This pair of shoes marks a fairly significant point in my shoemaking. They were the first pair I had made in a couple of years and I had learned a lot of theory since my previous pair but my practical skills were a bit rough starting out. Enough went wrong with them that the experience of making them prompted a major rethink of how I approached shoemaking and craft in general. A lot of thought on new tools and better materials followed these, not to mention quite a bit of practice and I think the next pair I made came out much better for the experience of making these. They are also the pair that reminded me after quite a long break that this really is something I enjoy doing.
They are based on examples found on page 158 of Stepping Through Time. It is not a direct copy of any example but have elements of different examples illustrated in that chapter. I decided to make these because in addition to looking neat they are unusual and I had never seen a recreated pair, either in photographs or in person. I have since seen a pair at one of the better vendors of handmade medieval shoes, but they were a slightly different simpler variation — which isn’t surprising at all given how fiddly these were to get right.
Goubitz dates these no more precisely than to say they are 14th century. Ankle shoes, as opposed to low shoes or full boots, are very rare in the middle of the 14th century [Grew and de Neergaard, p25] , making it likely these date from one end of the century or the other. In my opinion the overall style, toe shape, and the presence of buckle fastening — rare prior to the last quarter of the14th century [Grew and de Neergaard] — place these in the later end of the century, despite the superficial similarity of the fastening method to the thong fastening of mid-late 13th century shoes.
The building and wearing of these shoes proved to be a learning experience, so much so that they survive mainly as an example of what not to do when making shoes. Don’t rush, don’t use bad materials, and don’t use the wrong tools. These would have been better shoes if I’d taken my time and paid more attention. I like them though so one day I will rebuild them more carefully using better tools and materials.
They were made in a bit of a hurry in late Februrary/early March 2007 after my only pair of shoes finally disintegrated at Canterbury Faire, leaving me with nothing to wear for a camp in mid March. As a result some of the stitching, particularly the sole seam is coarser than I might like. This nicely illustrates a point DW Frommer made on the crispin colloquy earlier this year that really stuck with me; speed in making is invisible in the finished product except as a lack of quality.
Rather rough sole seam done in a hurry…
… but at least it’s reasonably straight.
I had nearly run out of leather when I made them so they ended up being cut from the belly remains of a side of leather I had kicking around which is very stretchy and was really too thin. After 3 days of constant slightly damp wear they stretched significantly from their original good fit and the straps had stretched so they didn’t do up as well as they originally did either. I still think they look Ok, especially with the contrasting strap.
The most obvious problem with them is that the awl I used to make them was just too big for the thickness of leather and the thread I was using, so all of the seams now gap despite having originally been pulled tight and looking fine before the shoes were turned and worn.
Seams closed and burnished before shoe assmembly looking nice and tight.
Same seam in wear, note the gapping stitches.
Side seam pulling apart. I suspect there’s a problem with the pattern because this seam comes under a lot of stress getting the shoe on and off my foot. Perhaps the opening should be further forward.
I also learned that diamond awls are not a good tool for whip stitching in thin leather, having a much greater tendency to tear out small stitches because the holes have corners. After some discussion with Marc Carlson and Ken Nye on the medievalshoemaking list, this prompted me to build a set of round awl blades before my next pair of shoes, which were a lot more successful as a result.
These were the first shoes I built entirely using britles and hand-plied linen thread waxed with coad. It wasn’t far throught the construction process that I decided bristled threads are easier to use and just plain better than needles and regular thread, even counting the time it takes to assemble them. I will document the process as soon as I’ve figured out how to take decent photographs of the very fine thread ends.
There are only two features of interest in the the actual construction of the shoes. The first is the short side seam, in which the back edge of the vamp is stitched into a short slit in the backpart of the shoe with a seam that simultaneously makes a lapped seam and a butted seam. This joins three edges allowing the closure to overlap without being open all the way to the sole, which would admit dirt, grit and water. This was quite a tricky seam to build with the awls I used.
Side seam on the inside (flesh side). The rear edge of the leftmost part is stitched into a slit in the overlapping rightmost part.
This picture shows the overlapping layers slightly more clearly. The line of stitches on the right is an edge-flesh butted seam but the line of stitches on the left is an edge flesh butted seam in the layer underneath and a grain-flesh seam in the overlying layer.
Note in the pictures above that I have tried to finish off the ends of the thread. In seams that go down into the lasting margin of the shoe this isn’t necessary, just sew it down to the edge, leaving a short length of thread ends and the sole seam will stop it pulling open. It follows from this that closing seams should always start at the top and finish at the lasting margin rather than starting at the edge and working up since the top of the seam is usually the point where the most stress is applied and the end of the seam where it is finished is weaker than the start.
The second interesting bit is the closure strap itself which splits into six parts and required the strap to be carefully tapered and the slits to all be of the correct length to allow the shoe to open enough to admit my foot, which it only just does.
The straps pass through reinforced slits in the front part of the opening.
The strap is pulled back to close the shoe…
… then wrapped around the back …
…to the other side…
… and buckled to fasten.