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Shoemaking Techniques and Traditions--"...these foolish things..."

Discussion in 'Classic Menswear' started by DWFII, Aug 23, 2014.

  1. DWFII

    DWFII Bespoke Boot and Shoemaker Dubiously Honored

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    In another thread there was a discussion about pricking up the welt that got turned around. Got me to thinking about all the little things-- the picky and immaterial and "foolish" things that take a really fine pair of shoes to the next level...beyond ordinary, IOW. Techniques that potential customers can look for or appreciate.

    This is a thread where people can ask or talk about, or post photos of all kinds of techniques...good or bad...without associating it with a specific maker.

    One of the techniques that came up in that same thread was frequency of the stitching on the uppers and the welt. Obviously the coarser the stitching the less time has been taken...the easier it was to do. This is a point of pride with shoemakers but often doesn't mean much to customers. Of course, stitches per inch (spi) can be taken to extremes in either direction. And frankly, a small spi (less stitches per inch--such as 8spi) won't ordinarily mean that the seams are weaker or more apt to fail...although a case can be made that stitches that are further apart are less "sealed" against the penetration of water and dirt.

    But below 12 spi, stitching starts to look a little crude, esp. on shoes associated with dress.

    Here's an example of what I would consider coarse stitching...I'm guessing 8-10spi:

    [​IMG]

    Conversely, a larger spi (16 spi for example) doesn't necessarily mean that the seam is stronger. In fact, too many stitches per inch and the seam will be more likely to fail than if the spi were smaller...simply because the density of the leather won't support such closely spaced perforations. But larger spi is generally considered a distinguishing "tell" of good work. 14-18 spi on upper work is probably pushing the limits of leather quality as well as aesthetics, although there are museum examples of much, much finer work being done--as many as 64spi--by hand in earlier times.

    Here's a photo from Lobb's of London of 50spi (?) done by hand (courtesy of shoefan):

    [​IMG]

    But frequency is not the whole story...the evenness of the lines of stitching is almost more important. When a line of stitching is run along the topline of a shoe, for instance, or at the edge of a toe cap, it needs to be as perfectly parallel to that edge as is humanly possible. Any deviation from parallel is going to catch the eye, even if only on a subliminal level. And if a second or third line is added each must run parallel to the first. The eye sees these discrepancies, no matter how minor and a subtle sense of dissatisfaction is the result. A dissatisfaction we may not be able to articulate but which abides with us nevertheless.

    Here's an example of great work both in the frequency (spi) and in the evenness of the lines of stitching--zero significant deviation.

    [​IMG]

    Welt stitching actually conforms to much the same standards. 12 spi seems to be a common standard for hand stitched welt although many makers are doing 16spi and even 18-20. And again there is curated work that exhibits welt / outsole stitching in the 40-60spi range. String of pears indeed. (thanks to shoefan, again)

    [​IMG]

    At the same time, some shoemakers...as a result of local Traditions...favour longer stitches--as few as four or five to the inch. This kind of work has its own following...dedicated admirers...but IMO it's hard to make the case that such "broad' work is shoemaking at its finest.

    Machine stitched outsoles tend to run in the 6-8spi range although the machines can hit 10-11spi easily enough.

    One of the reasons I draw these comparisons...and especially why I include the 19th century handwork...is to make the case that shoemaking reached its zenith in the 19th century. All the standards of quality and good work that shoemakers...and even some customers...revere and aspire to, are informed by the work done in that era. In many ways it has been all downhill since. The case can be made that no machine, no tool, no technique introduced since the mid 1800's has added or improved upon those standards. And that there are few, if any, makers working today that can match or even rival what was produced by the best makers of the 19th century.

    Unfortunately, as the work is industrialized...and trivialized...the ability to do such work becomes even harder to achieve even for those makers who strive obsessively to equal it--simply because the skills, tools, and materials are not there.

    Yet the standards remain...if only because they are unchallenged.

    Stitch work is one of the most easily observed indicators of quality. Because if a maker cannot be bothered to take care with work that can be seen, how likely is it that the techniques applied where they can't be seen will be anymore fastidious?

    --
     
    Last edited: Aug 24, 2014


  2. Sander

    Sander Distinguished Member

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    Interesting post; please post more.
     


  3. DWFII

    DWFII Bespoke Boot and Shoemaker Dubiously Honored

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    Another meaningless, trivial hallmark of a fine shoe...esp. a dress shoe...is the way the edges of the outsole are finished.

    All too often I see outsoles that are not given the attention that Tradition and dedication and the standards of quality would suggest be brought to bear.

    Traditionally shoemakers rasped, shaped, and "set" the edges of leather outsoles by hand using simple knives as well as specially shape knives, and "collices." Some of this was to distract the eye from the differences in colour and temper of the welt vs. the outsole itself; some of it was to please the eye with whimsical ornamentation; and all of it was to create lines and regularity in the finished appearance.

    A collice is a "edge iron" that consists of a handle and shaped piece of iron that serves to glaze and forme leather.

    Here are a photo (courtesy of Carreducker) and an illustration (from Salaman) of typical edge irons.

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]

    Collices are used to burnish the leather and to apply hot wax...which penetrates and seals the fibers...and to three-dimensionally shape the edge. As implied, the irons are heated and run firmly over the edge of the outsole. This is known as "setting the edge."

    Thornton (1970) says "Edge setting, like burnishing, has the useful purpose of sealing the fibres against water and so preserving the shape and appearance of the bottom. Wet leather is very plastic and the edge would become quite shapeless if exposed to the wet for even a short time, especially if knocked as well. Apart from the useful function of sealing the edge, the operation also enhances the appearance of the shoe by giving it increased shine and greater definition to the style if the edge."

    Sometime after the Industrial Revolution machines that could do this work were invented. And they did a very credible job indeed--cutting the edge to shape and duplicating that shape precisely with spinning burnishing irons. Very little, if anything, was lost with regard to the preserving and sealing effects much less the appearance (the "jigger step"--"c" and "g" in the illustration above--seems to have been eliminated).

    When edge setting is done by hand, a "wire" is created that runs along the top edge of the outsole, as well as along the bottom edge. And incidentally, a bevel is created on the top edge of the welt (which is sealed with wax) and on the bottom surface of the outsole. The wires are mostly ornamental but they catch the light and draw the eye to a very regular and pronounced line which serves to enhance the regularity of the outsole. [Parenthetically, most "modern" hand tools do not have the jigger step anymore, either. I don't know when this began but probably early 20th century.]

    [​IMG]

    I suspect that the number of customers who notice such niceties is small and that's the reason many makers seem to be abandoning these techniques to one degree or another. I have seen high end RTW and HW bespoke shoes where the outsole is trimmed flat and polished. Period. I have even seen high end shoes where the outsole is trimmed round and burnished like the edge of a saddle skirt.

    Here are some photos of flat edges and set edges:

    [​IMG]


    [​IMG]

    Notice the way the wires catch the light and send it shooting down the length of the shoe. In another era all shoes would have been edge set with wires. That was the Traditional standard of quality and excellence.

    Now I suppose that some people might actually prefer the wireless edge but I suspect this is simply because shoes are in a long term state of being dumbed down, the Traditional standards of excellence are being disregarded, and we all tend to accept what is common rather than go to the trouble of seeking what is exceptional.

    The thing is that with the machine accessories I mentioned above, there really is no reason that even manufactured shoes cannot be properly edge set.

    --
     
    Last edited: Aug 24, 2014


  4. DWFII

    DWFII Bespoke Boot and Shoemaker Dubiously Honored

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    Thank you...I've got two more waiting in the wings. Maybe tomorrow.
     


  5. Fred G. Unn

    Fred G. Unn Distinguished Member

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    Great thread! Subscribed and looking forward to more!
     


  6. GasparddeColigny

    GasparddeColigny Senior Member

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  7. cptjeff

    cptjeff Distinguished Member

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    I could see this being aesthetic preference, not just dumbing down. It's an additional level of complication and detail. If, for example, you prefer clean shapes and line, with as little complication as possible, you might prefer the wireless edge. If you like little ornamental details, you'll probably prefer the wired edge. You could draw a parallel to architecture- a gothic cathedral with thousands of ornately carved sculptures lining the walls, or a modern glass and steel skyscraper, with shape only at a large scale. The question of which one is "better" is one of taste- they're both simply aesthetic choices.

    That said, I generally side with those who prefer the Gothic cathedral.
     


  8. DWFII

    DWFII Bespoke Boot and Shoemaker Dubiously Honored

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    You're quite right of course. Much of this thread is intended to reflect...and share...my own aesthetic biases (as a shoemaker, as an artisan) while simultaneously offering people an opportunity to explore these issues from the "inside" rather than as a consumer wholly dependent on advertising and public relation campaigns. But even among shoemakers, the only aesthetic consensus is the Traditions that have been passed down to us. And in some parts of the world...in some "schools" of shoemaking...the Traditional standards are quite different from those in other parts of the world.

    At the same time, I don't prefer one thing over another because I was trained that way, I prefer them because they have functional and/or aesthetic value.

    Gothic cathedrals were intentionally designed to draw the eye upward--to heaven. To create lightness and light within time and space, as well as within the mind.

    Wires on the edge of the outsole draw the light and the eye along a specific path. To create regularity and a sense of precision and boundaries that literally cannot exist perfectly with a medium such as leather.

    Sometimes if a person knows why the architect designed the soaring vaults or the created the huge arched stained glass windows, it can make a difference--heighten our sense of appreciation...maybe even inspire.

    --
     
    Last edited: Aug 25, 2014


  9. DWFII

    DWFII Bespoke Boot and Shoemaker Dubiously Honored

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    A topic that was broached in that recent thread I mentioned was the way welt stitching is finished off. Some makers use a "fudge wheel" some use a "stitch prick" and some don't do anything to the welt.

    In that thread, it was generally agreed that the stitching on a welt looks the best when the stitches look like a string of pearls or a tiny beads half submerged in the welt.

    [​IMG]


    In this post I am going to explore this issue in a little more depth, and...fair warning, probably, and hopefully understandably...with some bias. The bias is my own...based on my experiences making shoes...do with it what you will.

    A stitch prick is a Traditional hand tool that is vigorously pressed between the welt/outsole stitches to separate, tighten and make the stitches stand proud of the welt. The pricking is done one stitch at a time and requires some focus, a distracting amount of time, and a little bit of muscle. Therein lies its weakness.

    Here is a photo of two stitch pricks--the top one is an antique commercial made tool, the bottom one I made from an old bolt.

    [​IMG]

    A fudge wheel is a hand tool that was invented to speed up the process of "pricking up" the welt. It is a much more recent invention than the stitch prick. And while we can never know the mind of the inventor with absolute certainty, it seems unlikely that it was invented because it could do a better job. The stitch prick already did the job admirably. The fudge wheel was invented because it would be faster and less tedious. And in that spirit, the hand tool that was the fudge wheel quickly became a bench machine, that eventually (and inevitably) was motorized.

    Here is a contemporary hand fudge wheel made by George Barnsley & Sons before they went out of business.

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]

    In fact, it can be shown (and I will) that the results obtained by using the fudge wheel are significantly different than can be obtained using a stitch prick...and in my opinion less like the string of pearls than was the agreed upon ideal of the participants of the aforementioned thread. Not to mention the Traditional shoemakers of yore & lore.

    [Parenthetically but not addressed in this thread...there is also a fairly obscure hand tool made from a pair of common utility pliers that does the same work as a fudge wheel but one stitch at a time. And IIRC, there is even an attachment for machine stitch work that presses an indentation into the welt right next to the stitch.]

    When a welt is stitched by hand or machine the initial results are as pictured.Almost looks like a string of pearls as is. But from the top the stitching may be a bit rope-like and some stitches may be displaced from the line of stitching.

    [​IMG]

    And one of my own prior to pricking up. (Early work and one of my "three things" to this day. *see below)

    [​IMG]

    Although the ideal is to have each stitch emerging from the welt in close conjunction with its neighbor...with no twisting or ropelike effect... sometimes with the best of tools, the best of eyes and the best of intentions, a stitch will get displaced or slip sideways in the hole. Some of this has to do with the diameter of the awl and the width of the hole made in the welt. Shoemakers invented the stitch prick to straighten and align these displaced stitches as well as to tighten the stitches.

    "As well as to tighten the stitches"--that's important--"pricking up" is fundamentally a technique to tighten stitches and make them stand proud of the welt--to make them look like a tiny strand of pearls. When the prick is pressed into the leather and between the stitches, it makes a narrow vertical depression, displacing thread sideways and upwards but not displacing much, if any, leather. The stitch pricks are essentially a dull blade and, depending on how you use them, can be forced deeper or shallower into the surface of the welt. No limit essentially (for good or bad). Additionally, the pricking is begun at the vamp...so the separations extend the width of the welt.

    [​IMG]

    A couple of examples ( many of these photos need to be clicked on and blown up to original size to see what is being referenced correctly):

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]

    I have four fudge wheel and three stitch pricks. Two of the stitch pricks, I made myself...in the long and venerable Tradition of shoemakers making their own tools.

    Of the fudge wheels, two are antiques--one set for 18spi and the other set for 12 spi. And two are modern--George Barnsley and Sons--both set at 12spi.
    None of the four fudge wheels have teeth that exceed 1mm in depth and the antiques are closer to .5mm in depth. So even with the best of intentions, there is a limit to how deep an impression can be made in the surface of the welt...with these tools. Of more importance is the fact that when used with optimal pressure, the leather itself is displaced and compressed so that a "v" shaped depression is created between each stitch. It is hard to conceive an explanation as to how this action can tighten the stitches, since compressing the leather under the stitches would tend to make them looser.

    And because the wheel has sharp ridges around the circumference they cannot be extended to the very edge of the wheel . For if they are and the wheel is pressed closely against the vamp those ridges will scuff or cut the vamp itself. The upshot is that the wheels usually have a bevel cut into the metal and, unlike pricking, in use the fudging itself begins a slight distance from the vamp. There's an aesthetic disconnect.

    Additionally, the stitches themselves will be forced into a pyramidal shape. And if the thread is conscientiously waxed, will hold that shape indefinitely. With more pressure, the stitches will be forced wider and lower (less proud of the welt). Not exactly a string of pearls, no matter how you define it.

    [​IMG]

    And some examples:

    Notice how the welt is a series of peaked ridges...as you would expect with a tool shaped like the fudge wheel is shaped...and the stitches are almost inconsequential. The overall effect is extremely "machine-age."

    [​IMG]

    A fudged welt where the fudging doesn't doesn't even try / pretend to separate the stitches:

    [​IMG]

    A fudged welt where the wheel was not run close to the vamp and the very apparent disconnect:

    [​IMG]

    Now, some people like that hard, mechanical, techno-punk, look of the fudge wheel. In fact, some very fine shoemakers like that look. But make no mistake, there is a difference...not only in the aesthetics of the final result, but in the philosophy that informs it.

    The question remains, however...to be decided by each person, according to their own sensibilities...which looks more like a string of pearls?

    *Three things:

    "Upon completion of a pair of shoes a maker should always look for three things to improve upon in the next pair...no less than three things lest he fall prey to complacency, no more than three at peril of false pride."~ DWFII


    --
     
    Last edited: Aug 25, 2014


  10. T4phage

    T4phage Distinguished Member

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    i wanted to ask
    my question here
    in teh appropriate
    thread...


    this is such
    an example?

    [​IMG]



    minor detail...
    but is this punching
    acceptable
    in a four figure
    shoe
    ?

    [​IMG]


    but most
    will be dazzled
    by the shiny
    that these
    will be
    overlooked
     
    Last edited: Oct 19, 2014


  11. GasparddeColigny

    GasparddeColigny Senior Member

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    I wouldn't accept that in anything over 200-300 €. QC should've never had that leave the factory/workshop, especially on a 4 figure shoe. With that kind of money involved there's very little to hide behind as brand.
     


  12. DWFII

    DWFII Bespoke Boot and Shoemaker Dubiously Honored

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    Well, yes and no. First, the stitching isn't a consistent distance from the vamp. I personally wouldn't consider that good work or acceptable.

    Second, the outsole trimming is pretty even and, as a consequence, yes, the stitching is endangered. But while not pretty a resole could run the line of replacement stitching further in towards the vamp and the shoe would not need rewelting or the insole trimmed too close again. That said, chances are good that even if the stitching is moved, the outsole will be trimmed too much and the result will be a ragged edge where the old holes were, or the outsole will be trimmed much narrower there to trim away those holes.

    Again, it would not be acceptable to me. Not at any price point. And as a maker....I recently returned the deposit to a customer because the leather he had chosen (French Calf) cracked between the broguing, which was perfectly spaced. The grain surface was just too flinty. It wasn't his fault, it wasn't mine. But I could not convince him to go with another leather.


    --
     
    Last edited: Oct 19, 2014


  13. T4phage

    T4phage Distinguished Member

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    thank you for
    answering

    edit: nevermind
    i may need to take
    esl...
    =(
     
    Last edited: Oct 19, 2014


  14. DWFII

    DWFII Bespoke Boot and Shoemaker Dubiously Honored

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    You're welcome.

    And BTW, I knew the shoe had never been resoled but you asked a question from another thread where I said that trimming too close to the stitching often means that the shoe will need to be rewelted when it comes time to resole.

    Stay calm and carry on.
     


  15. C&A

    C&A Senior Member

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    Talking about quality control, would a scuff like this be acceptable on brand new 4 figure bespoke? How would you have handled this @DWFII if a customer brought this to your attention? Would a shoe like this ever leave your workshop in the first place?

    [​IMG]
     


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