The Care and Feeding of Shoes

While I’m still working up content relating to the actual construction of period shoes I thought I’d touch on the subject of looking after them. To some extent these instructions apply to other types of leather goods as well. This all applies more to vegetable-tanned leather than to chrome-tanned leather but to a large extent what’s good for veg-tanned leather is also good for chrome-tanned leather, though the reverse is not necessarily true.

The single biggest thing you can do to prolong the life of your shoes is to have more than one pair. Because they have more chance to dry and ‘rest’ between wearings, two pairs, worn alternate days, will last a lot more than twice as long as one pair worn every day. The next major thing to do is get pattens and wear them whenever you are outside. Pattens help protect your shoes from wear and keep them off damp ground. They also stop you treading muck from outside indoors.

A key thing to understand is that when leather gets wet it goes floppy and stretchy, and when it dries again it will stay in whatever shape it flopped and stretched into. This principle can be used to mold leather into all sorts of interesting shapes, like lasted shoes, but it can be the downfall of those shapes if they aren’t cared for.

Modern shoes have almost all the stretch taken out of the leather when they are made but the vast majority of reproduction medieval shoes, particularly ones made at home by re-enactors, don’t so they will stretch a bit more if they get wet and you walk around in them. There isn’t a great deal you can do about this save being mindful of it and not doing them up too tightly when wet, or perhaps even taking them off when they are wet if they are particularly thin leather.

Save for having multiple pairs, the next most important thing is that when you take them off, don’t just leave them sitting there or they will sag out of shape, dry in that shape, and be uncomfortable or even unwearable next time you come to wear them. When you take them off gently stuff them with something so they dry in the right shape. It doesn’t really matter what, newspaper is the commonly advised stuffing for modern shoes but fabric works too. Anything that isn’t too dense and that won’t stick to the inside of the shoe. If the stuffing becomes soaked, swap it out for some dry stuff.

If there is dirt encrusted on your shoes wipe it off before you put them up to dry or it will hold moisture in the leather and risk going moldy or marking the spot.

Leave them somewhere well ventilated to dry and prop them up so that air can circulate all around them including under the sole. If you have very tall boots it may be advisable to hang them upside down. Leather is a natural material and it will go moldy if it stays damp for very long and mould can be very difficult or impossible to clean off, especially on lighter colored leathers. Well made shoes will be stitched together with properly waxed linen, which should be pretty much impervious to moisture, but if the waxing job wasn’t so good linen thread will rot out right quick if it is left damp for any length of time. I’ve rebuilt a pair of shoes this happened to and it was almost as much work as making a pair from scratch and I couldn’t quite get them back into the same shape they were before I rebuilt them.

Never, ever, ever, try to force dry any leather, especially shoes. When you get wet leather hot it hardens, permanently, and will crack the next time you try and bend it.

Aside from taking care of them when they are wet, shoes need regular maintenance when they are dry too. I don’t advise polishing period shoes with regular shoe polish. It has a lot of wax in it to make shoes shiny and it will actually stop the shoe from breathing, making them permanently damp in use.

The period solution is to apply animal fat. Tallow works well, as does goose fat but tallow is a bit less oily than goose fat. Animal fats might smell a little but they do good things to the leather as they oxidise and they stop smelling once the fats have oxidised. Avoid neatsfoot oil, it will attack the wax on the threads, and eventually dries out sometimes leaving the leather in worse condition than it was before. If you want a modern solution that smells good, Effax Lederbalsam is fantastic stuff. It is sold by saddlery shops. You can find a picture of the tub on the manufacturer’s website here. Aside from smelling good it has the advantage that it doesn’t require heat to apply . It isn’t really possible to waterproof leather shoes completely but a regular application of grease will help keep surface moisture out and will keep the leather supple, making for longer lasting more comfortable shoes.

In summary:

  • Keep them clean & dry.
  • Never, ever force dry them.
  • Wear pattens outdoors.
  • Apply grease on a regular basis.

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