I took a class in May 2007. The instructor provided the stitching last, tools, a pre-cut leather sole (based on a tracing of my foot mailed prior to the class), and the leather that we would eventually get to use for our shoe uppers.
I do not plan on going into the intricacies of period shoes. This demo is only to provide photos of the contruction phase of medieval shoes. For more detailed information on types of leather, patterns, etc, please use the following links and publications as a starting place.
The instructor very kindly let us keep the lasts and the tools. The class wasn’t long enough to allow us to stitch our shoes there so 90% of us took everything home to work on it there. What we did in class was take a paper pattern and drape it to our foot and then cut out another pattern in trigger fabric and draped that to assure a better fit than paper. We also cut the leather out there. The green leather I selected from his stash was from a hide purchased from an airplane manufacturer’s sell off store. Not period and impossible to emboss or paint or dye.
I found this method so easy that I went to our local MacPherson’s Leather and rummaged in their scrap bins until I found a piece of extremely thick leather (almost 1/4″ inch thick) large enough for two more pair of soles and another piece of fine upper leather in a lovely dark brown, enough for one more pair. MacPherson’s sells their scrap leather by the pound, a very nice cheap way to get only enough for a pair of shoes. I also found some lovely sheepskin for padding. I plan on designing a new shoe with a more pointed toe, appropriate for 12th – 14th century attire.
Other Online Shoe Tutorials
Footwear of the Middle Ages – The premier page online for medieval shoe patterns, history, and other practical information
Octar Wolfkiller’s Turn Shoe video – Probably more useful than my still photos but you never, I may know a trick or two he doesn’t and visa versa.
Stepping through time: Archaeological footwear from prehistoric times until 1800 – Olaf Goubitz – ISBN: 9080104469 – out of print alas but worth the trouble to ILL. My ILL cost $15 and I photocopied the bejeezus out of it.
Shoes and Patterns (Medieval Finds from Excavations in London) – Francis Grew, Margrethe De Neergaard, Museum of London – ISBN 0112904432 – also out of print alas but worth the trouble to ILL.
Shoe Merchants and Makers
If you give up entirely due to cost of the leather and / or time (cuz it’s so easy that can’t be why) and want to purchase shoes, try these merchants:
Please click on small thumbnail images to download a larger image in a new window/tab
After making a pattern in paper and having someone fit it to my foot by taping and marking with pen I cut out another pattern in trigger fabric. You can see where I have marked both big and little toes and heel. I also note SA = Yes. That is my code that seam allowances are included.
This pattern is based on one found in Shoes and Pattens. It is the first side laced pattern at the top of this page. It was photocopied and enlarged.
When you cut out your leather make sure that you flip your fabric pattern piece so that you get a left upper and a right upper. There is a “nap” to your leather and you don’t want one shoe to have smoother leather and the other to be suede. I did that and had to reimburse the instructor for the leather I needed to cut out a proper right upper. DOH! I should totally know better. I used the botched left upper to cut out my heel stiffener and latchets so all was not wasted but it’s good to plan twice before cutting.
Also make sure that each end is 1-2″ longer than it needs to be so that you can cut it after sewing to match perfectly.
Here are all my pieces cut out in leather, the sole, the upper, and the heel stiffener. The heel stiffener goes at the heel of the shoe on the inside. And it does just what it says. It stiffens the heel so that you don’t get “down at the heels.”
The sole is just under 1/4″ thick. The upper leather is thick, under 1/8. The upper is upholstery leather so the grain side is finished and can not be tooled. It can, however, be punched. It is also very supple and stretchy. The heel stiffener is a scrap of the same leather as the upper.
One day I might need to take the upper in if it stretches too far. In that case I can snip out a section from the upper instep and sew that closed, lace it closed or make a different type of latchet.
This is the stitching last from the side. You can see it is composed of some very simple wooden shapes.
Only the foot shape needs to be cut out with a special saw. This piece is held on by screws. This is set up to sew the left shoe. The inside of the sole will be facing up. The upper will be inside out top down. I unscrew the sole piece and flip it to make the right shoe.
The tools you will need for certain.
- a sharp awl
- needle nose pliers
- waxed linen thread, thick
- finger saver (a piece of broom handle or dowel with a slit sawed in one end)
- map tacks
- 2 blunt long needles
- 1 sharp leather needle
You will want to make sure you keep your awl sharp to get through the thick sole leather. Hold your awl point at a 45 degree angle on your whetstone and turn the handle in your hand as you wipe back and forth.
It’s a good idea to practice the tunnel stitch on a thick scrap of very wet leather to get used to the manipulation. You can see on my practice piece that I have pierced the flesh side of the leather and come out the side. The second photo shows that it does not pierce the grain side.
I also found that my handy leather punch was useful for making latchet holes (see the end of demo).
Here the very wet sole is tacked to the stitching last. You can see that this is the flesh (suede) side of the leather, it is suede on one side and smooth grain on the other. The flesh side needs to be the inside of the shoe. I am set up to stitch the right shoe here. Note the R on the sole.
Also, note that the upper is inside out. Once all of your stitching is complete, this will turn and the outside will be above the sole. This is why it’s called a turn shoe.
Soak your sole for 10 minutes, fully submerged, and remove from water. Allow to rest for 20 minutes. Test to see if you can easily insert your awl. If you can not, repeat the soak for 2 minute intervals.
I have started sewing in this photo but wanted to show you how the “finger saver” works. As you can see the awl is very sharp (you might want to sharpen this before you stitch each shoe). Even though the leather is very wet and soft it still takes some effort to pierce the hole sideways. You will need to make sure that your holes line up. The way to ensure this is to press the upper against the side of the sole. The way to ensure you don’t completely puncture your fingers or hand while doing that is to use the finger saver. This second image illustrates how the awl and the needle will go through the two pieces of leather. The stitch on the right side is called a tunnel stitch. You can see how it is punched diagonally to the corner edge of the leather sole but directly through the upper leather on the left.
Courtesy of the Museum of London: Shoes and Pattens
This image shows a closeup of pre-punched holes and thread.
Once you have a hole pierced in both your sole and your upper, you will make a stitch. A stitch consists of two parts.To begin sewing you will need to thread both of your long blunt leather needles with a good lenght of waxed linen thread. I use about 36″ of thread. Move one needle to each end of your thread. Put one needle through your punched hole and pull it so that an equal amount of thread is on either side, both with a needle on the cut end.Make a second punched hole. Thread one needle through the punched hole and pull until the thread is flush with the sole. You will now have two lengths of thread on the same side, one slightly longer than the other.
Take your second needle and thread it through the SAME punched hole and pull that thread taut. Do not worry about making this stitch tight. The next stitch will automatically tighten it.Continue stitching in this matter around the sole of the shoe.When you begin to run out of thread, work backwards with your threads and then tie off in the seam where the upper will fold. This can be difficult because you are asking 4 thick threads and a needle to occupy the space of two threads. I sometimes use my pliers to assist me in finding all the holes and to pull the thread through.
When you reach the toe you will need to begin what is called “easing.” Easing is the process of making opposite curves fit each other. You do this same process when you sew a modern sleeve into the armseye of a shirt.You can see here how the upper leather is slightly ruffled, that is because I have made a larger space between punched holes in the upper than I did on the sole. I use my finger saver to push just a tidge of upper closer to that last hole so that I will get this ruffling effect.When the shoe is turned you won’t even see this effect.
Once you have sewn around the entire sole, you will have an overlap of leather here. This is supposed to be there.
Cut the overlap where you are sewing about 1/2″ so that you can sew it to the sole but don’t cut all the way through the upper section.
Sew down the cut edge.
Now cut the second overlap 1/2″ so that you can sew it down to the sole.
I have sewn the entire upper to the sole. (There are three steps missing at this point and that is butting the cut sides together and cutting off the excess from the upper to be flush. #2 is turning the sewn shoe. #3 is a detail of sewing on the heel stiffener. I am working on this and it will be up before the weekend).
I have also sewn the heel stiffener to the inside the heel. Making small stitches that just catch the upper leather, do not pierce to the outside, I sew on the heel stiffener with small whipstitches. Using a clothes pin or a clasp to hold the heel stiffener in place while sewing is useful. Make sure not to pierce the outer skin of the upper leather. This should not show on the outside of the shoe.
My shoe is off the stitching last at last!
Turn your shoe right side out. Hence the name turn shoe.
You will need to trim the overlapping leather of the upper. Cut the back piece straight up from the sole.
WARNING: I cut the second overlapping edge while the shoe was in my hand. Due to the shape of a foot you might regret this as I did. The cut edges no longer butt together. If you were planning on sewing this closed this might be a problem for you. Me, I can simply pull the latchets tighter and hope that the shoe will stretch. Which it will do.
Mark the cut line when the shoe is on your foot and the remove the shoe and cut.
This is what you have after cutting the overlapping edges.
This is the inside of my shoe after it has been turned. You can see the seam allowance has folded upwards but does not exceed the top of the sole. This makes for a very comfortable fit and it is why your foot does not notice the seam when being worn. You can also the latchets that will lace your side lacing shoe closed.
This is looking down into the completed show, illustrating two things. The stitching on the sole and the fact that the instructor of the class cut my sole leather out in a way that did not match my actual foot. The stitching last is a better representation of my foot. There is too much added to the outer toes which gives this shoe a duck shaped appearance. Not my first choice.
The latchet. A period method of closing the openings of shoes. You can also use buckles if you like but this method was much cheaper than purchasing cast metal buckles. Anyone could close their shoes with a scrap latchet.
Latchets can have two – ten prongs, some quite elaborae for higher boots. You can see here that mine has two prongs. I have enough punched holes for three latchets per shoe.
After trimming the length of the latchet “prongs” I was able to easily use three sets.
Insert your latchet into the two pairs of holes, outside, inside, outside.
If you look closely at the enlarged photo you can see that side of the cut sole. This won’t be noticable after breaking in your new shoes.
Step 20 .
Tie in a knot.
Et Voila! Don’t you love how the shoe has begun to transform to my foot. I wore it all of 3 minutes while it was wet and walked about 50 feet. Instep is already setting in.