As you may know, I work in an admin role at London College of Fashion (LCF). Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to our Golden Lane site by footwear lecturer Ian Goff to learn some of the processes involved in making a pair of shoes. He’d designed the workshop for staff, to provide an insight into what the BA Cordwainers Footwear students learn, and we entered the workshop to find an array of tools and part-finished shoe pieces waiting for us to try out the next steps (see photo on the right). Obviously, even if you are experienced, it takes longer than an afternoon to make a pair of shoes so there was no way we were going to come out with a finished product, but I was excited to try out some of the processes involved.
As with any product, the first stage of the process is the design. Although there was no design element to this workshop, we were given an overview of the structure of the foot and shown where to take measurements when making a bespoke pair of shoes. All footwear is made on a solid block called a last, which is shaped to the particular style of shoe you are making (rather than being foot shaped). Although these come in a variety of styles and sizes, to make bespoke shoes the maker will have to build up the last in particular areas to ensure that it perfectly matches the foot measurements they have taken, or an individual last will be made for that particular customer. To create a pattern for your shoe design, you cover the last with tape and draw your design on. This can then be converted into flat pattern pieces.
Once you have your pattern, the next stage is called clicking. This is where the pattern pieces are cut out of the leather and, when this is done on a large scale, metal shapes like cookie cutters are made from the pattern so that many pieces can be cut out of the leather quickly. The clicker’s job is still a skilled one, however, as they have to work out the best way to position the pattern on the leather in order to get the best usage and avoid any flaws in the skin. Next is closing, which is where the pieces of the upper and the lining are stitched together. These stages had (thankfully!) all been completed for us before we arrived at the workshop that afternoon.
The first task we tried for ourselves was folding over the edges of a skived piece of leather that had a curved edge, so that we could practice stretching or pleating where needed, in order to create a smooth edge. This was not a part of the type of shoe we would be making today though, as it was part of an upper that would go on a lace up shoe. It was, however, good leather working practice! The first stage of our court shoe that we got involved with was using the back part moulding machine. We inserted a layer between the upper and lining at the heel of the shoe which, when heated, becomes extremely pliable. Once it cools, it becomes pretty solid, so the second part of the machine (which I am using in the photo above, that was kindly taken by my colleague Lance) ensures that it cools while clamped into the perfect heel shape.
Then we went back into the workshop, to the pre-prepared lasts that had moulded uppers and an insole on them, ready for us to try out the next stage. We were shown how to peel back the upper and work on carefully stretching the lining over the toe of the last, ensuring that the pleats were underneath and the toe was completely smooth (see below). Then we spread glue underneath the tacks, on both the lining and the insole, in order to remove the tacks and stretch the lining back into place with only the glue to hold it in place. While we waited for the glue to dry, we tried covering a heel with leather. Again, this involved much stretching and smoothing, which I was beginning to get the hang of by this point!
Once the glue had set on our lining, Mick Duggan, who has decades of footwear making experience and was assisting on the workshop, sanded off the pleats on the underside of our part-made shoes to make them flat, ready for the next stage which involved applying a toe puff made out of the same heat-activated material as the back part. This was heated up and then applied to the toe by hand (with much swearing from me, as my fingers are far too heat sensitive!) before being quickly mounded to cover the lining, again keeping all the pleats underneath. I was pretty pleased with how neat I managed to get mine in the time it took to set.
That was as far as we got in our afternoon workshop, but a second session would see us continuing to attach the lining and the upper to the insole, before affixing the sole and leather-covered heel. I was pleased to note that all the pieces of leather that we worked with during the workshop were recycled from pieces that the undergraduate students have have used, and a lot of that leather is donated by companies who have an excess that they cannot use themselves. The linings used in this class were man-made and far more tricky to work with, so I can see why shoe makers love leather.
If you want a visual summary of how to make a court shoe (also known as a pump), check out this video from London College of Fashion. I’m now thinking of signing up for one of the LCF short courses to learn the entire process for myself!