Building reproduction medieval objects for reenactment is an exercise in compromise. There are occasions where an object can be recreated using nothing but accurately reproduced tools and materials produced and processed as they would have been for the original object, but these are rare opportunities and often expensive undertakings.
For the rest of us trying to build accurate reproductions for reenactment or living history purposes, we have to make compromises in the tools, materials, and techniques we use. The question then for me is about the compromises and choices I make in my work.
When it comes to medieval shoes we are lucky to have a fairly large number of extant pieces from the high middle ages and early modern period, and a fair few from earlier centuries, that tell us quite a lot about their construction, but that relative abundance of extant pieces is tempered by a great lack of any information on exactly how the construction was carried out in those periods.
For example, there is a wealth of evidence that heel stiffeners were whip stitched to the upper using a stitch that doesn’t penetrate all the way through the upper (a so-called tunnel stitch); but I couldn’t tell you anything about the exact shape of the awl blade that the shoemaker used, nor whether shoemakers in various periods had specific awls they used for that task that were different to their closing or inseaming awls.
I have inferred from looking at pictures of awl holes in extant leather that the awl blades shoemakers used were probably a flattened oval with a slight chisel point, and personally I use a different size for closing and for inseaming, but that’s because that’s what allows me to produce the best work. It’s a conscious compromise in favour of what works over what is absolutely documentable.
When thinking about how I do things there are questions I ask myself.
- Do I know anything about how they did it in the period of the shoe?
- If not, do I have access to resources where I can learn about the techniques and materials of the period and the time to go and learn before I make this particular shoe?
- If not, which of the materials I have and techniques I am familiar with will make the best shoe within the limitations of the tools available.
“Best shoe” in this context is a flexible question. “Best” can mean most solidly constructed, most beautiful, neatest, closest to the construction of extant examples; or a combination of all of the above. Some extant work is really ugly, but sound. Some (especially repair work) is just a quick and dirty bodge-up to cover a hole, or a hole cut to make room for a deformity in the foot.
The biggest compromises come in material choices. It is very hard and very very expensive to get hold of leather that is very much like medieval and renaissance leather. Modern “vegetable” tanned leather is a very different material indeed from its medieval precursors, but it is better than modern chrome tanned leather for reproduction work.
Long-staple dry-spun linen or hemp thread is difficult to source, as is proper black pine pitch. Fortunately boar bristles have become quite readily available thanks to the efforts of Francis Classe, who sells them from his website. When it comes to thread, a good waxed end can be made from unwaxed dacron thread which takes code well, never rots and is visually indistinguishable from linen or hemp on anything less than a very close inspection.
Passable reproduction medieval shoes can be made out of modern veg tanned leather and polyester thread using harness needles, and very good ones can be made using modern leather, the right awls and properly waxed thread with bristles, but neither will be quite like a medieval shoe and it is important to understand why this is the case and what the compromises mean.