How handmade shoes are really made


“You can make a shoe without electricity,” says Daniela Ghezzo, which is obvious if you recall how many millennia have walked past us in shoes that predated the Second Industrial Revolution. “With leather, pliers, nails, knife, a piece of glass for scraping, some thread and a hammer, you can make a shoe.”

But first, we must come to terms – specifically, the seemingly-synonymous terms currently being used for various expensive shoes. “Custom-made,” “handmade” and “made to measure” are not the same thing, but emotional words such as “traditional” and “skilled” in advertising give the impression that they are. That excellent shoes are made by a variety of means is not disputed, but all shoes are not, in fact, created equal.

“Skilled” sounds good, but it usually doesn’t specify the specific skill, or what tools or machines are involved in expressing it. “Quality” is also a favorite term, as is “hand-sewn,” though the latter rarely specifies what, or how much, of the shoe is truly hand-sewn.

“Handmade” and “custom-made” are words which tend to mean whatever the seller wants them to mean, but are based on shoes which have already been either designed and/or made, by a range of methods, from patterns that already exist, and are altered somewhat according to your measurements and style options.  There are now computer programs which will measure your foot and send them by computer to the shop or factory.  A personal fitting is rarely included.

“Handmade” means that a skilled person did some work on it, but might have used a machine. As one shoemaker put it, “I believe that ‘handmade’ should include: hand lasting, a hand-welted, hand-sewn sole, and hand-built heel. Many makers have an old sole stitcher in the workshop which makes the long process of sole stitching in a few moments…. Which is fine. But not handmade.”

Daniela Ghezzo is very clear that she creates “made-to-measure handmade shoes.” This means that the shoe did not exist on this planet in any form until you walked in and commissioned it from scratch according to measurements taken by a person, not a computer program.  The shoe has been created from a pile of animal skins – or fabric, if you prefer — and has been made entirely by hand, following a pattern and a form, called a last, which were created from and for your particular foot.

The classic leather for men’s winter shoes is either calf or horse – “cordovan” –which is an especially robust and resistant leather. It’s thicker than calf but just as soft. It’s one of the most expensive leathers partly because of its quality and partly because only two small ovals of about 0.3 square meters from the groppone (the back) can be used. So for one pair of shoes, you need one whole horse. “The old shoemakers used even the tiny bits so as not to waste anything,” Daniela says, “but I’m a little wasteful because I like to use a new skin when I do a new pair.”

For men’s summer shoes she favors kangaroo because it’s so soft and yet resistant. There’s also suede, and patent leather for formal shoes. For women the classic materials are kid, lamb, and suede.

The steps in the process are performed by specialized workers in factories, but to call him- or herself a master, a cordwainer has to be able to do them all. These begin with measuring the foot—its every line and every curve. There are machines and other tools that can do this now, but there is a golden rule among shoemakers: The simpler the instruments for measuring, the more trustworthy the results.

The next step is making the “last,” which is a form made of some kind of hard material that’s shaped to become a three-dimensional reproduction of your foot, including bumps, bunions, dips and crooked toes. Once that’s done, it’s time to create a pattern for the style of shoe you’ve ordered—just as a tailor would of a custom-made dress or suit. The cordwainer than begins the long, arduous process of cutting and sewing leather to match the pattern and the last.

“You know what’s the hardest shoe to do?” Daniela asks. “Sophisticated sandals. Because every toe has its position. You have to pay a lot of attention to their feet because you don’t want their little toe hanging out. When you have a sandal like this (and Daniela holds up the minimalist, strappy sandal featured at the end of our photo essay, “Shoe fantasies made real”) you have to calculate the position and the angle of the strip of leather perfectly.”

© 2020 Erla Zwingle, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: December 1, 2016