Early 16th Century Low Shoe

This is a pair of shoes I made for a friend in exchange for some clothes.


The finished shoes

They are a style I have been interested in making since I read Dr Reiner Atzbach’s Report on Medieval and Postmedieval Turnshoes from Kempten (Allgäu), Germany [Internet Archive Link, original now offline] which I strongly recommend reading. I would note though that there are a couple of errors on that page, most prominently the statement that the opening of this style of shoe was covered by a tounge; something the art of the period clearly shows not to be the case so this may well be a translation error.

A drawing of a surviving pair of this style from that article is below. The original can be found at http://web.uni-bamberg.de/~ba5am1/info/abb8.htm.

This style is ubiquitous to 16th century Europe across in a variety of countries and social contexts. They are superficially similar to the very low kuhmalschuhe commonly associated with landsknecht but higher sided and less ornate and with a rounder toe.

A shoe of this style can be quite clearly seen in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1568 painting A Peasant Dance. This is a fairly late representation but the style can be seen earlier.

“A Peasant Dance”

A random interesting point about the above picture is that the man’s shoe that is also in the picture is clearly a single-soled turnshoe, even though right-side out welted construction had been in use for several decades. Archaeological records almost contemporary with this painting show right-side out lasted construction with welted soles and built up heels, nearly all of the components of modern hand-made shoes bar the shank. You can find details in Stepping Through Time which the David Brown book company has just brought back into print in paperback.

Details of the construction from http://web.uni-bamberg.de/~ba5am1/info/abb13.htm.

The construction of the shoes shown on Dr Atzbach’s article is complex for a turned shoe, with a double-layer heel stiffener and side-linings as well as a welt and outer sole. I did not incorporate the reinforcements on the heel and toe of the kempten example because I think they are later repairs not a part of the original construction.

My attempts to build a shoe using this exact construction were a failure. Because of the thickness the reinforcement pieces in the lasting margin at the heel and the side linings the shoe lost a great deal more height than I expected it to. Combined with a minor patterning error this resulted in more distortion than I could correct by putting it back on the last and trying to hammer everything into shape while wet. There is just too much “dip” in the topline in the middle of the shoe.

Failed attempt at a turned version of this style of shoe as per the kempten example.

In the photograph below you can see the inside of the failed shoe and get some idea of the amount of height the side linings lost when I turned it. The stitching should be black but I haven’t gotten any pitch yet so I’m still using post-period blond wax.

Distorted shoe inside

After this failure I decided to make them right-side out welted construction. There is a drawing of this style of shoe constructed right side out with a welted outsole in Stepping Through Time that I decided to base my reconstruction on. The construction steps for this type of shoe are identical to those of the turned version with the exception of actually turning it. The welt is obviously on the outside of the upper instead of caught in between the upper and the sole, but that doesn’t really affect the build order of the shoe.

Right side out version from Stepping Through Time

One of my shoes from approximately the same perspective.

I think there is a lot wrong with the ones I made, but they came out Ok for my first pair of welted shoes. The two biggest issues I have with them are that the topline isn’t quite right, it is too straight and I think in retrospect it should be more level at the sides and angle up at the quarters instead of being a straight angle all the way back. The welt also sticks out around the shoe more than I would have liked but I’m not sure how I could fix that, the insole already being significantly smaller than the outsole.

It is possible that I used too heavy a leather for thsese but I don’t think so, I used 2.5mm veg tanned cow shoulders. It is possible that’s just what the originals looked like but that drawing above from Stepping Through Time doesn’t look like it. It is also probably that the last I made to build these on is completely the wrong shape, I’ve never seen a picture of such a last and I was just trying to imagine the shape of the inside of the shoe when I made it.

Technically the most challenging part of building these shoes was attaching the top band. It is made from a folded piece of 1mm thick veg tanned leather and is butted onto the top edge of the upper with a whip stitch. The stitch is flesh-edge on the upper, edge-flesh on the outer layer of the folded top band and flesh grain on the inner layer of the folded top band. It was extremely tricky getting the stitches through the thin top band leather and being able to pull them tight enough without blowing it all out.

Here you can see the inside construction details showing the edge of the insole, the closing seam, the front of the heel stiffener and the top band attachment. I’m starting to get reasonably happy with my closing seams now.

Here are some more pictures and some notes on other aspects of the construction. Starting with a couple of side views. The strap will be trimmed once it’s been tried on the owner’s foot.

In the front and back views you can see the sticky-out welt more clearly. The upper at the heel is perhaps a touch wide. It needs to be very narrow so the shoe “hangs” on the heel and doesn’t slip down when you walk.


Lastly, here is a picture of the inside of the buckle attachment. Goubitz describes this as being done with a thong, which I take to mean leather, but I used a scrap of inseaming thread because I didn’t have any fine enough thonging. There are four holes two above and two below the bar of the buckle and the thread wraps around the bar on each side. This makes for a surprisingly strong attachment that still allows the buckle to be removed or replaced easily.

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