Back to Work!

After a looong hiatus, I’m back in the workshop. Not only is spring starting (I’m already back to wearing sandals–surely with 10 toes there’s a few to spare, I can afford to lose one or two to the cold!), but I’m on the verge of turning this endeavor into a business. I’ve worked at Lark Books for 11 years, but a few weeks ago management announced they’re closing our office on May 2, and all subsequent work will be done out of the NYC office. So come May 5, sandals become my job!

I’m therefore working on improving my construction method. I’ve decided to build them the way I was taught to build shoes, which means around a last practically every step of the way, and that requires slightly altering the way I attach the straps. In order to experiment with that but keep it speedy, I decided to use a strap design I knew I didn’t have to figure out–the very first one I ever made, out of the Jonathon Erving book. Remember those primitive suckers? (No? Click here.) Check out how they can look with a few refinements.

Almost completed. Still need to finish the edges, as well as attach a wee heel and a buckle--oh, I ordered rectangular shoe buckles in gunmetal, they're so pretty. This will be the first time I use buckles!

Almost completed. Still need to finish the edges, as well as attach a wee heel and a buckle–oh, I ordered rectangular shoe buckles in gunmetal, and they’re so pretty. This will be the first time I use buckles!

Notice here on these old sandals how there's a lip of topsole leather on the outside of the hole punched for the strap.

So what’s the difference in the construction method? It’s subtle. Notice here on these old sandals how there’s a lip of topsole leather on the outside of the hole punched for the strap.

With the new method I'm trying, there is no lip. Instead, the straps exit from an indentation.

With the new method I’m trying, there is no lip. Instead, the straps exit from an indentation in the topsole. So what you’re seeing on the outside of the strap is the sole.

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With a Minor Tweak…

The other day, the back strap of these sandals got twisted up when I put them on.

cranberry sandal 1And I discovered a tweak that makes an old pattern look new!

gray sandal 1

The original pattern is shown at top, cut out of leather. To tweak the pattern, I moved the bottom part of the strap underneath the upper part of the strap and stitched to hold it permanently, as shown at bottom.

gray sandal 2

Straps cemented but not yet stitched.

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Uppers cemented to the soles; all that remains to do is sand the soles, buff them, and add a heel.
Frankly, I like the way this looks, especially around the toe area…some day, I’m going to make some sandals where the edges of the topsole and sole don’t meet flush!

gray sandal 4

Finished. The same, but different!

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At Long Last!

Shoes are built over a form called a last. Since you first pull the leather/fabric tight over the top of the last and then attach it to the sole, the shape of the last directly informs the shape of the resulting shoe. If you want to create a pointy-toed, high-heeled shoe, you’ll need a pointy-toed last shaped for the desired heel height. And if you want to make a size 9 wide shoe, you have to use a size 9 last—a size 6 won’t fit—and you might have to modify it to make it wider than it is. As they say, the last comes first.

Built to last–there’s another little pun courtesy of shoe makers. One more: Lasting impressions. Groan.

Lasts are hinged so that when you’re finished making the shoe, you can get the last out from inside it.

 You can find lasts on ebay, of course, but that’s not the place to go if you want an entire run—every size in every width for a given model. I’ve bought new lasts from Jones & Vining, and used lasts from Shoedo.com and George Barta Hide Company. I haven’t yet gotten lasts from Dick Anderson, but I’m told he’ll let you get a pair on trial to see if they work for your needs. I’ve also come across Shoe Last Shop online; I haven’t ordered from them but via email they said they have many more styles available than are present on their website.

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Lasts can be made of wood or of plastic. I don’t personally own any wooden ones, and all of mine are for making sandals, flats or very low heels.

I would consider these fairly narrow. Note the squared toe.

I would consider these 8 1/2 Bs fairly narrow. I would guess they’re fairly old, from when women were as a general rule more petite than nowadays. Note the squared toe.

Here's the same style but much wider. The one on the left was altered by adding some leather at the top to produce a shoe with a taller arch.

Here’s the same style but much wider, in a 9E. I’m a B width in contemporary shoes, but an E in this style, which is why I think it’s an old last.  The one on the right was altered by adding some leather at the top to produce a roomier shoe over the arch.

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I’m told this style was designed for loafers or moccasins (I’m not sure why the latter would need to be lasted, so that might have been wrong). At any rate, these lasts are perfect for sandals to fit my own foot!

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Front view of a turquoise last that I think was developed for an athletic shoe of some type because (a) it’s unhinged, (b) it has a bulbous toe, and (c) I bought it from a small company in Colorado that designs athletic shoes or shoes for cyclists. The off-white last is designed specifically for sandals.

Viewed from above. The slit in the one at the top is for making flip-flops or other thong sandal styles.

Viewed from above. The slit in the one at the top is for making flip-flops or other thong sandal styles.

I Found a Crank Cutter in an Old Warehouse!

I won’t bore you with the details of my search for a 3-in-1. Back in 1973, my old friend Jonathon Erving said a used one went for about $25. Inflation, baby! You can’t find them at that price anymore. Since they’re not being manufactured anymore, Landis, Pilgrim and other shoe supply companies are buying up old models to refurbish and then selling them for top dollar…like between $600 and $900. Hey, it’s supply and demand.

Among other things, a 3-in-1 acts like a giant can opener and can cut through incredibly thick, hard vegetable-tanned leather and rubber soling. This makes it invaluable.

Suffice to say that for about a year, I hunted on ebay and on Craigs List, searched online  in both English and in French, asked my local shoe repair man if he knew where I could get one.Oh, I would see them on ebay, but paying more than $200 seemed outrageous to me, and they would get sniped for upwards of $300, and there was no telling what condition they were in. The saddle shop in town had one with a cracked base and wanted $600. Eventually, my mom-in-law introduced me to her shoe repair man, a cool old Greek guy, and he put me in touch with Landwerlen in Indianapolis, who happened to have two of them. They refurbished one for me.

$400. I don't care. I love my 3-in-1.

$400. I don’t care. I love my model 25 Landis 3-in-1.

 Fast forward a couple of years. While we’re visiting his parents, my husband suggests we go explore a number of old warehouses owned by his family. I’ve never been inside them. The buildings are perhaps 125, 150 years old, cavernous, in disrepair, used for storing old machinery from the Detroit assembly lines. We oggled enormous, mysterious equipment coated in grease and dust. Climbed rickety wooden stairs.Spotted a dessicated mummy of a pigeon or two. Checked out abandoned payroll offices with old punch cards spilled on the floor and 1980s phones. Skirted piles of snow let in by a rotted roof. Oh. What’s that, over there, on the floor?

Free!

My new crank cutter! Free—if you don’t count the elbow grease required to remove 50 years or more of dust and pigeon poop + $75 for a new blade. I’ll take it!

And Then…Shoe Class

And everything changed.

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Finally I came to understand how to use lasts; I discovered what kind of leather to use as a lining; I found out which tools and equipment I needed and which I didn’t–and where to get them! Skiving! Cements! Silver pens! Sewing machines!  I learned so much.

I had been really reluctant to pay for a shoe-making class because I was afraid I would invest all kinds of time and money only to produce some kind of bulbous-toe, clunky-soled clown shoes that only a hobbit would love. I’m not saying that Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood are clamoring to include my design in next season’s collections, but I don’t think these look too amateurish.

After some research, I attended Bonney & Wills School of Shoemaking & Design in Ashland, Oregon, in March 2012. Other places I considered (all in the United States):

The last day of class was a flurry and I never learned to finish the edges of soles–Bill Shanor (the instructor) did it for all six students so we could leave with our completed shoes. I particularly wanted to learn that skill, so that was a disappointment, but that was my only beef. Since Bill sends all students home with a 2-CD film on making shoes start to finish, I bet he covers that. I need to go watch it!

Point is, I’m totally glad I went to shoe school.

Goodbye, Hippie Sandals

After making 3 or 4 pairs of sandals based on Jonathon Ervin’s book, I decided that since I happened to have a stash of fashion leather left over from a stint making leather jewelry to sell (without success), I wanted to use that to make sandals.

I talked to a local shoe repair man, Mr. Kim, who started making shoes about 40 years ago as a 14-year-old in Korea. I had already gone to him to purchase soles for my hippie sandals, so I showed him the results of my new experiments, and he gave me some tips on lining the fashion leather, on reinforcing the straps, and other stuff. He was encouraging and unfailingly nice, but he’s pretty busy and I didn’t want to wear out my welcome.

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This model didn’t stay on very well, and it felt awful between the toes—there’s too much material in that spot.

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The sole on these is pretty wide–it looks like I’m wearing a paddle! I wore the hell out of them anyway. I wasn’t documenting anything back then, so they look a little rough in this photo.

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These still look pretty cool to me, even now that I’m making far better constructed sandals, but they hurt along the top of the toes. I didn’t know how to finish that edge.

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The split and curvature of the back straps isn’t terribly elegant, but I love the fuchsia snakeskin and the noise the bells make.

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I took vacation time from my office job with the aim of seeing if I could pump out 5 pairs of sandals in a week, all in my size. Once I could tell that I wouldn’t succeed, I finished one pair and was disgusted to find that my toes hung over the edge…they were all too short! And I never completed the rest. I later made this style into two pairs of wedding sandals–one in a metallic off-white and one in a dappled forest green.

For the next year or so, I proceeded by trial and error, feeling my way, making sandals fitted to my own foot, or that of a friend. Back in the early days, I would wrap aluminum foil around my foot and try to draw a pattern on it with a Sharpie–I shit you not! Eventually it came to me that if I bought a last and covered it in masking tape, I could draw a sandal pattern on the tape, pull it off the last, and make a pattern from it. It also occurred to me that it might be useful to have lasts in different sizes to make patterns for feet larger and smaller than mine.

I had no idea that a last could be used in any other way. I spent $200 on Tim Skyrme‘s book Bespoke Shoemaking, which I could tell was jam-packed with great information, but it was far too advanced for me to learn anything from. I wasted a good bit of money on tools and equipment that just weren’t right for the job, but I also got some that worked out perfectly. I talked to other shoe repair men. I accumulated a lot of fashion leather. And I kept searching for the ever-elusive 3-in-1!