Seventeenth Century Latchet Shoes
Last week I set some homework: read Olaf Goubitz’s Short Instructions For Making the Reconstruction of a Shoe From Archaeological Sources. A gold star to those who read it and bonus points to anyone who started playing with patterns.
I won’t tell you how to make 17th century latchet shoes as Mr Goubitz does a far better job than I could ever do. Instead, I’ll share my experiences as I attempted to follow the instructions therein in the hope that you may be able to learn from my mistakes.
If you’ve made turnshoes before, the main difference (other than turning) between turnshoes and the later welted shoes is that the innersole rather than the outersole is the structural element.
There were major changes in shoe design during the early 17th century. It was at about this time that heels first became common— in 1601 there is a reference to shoes made in a Belone fashion in the notes of Queen Elizabeth’s shoemakers, apparently making a reference to the Polish design of stacked leather heels (later in the century referred to as Palony/Polony fashion [Arnold, Elizabeth's Wardrobe p216]). The fashion pandered to the desire by middle and upper class people to elevate themselves physically as well as socially. The addition of heels necessitated the purchase of new lasts in the proper shapes by the cordwainers. The added expense and space requirements of so many new lasts apparently prompted them to economise by making both last and shoe without right or left shape, thereby cutting the number of lasts needed. The straight shoe predominated for the next 200 years, although flat-soled and low-heeled shoes continued to be made on the older paired lasts well into the 1620s. There is some evidence Puritans were more likely to have paired shoes than other groups in society [Richard Pickering, Plimoth Plantation Shoemaker - Carriage House Crafts Center].
Men’s and women’s latchet shoes were similar in shape and construction, although round toes are more common on extant women’s shoes than men’s. Heels may have been up to 30mm in height, but were finer than men’s. Comments made by the Venetian ambassador in 1618 on the design of women’s shoes in England suggested all gentle women wore men’s shoes [Kippen, The History of Footwear - Sumptuary Laws]. The particular shoe chosen by Goubitz is from Smeerenburg, a Dutch whaling station on Amsterdam Island in north-west Svalbard, and dates from the period of occupation 1619 to the mid-1640s. Stylistically, it is a workman’s shoe with a stacked leather heel, dating probably to the later half of the period of occupation.
The main difference between city and country footwear seems to be the weight. A sample of 11,577 extant shoes from Northampton averaged between 780g and 820g. A similar sample of 2516 shoes from London weighed an average of 590g to 640g. The main difference seems to have been the number of layers in the sole, a reproduction pair with a round toe, average sized opening in the side, three heel lifts was weighed with two sole layers and three. The difference was 230g [Morris, The Soldier's Snapsack Opened, p10].
As I belong to a group that is occasionally seized by the desire to do a route march of the statutory twelve miles, I needed a pair of shoes that were able to take the job on. The Smeerenburg shoe is ideal, a middle class shoe from an industrial context is strong enough, but is obviously not a workman’s shoe, so is sufficiently stylish to fit my station. It also gaves an opportunity to learn the new technique on something with enough meat to make any corrections needed before attempting finer dancing shoes. The advantage with this design is that the weak parts of the shoe – the side and back seams are reinforced by the lining helping hold them closed.
Shoes are particularly daunting for me, I’d made eight pair of square welt latchet shoes before I even considered making a rolled welt pair. The main reason for learning how to make rolled-welt shoes is so I can make shoes with wooden heels. In that case, the welt extends down the side of the wooden heel and completely covers it, necessitating the use of a last or support.
The first step, and one of the most important is to create the pattern to match your foot. The sole is fairly straight forward. I printed the pattern pages, worked out the magnification required and then used a photocopier to enlarge to the required size. In my case, this is AU 8/UK 8/US 9/European 42, in the 17th Century at 10 inches, it would be a size 11 [Morris, p11]. The upper is a little more problematic, not helped by the patterns for the soles and the upper parts in the article being reproduced at slightly different scales. I ended up doing it approximately, then cutting it out and taping together a paper shoe, pulling it apart, making adjustments and taping it back together again. It took five iterations to get the upper to fit the sole the way I wanted it to. You’ll have to do this to fit your foot as it will be different depending on how high and wide your foot is. Regardless of whether you are making straights or paired shoes, the upper pattern should be symetrical about the long axis from the middle of the toe to the back seam.
Once you have the pattern, use the sole size to make the stitching stand. I made mine much lower than Goubitz’s as I was working on a small table rather than needing it to be free-standing. If your shoes are to be straights, you’ll use the same one for both shoes, if you are making paired shoes, you’ll either need two or make one that is reversable to do left and right. The thickness of the timber is important, it functions as a last for the toe area of the shoe and provides the height for your toes to fit in. Nineteen milimetres allows me room for my foot, one thin sock and one thick woolen sock.
Here’s a couple of photos of my stand.
After cut the components, the vamp and quarter pieces were dyed black as the shoemakers bought their leather pre-dyed and weren’t allowed to dye their own under guild rules. My lining and welt is 1mm thick veg tanned leather, vamp and quarters are 1.6mm, innersole is 2.4mm and first outersole and all but the ultimate heel lift are fronm 3.2mm harness butt. The second outersole and the last heel lift are made from 4mm crusted sole leather. I use a bandsaw to cut this, I don’t have the strength to use a knife on it. I left the lining and innersole undyed, these were sometimes fabric covered in the really top notch shoes. Stitch the upper and lining pieces together as per Goubitz’s article. The reinforcing threads are held in place with tunnel stitches. I had a lot of trouble attaching the lining to the assembled quarters, I ended up using a curved surgery needle as I didn’t have access to a fine curved awl. I got the suture needles from a friendly vet.
The edges of the innersole are skived so there wasn’t a lump at the sides of the shoe and the innersole placed with skin side against the top of the stitching stand. The upper was wet and stretched in place, I used heavy lasting threads to hold everything in place and allow more adjustment than nails would. A decent pair of lasting pliers is really helpful around the toe, mine are a mid 19th century German pair that I got for $30 on eBay. The Tool Exchange has some nice ones as well. A gold star to the first person to point out the error in the photo below.
Once the upper was dry, I removed the lasting stitches and attached the innersole to the upper and welt. Then I attached the assembled proto-shoe to the first outersole and first heel lift. The gap between the inner and outer soles was filled with a piece cut from a 3mm thick cork floor tile. The heel was then built up to the desired height using glue and oak pegs to hold the heel lifts together. The original glue was a flour-and-water paste, it doesn’t need to be very strong as the oak swells when hammered in and holds the heel together very firmly. Other timbers don’t work nearly as well, it seems to need the open grain of the oak. I soak the second outersole and mould it to the shoe before attaching, there needs to be a deep cut in the second for the stitches to lie in so they don’t get work by wearing. The deeper the cut, the longer the sole will wear without wearing the stitches but don’t go so deep it cuts through to the top surface. Remember to dampen the cut and hammer it closed again when finished stitching. This sacrificial sole layer can be replaced when too badly worn without having to rebuild the entire shoe. Just remember, sole leather is workable when damp, and hard enough to take the teeth off a saw when dry.
The cut edges were polished by dampening and rubbing with a bit of bone or a plastic slicker. Then I turned the foot on the stitching stand over and repeated for the second shoe.
It took two or three wears to realise I hadn’t stretched the uppers down and under the shoe enough when lasting. As a consequence, the cutouts in the quarters were too high and had to be trimmed about 5mm lower and the side seam adjusted. Once the adjustments had been made, I’m left with a pair of shoes that are comfortable, strong and not excessively heavy. They feel much like a normal pair of commercially-procured shoes to wear.
Some people nail on metal toe and heel pieces to prolong wear. These weren’t introduced until much later – possibly in the ninteenth century and in any case, don’t seem to make much difference. The oak pegs in the heel perform the same function and last very well. The trick to longevity is to replace the outer layers of sole and heel as soon as they have worn down and don’t wait until the lower, softer layers start to wear and allow the shoe to dry before putting it away for any length of time so the linen thread dosen’t rot.
Once complete, wet the toe of the shoe and stuff it with newspaper until it is stretched to shape. Allow it to dry. The shoe should be “stuffed” with tallow, but if you feel like being offensive to the common Justice of the Peace and Plenty of this Commonwealth [1649 statute reprinted in the Harlean Miscellany (1744) Vol. II. cited in Waterer, p63], use bees’ wax. Normally the tallow or wax would be warmed and rubbed into the flesh side of the leather until it will take no more. One easy way is to substitute solvents for heat and use a bees wax/turpentine polish. An occasional rub with bees wax furniture polish will then keep them in good condition. What ever you do, don’t use saddle soaps like Dubbin, they rot the stitching so fast it isn’t funny.
If you get a chance, find a copy of Mark Beabey’s, 17th Century Boots and Shoes Reconstructed, in Military Illustrated No 57, February 1993. It has some great cross-sectional illustrations showing the differences between square- and rolled-welt shoes of the period and the changes to the patterns to make boots.
Arnold, J., Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, Leeds, Maney, 1988
Kippen, C., The History of Footwear – Sumptuary Laws, Curtin University of Technology, Department of Podiatry website, Perth WA, http://www.curtin.edu.au/curtin/dept/physio/podiatry/, October 2000
Morris, R., The Soldier’s Snapsack Opened, Stuart Press, Bristol, 2000.
Waterer, J., Leather in Life, Art and Industry, Faber, 1946.