 90% of those wearing RTW are not fit to anything resembling an accurate standard, anyway. It may be satisfactory, it may even be comfortable but we all accommodate ourselves to circumstances in our lives that are not optimal...and all too often, unfortunately, never look back. It is the obsessive focus on last models and what amounts to fashion news that I find bogus. The foot is one of the most architecturally complex structures in nature. You're not going to ameliorate that complexity by randomly making a generic, one-size-fits-all-narrow-feet insole narrower. To the extent that a last is intended...used...to fit a foot, it is the most important tool at the shoemaker's disposal. To the extent that it is introduced or employed as a fashion flag, it is more a tool of marketing than shoemaking. --
post #8 of 137
Thanks! Incredibly informative. Quick question, how do you tell if the insole has been gemmed or not? Put differently, is there a quick and easy way to tell?
post #9 of 137
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by phxlawstudent View Post
Thanks! Incredibly informative. Quick question, how do you tell if the insole has been gemmed or not? Put differently, is there a quick and easy way to tell?
No there isn't...hence my remarks about it being hidden and covert. But according to some members of the forum, more intimately acquainted with that part of the Industry, every English shoe that is not bespoke is gemmed. That probably applies to US shoes as well. There are several makers in Eastern Europe who do not use Goodyear construction...they may be bespoke only, but are priced more like RTW. And I am sure there are a number of small-shop, bespoke makers in the US and Canada who hand-welt everything...and again, are priced comparably to top model RTW.
post #10 of 137
great post! 1. can goodyear welting not be done by hand? 2. any instructional pictures/videos on hand welting shoes?
post #11 of 137
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by daruma View Post
great post! 1. can goodyear welting not be done by hand? 2. any instructional pictures/videos on hand welting shoes?
Thank you. 1...It probably could, but why anyone would want to is beyond my comprehension. The whole raison d'etre for GY right from its inception was to mechanize the process--one of the most critical, skilled, and time consuming in the making of a shoe. Make it quicker, make it less skill intensive, make it less dependent on human beings, make it cheaper and more profitable. To do GY by hand would obviate all those aims. More importantly, nothing of significance with regard to quality would be gained. It would be a backward step. 2...If you have a windows machine here is a link to a video...made some time ago (before I started making men's dress shoes) in wmv format. The process for boots or shoes is near-as-nevermind identical but...like all good makers, I hope...I have gotten better since this video was made. Additionally, Marcel probably has a video posted somewhere on YouTube that will show how this is done.
post #12 of 137
Impressive~!
post #13 of 137
DW,

May I ask what is the difference between the cut channel welting and "cut rib" welting?
I saw most english maker cuts the "rib" for welting, but saw most HK makers and some French and Italian used a cut channel for welting by hand.
post #14 of 137
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Fishball View Post
DW, May I ask what is the difference between the cut channel welting and "cut rib" welting? I saw most english maker cuts the "rib" for welting, but saw most HK makers and some French and Italian used a cut channel for welting by hand.
I'm not sure what you're referring to exactly when you ask about "cut rib welting." Early Goodyear construction was to cut a horizontal channel in from the feather edge and a corresponding horizontal channel toward the feather from further inside the width of the insole. The resulting "flaps" of leather were folded so that they stood up perpendicular to the flesh surface of the insole. This created a "holdfast" of sorts to which the upper and the welt were sewn. My own personal opinion...having seen some of this early in my career...is that while it would seem to be a reasonable approach and it certainly preserves the leather to leather connection, it is not a whole lot better than the canvas rib. Why? Simply because to make it work you have to first cut the channels such that they nearly touch in order to fold the "flaps" upward to create a rib. If they are too far apart you will not get a solid rib unless you force the leather flaps together...creating tension and tearing at the base of the rib. Since you are already forcing the flaps to assume a position that is contrary to the natural lie of the fiber mat, this becomes a very real problem over the life of the shoe. There are other reasons why this technique...if it is indeed what you are asking about...comes up short, in my opinion. Not the least is the fact that the space between the ribs has to be filled with something...often cork (which is fugitive)...and again, the leather to leather bond is compromised. I don't see this technique employed much these days...perhaps because it was originally intended to be done by machine and not by hand--again, it was the original Goodyear technique--and perhaps, more importantly, because to do it by hand takes as much work or more than the traditional method yet leaves us with a weaker inseam.
post #15 of 137
Thank you for this post, very informative as always.
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