Shoe Construction Part 1

This is the first part of a Shoe Construction series. The second part can be found here: https://www.weltedshoes.com.au/shoe-construction-part-2/

A lot of people own shoes without having paid a second thought about how they were made. Shoe companies know this and exploit many ignorant customers with buzzwords such as “handmade” or “made in Italy”.

The term “handmade” can literally mean one process out of 200 was touched by a person’s hand, and the company will still pass it off as that. You can read more about it on Justin Fitzpatrick’s blog here: https://www.theshoesnobblog.com/2019/04/your-shoe-is-not-handmade.html

Furthermore, geographic location has nothing to do with how a shoe will hold up against the test of time and use. A shoe made in Italy could fall apart a lot quicker than something made in China these days.

This is due to the fact that the integrity of the shoe is independent of who has touched it or where it’s been put together. Rather, it depends on how it was made. In this article, we will consider four types of shoe construction in the industry.

Cemented

The most widely used shoe construction method often employed by cheap, fast, disposable fashion companies, the shoe’s upper leather is literally glued to the sole of the shoe.

As there is no stitching, the shoe can easily come apart after a few wears, resulting in a typical life span of 1-2 years. After that, it is not cost-effective to resole them, and they will need to be thrown into landfill. We all know of the environmental impacts of landfill and fast fashion isn’t helping.

The leather used in cemented shoes are also not of the best quality. Often they are made from cheap leather with blemishes that factories will sand down and coat with a plasticky layer to cover up the impurities and fool the buyer into thinking the shoe is of higher quality than it really is.

The result is something that does not age well with time as the plasticky layer starts to peel off and expose the true nature of the bad leather underneath. These types of leathers also do not shine up well, as their pore structure does not accept polish as readily as better quality leather.

Read more about ‘processed’ leathers such as corrected grain and ‘polished’ leather here: https://trimly.com.au/blogs/trimlymusings/polished-leather-shoes

Blake Stitch

Blake Stitch construction

The Blake Stitch construction stitches the upper, the insole and outsole together. Occasionally, there may be a filler between the outsole and insole but that varies between shoes.

Sometimes indistinguishable from a cemented shoe’s design due to the lack of a welt, an obvious tell if shoe is Blake Stitched is by comparing the insole of the shoe to the outsole (from below). There should be matched stitching on both, and the SPI (stitches per inch) should be matched as well.

Apart from being resoleable, Blake Stitched shoes have the advantages of being light, flexible, and easy to break in. Some also argue the lack of a welt makes the shoe look more elegant and sleek, but that is a matter of personal taste and preference.

However, Blake Stitched shoes perform poorly in wet weather. Water will seep through to the insole quite easily via the stitching, thus damaging the shoe.

This article will not delve into the variant of the Blake Stitch called the Blake-Rapid Stitch. It serves as a more durable version and is one that is functionally similar to the Goodyear welt construction.

Goodyear Welt

Goodyear Welt construction

On the insole of a Goodyear welted shoe, a process called gemming forms a raised ribbing (also known as the holdfast) all around the shoe by gluing a linen canvas all around it. The leather upper is connected to the insole by a welt stitch between the ribbing and a strip of material called the welt that runs around the perimeter of the shoe.

The cavity left behind by the ribbing is then filled with a cork layer that redistributes and moulds to the wearer’s feet more as they break in the shoe. As a result, a Goodyear welt shoe begins stiff, but becomes more comfortable as they adapt to the wearer.

Finally, the outsole is attached to the bottom of the shoe by a stitch along the welt and a channel along the outsole. In some shoes, a beautifying process involves slicing and lifting a layer of the outsole back before stitching the outsole on, and then gluing it back down to hide the stitch and channel.

These Thomas George Collection shoes display a hidden channel sole and the inner workings of a Goodyear welt shoe, including a metal shank for midsole support.
Photo courtesy of Joe Cheng.

Due to the nature of the construction, some find that breaking in this type of shoe to take longer. However, as mentioned earlier, the shoe becomes more and more comfortable with each wear. The presence of the welt also improves resistance to the elements and helps protect the shoe from being damaged from water seeping into the insole.

The ability to resole multiple times without ruining the integrity of the shoe is a key advantage to this method of construction. A well trained cobbler simply takes off the old outsole and stitches through the old holes of the welt to connect the new sole on. They will hopefully renew the cork bedding for their customer as well. Be wary of cobblers who cannot do this – take your business elsewhere if they cannot resole a Goodyear welted shoe properly, and be explicit about the job you want them to do (i.e. new sole needs to be stitched on and not cemented, and the full sole should be replaced and not just half).

Not covered in this article are variants to the Goodyear welt construction method such as the Stitchdown (Veltschoen) construction, Norvegese welt and Storm welt. They all have their different aesthetic and water resistant properties.

Handwelted

Similar to Goodyear welt but this time there are no machines involved as the name of the construction suggests.

The holdfast is carved out by hand out of a single piece of leather to form the insole. This process alone can take a long time. Unlike gemming in Goodyear Welting which is glued to the insole, a carved holdfast has a much stronger bond.

The welt stitch is done by hand. Again, this takes a long time.

Work by Melody Chia, a handwelted shoe maker based in Melbourne. You can see that the holdfast involves no gemming and must be carved out by hand, before it is stitched to the welt and upper. There is also a spot for the shank to be fitted at a later date.

The outsole stitch can be done by hand or machine – even handwelted ready to wear shoes as respected as Yohei Fukuda’s have machine stitched outsoles.

Handwelted shoes bring several advantages over Goodyear welting. Their carved leather holdfasts provided a more secure anchor for the welt than cemented gemming, and they require less cork – resulting in a lighter shoe. This is the real deal when it comes to a “handmade” shoe that isn’t just a buzzword.

Not covered in this article are ‘hybrid’ hand-goodyear welted shoes such as from Viberg, Truman, and Antonio Meccariello’s Argentum welt. These are machine welted using a carved holdfast, and are considered superior to traditional Goodyear Welting while being less labour intensive than handwelting.

Wrapping Up

In conclusion, there are different ways to make a shoe: Cemented, Blake Stitch, Goodyear welted and Handwelted. When choosing a quality shoe that will last a long time, the best thing that you can do is avoid anything that is Cemented.

Opt for a Blake Stitched or Goodyear welted shoe instead for better value and satisfaction in the long run.

Be sure to read our next in the series about Shoe Construction! https://www.weltedshoes.com.au/shoe-construction-part-2/