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Seventeenth Century Latchet Shoes

April 8, 2010

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.

Working surface of the stitching stand. This is obviously set up for the left shoe.

Underside of the stitching stand showing assembly method.

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.

Components for the upper. The quarters are mirror images of each other, as are the lining pieces.

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.

Lasting the shoe.

Bracing threads hold the upper in place while it dries. The innersole is skin-side down against the stitching stand.

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.

The completed shoe, after recutting the eye to make up for the crook lasting.

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.

Sole and heel clearly showing oak pegs.

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.

References

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.

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19 Comments
  1. chinajackie permalink

    Wayne, this is extraordinary work – great documentation!

  2. Thanks a million. I am a historic recreation enthusiast passing through Dhaka, Bangladesh (trust me, the best way is to be passing through…) Tomorrow my goal is to ask a custom shoemaker (difficult enough to find him)to make me latchet shoes. I won’t expect anything close to your artisinal shoes, but at least I’ll have a physical model to show artisans more familiar with the subtleties – maybe in India or Nepal. Funny, your excellent blog didn’t show up on my many google searches until tonight. Maybe it was something as simple as ‘latchetshoes’ instead of latchet shoes’. So far, I would visit shops and be told they made shoes by hand. I would ask to see the workshop, then to see their tools. If all they had were sewing machines and a few awls and a chisel I’d move on. I am not an artisan and it’s a real challenge getting stuff hand made. The tailor of my 1630 linen shirt misunderstood ‘hand tailoring’ to be ‘hand embroidery’, which his staff did horribly on the collar. The search continues…

    • Hi Hermes, please make sure you give them a copy of Goubitz’s Short Instructions to avoid perpetuating my mistakes. The link is at the top of this post.

  3. Will do. I found one old man in Dhaka who looked like he would have enough experience to make unusual shoes. He looked at the images I had from another site and dismissed the possibility of doing them, saying: ‘There is no last.’ Perhaps he considered that creating a last or as you have done with the stand would be too expensive for me – a one off pair rather than dozens. But the impression I get, if cordwainers are anything like tailors, is that they don’t want to do projects outside their repertoire. So, if I find someone willing to make oddball shoes the first question I will ask is ‘are you willing to take the time and read all the instructions first and follow instructions rather than do it the way you are used to?’ And find someone who has the reputation of doing so as talk is cheap. Naturally, I am willing to pay for their time. If interested I will send you a photo of results.

    • Sounds great! A friend tried the same trick in Vietnam and ended up with an absolutely magnificient pair of shoes without a stitch in them, they are entirely glued. First class work, but made the same way as the modern shoes he normally made..

  4. Hermes permalink

    Thank you very much for your most recent digest – 17th century paintings that include shoes. Do you have any leads for shoemakers (even just cities with a reputation for artisinal shoes) in South or Southeast Asia who will actually make the old way? Turns out, after all these travel expenses it would have been cheaper and a lot faster to hire someone who is already selling them. But even they seem to be making fascimilies. I don’t know of anyone who is doing this commercially. Hey, what would YOU charge? I am not a do-it-your-selfer in leather. Though for sewing fabric it seems the best strategy is to learn how to sew myself, show samples of stitches to people, through an interpreter, and supervise every step.

    • Hi Hermes, the only lead I have is a vague one in Pakistan (via Tasmania) and even that is only fascimilies. I’ve seen some shocking work out of SEA, and I’ve seen some otherwise excellent work that is marred by the use of ahistorical techniques, such as mid-19th century pegged soles on early-17th century latchet shoes or machine sewing. They need both someone to sit with them and guide them through successive iterations until they get it right and to guarantee a market for the product. Quality work can be done, they are just working to the minimum acceptible standard they’ve been given by the merchants and resellers.

      All the good artisans I know of are in Europe. I’m not prolific or quick enough to do this commercially.

      Cheers,
      Wayne

  5. Wayne,

    THANKS! I just finished an 8th to 10th Century turn shoe and while my friends and family are impressed I keep finding small mistakes I made. Regardless of my successes–relative as they may be–I have been pouring over Goubitz (thank for link!) and your photographs. I see several clues to fixing my own problems. But I have several clarifying questions:
    1. 3.2mm is the thickness of leather for your upper
    2. it looks like you used two ply thread for the lining to quarters attachment with a tunneled whip stitch. Did you use two ply thread for the upper to the soles?
    3. stumbling a bit with goubitz, when attaching the upper is the quarter lining also sewn to the sole?

    Sorry, seems I am always asking for refinement details on your posts, but you help explain so much and after taking a go at it, I have more questions and a hard time finding local support (Seattle WA)

    BTW – today’s goal is to finish the left turn shoe.

    Warmest regards,

    John

    • Hi John,

      I find I’m more unforgiving of my own mistakes than other people, one of the reasons that I post my disasters here as well as my successes is so people can see how simple the remediation can sometimes be. A vist to a museum can be instructive when you see all the mistakes and shortcuts on the originals as well.

      In answer to your questions, the upper is 1.6mm leather with a 1mm thick lining. I’ve successfully used 3.2mm leather for this style of shoe but care needs to be taken around the toe and heel where the upper meets the welt. If you get pleats in this area, dampen them with a wet washcloth and then work the puckers out with your thumbs.

      I used two-ply for attaching the lining to the quarters, and for the quarters to the vamp. I used three ply to attach the upper to the sole. My thread is from a linen mill, and is about half the diameter of the linen thread you get on cards or reels from Tandy and other leather stores.

      Step 4 in Goubitz’ sequence is to stitch the top edge of the lining to the quaters and if appropriate, the vamp. Step 7 attaches the uppers to the sole, while not explicitly stated, the cutting diagram shows the same stitch holes around the lower edge of the lining pieces as along the quarters, so I took that to indicate that the stitches go from the innersole through the quarter lining, the quarter and the welt. The welt alone is then sewn to one or more layers of the outersole. I’ve used separate stitching for each of the two outersoles, the heavy external one is stitched through the lighter one to the welt as well.

      Good luck with the left turn shoe, let us know how it works out.

      Wayne

      • Wayne,

        Much appreciated. I suspect you may be using what my wife called “linen” thread whereas she refers to the Tandy product linen cord. She showed me a spool of her thread and it is about 1/2 the size of a single strand of the Tandy spool (which is the same size I received from MacPherson’s in Seattle proper) which I believe is intended more for saddlery than shoe making.

        A couple of guesses which if you would be generous enough to confirm I would appreciate it.

        1. you referred to using a curved suturing needle from the local vet. Do you use that to make the holes in the 1.8mm leather? and then reverse thread the second needle using the hole punched by the first needle?
        2. if no to that, did you use a diamond shaped stitching awl, or something else? I am using the smallest diamond shaped awl I can find locally and it makes a hole just big enough for the needles I am using to pass through, but if I am not extremely careful and slow the holes tear through (only one so far)
        3. when joining the quarters to the vamp did the tunnel stitching basically pass through the outer, underneath the lining, and then back through the outer? Seems it would make the stitching easier overall

        As regards sharing progress. My very supportive friends have asked repeatedly that I put together a website to show off my work and things I have in progress. I do that through facebook at present, and hope by year’s end to take a four day holiday to work on putting together something a bit more accessible and just show folks what I am doing. Will keep you posted.

        As always, thanks immensely for such a useful site.

        John

  6. Hi John,

    I dug through the sewing box and found one of the yellow plastic reels of commercial linen thread, the brand is Gutermann. The mill thread is finer than that. It is about the same diameter as the cotton thread on the brown reels from the same company.

    The suturing needle was only used to attach the top edge of the lining to the quarters with a tunneled whip stitch. The suturing needles have a triangular point much like a glovers’ needle and make their own holes. All other holes were done with a diamond awl. I bought the finest one I could find, then ground it down until the needles were a tight fit, and then polished the awl blade so it doesn’t drag on the leather. A spot of wax can help, too. Extremely slowly and carefully is the way to go, I’m using 1/0 harness needles on those seams.

    When making the holes for the edge-flesh stitches, make sure you go as deeply as you can without breaking through the skin side. That way there’s the maximum amount of flesh-side preventing pull out and the skin seems to help reinforce it. When putting the holes in for the side and back seams, I work on a curved block and bend the leather so the awl path is straight.

    I do the back seam in the quarters first, then the back seam in the lining, then the top seam holding the lining to the quarters, working from the centre out in each direction, but stop about two thirds of the way around. I then do the side seams mostly without the lining getting in the way, and then finish the lining top seam. What works for you may be different. The side seam goes from the outside of the vamp, out through the edge (nearly going all the way through) then in through the edge of the quarter and out through the skin side.

    I’m looking forward to seeing the website. Send me a link when it’s done and I’ll add it to the list here.

    Wayne

  7. How did I miss that? I am a HUGE James Townsend purchaser and just purchased a mess of fabric and fobs for garb for a pirating group I hang out with a lot. At least it is from a supplier that will not cause my wife to raise an eyebrow, or two.

    Truly indebted, if ever our paths cross the first beverage of your choice is on me.

    Regards,

    John

  8. Wayne,

    Sorry for the lengthy delay in getting some pics to you. Please find a photo gallery of pics taken whilst making a York Parliament Street turn shoe. I have sense died the shoes a deep mahogany which in subdued light look brown, but in direct sunlight in a very rich red color. I have yet to upload the pics of those.

    I am working on two more pairs for my spouse and for a close family friend; and have a conditional order for latchet shoes depending on how my pair goes. Latchet shoe parts are cut out, but I am waiting for winter to pass enough here in Washington to make it warm enough to make a simple last as the garage is just too cold.

    http://picasaweb.google.com/102737716286350629880/PicturesOfMakingAParliamentStreetTurnShoe#

    Warmest regards!

    Once again if ever our paths cross I owe you a favored beverage of your choice,

    John Dugaw

    • it must still be early here that should be
      sense => since
      died => dyed

      Guess I need more coffee.

      • I’n not one to criticise for lack of coffee in the mornings. I’m avoiding the workshop because it’s too hot here at the moment. 42 degrees C forecast for the bottom of the hill, we’ll probably make 40.

        A tip I’ve only recently picked up for sewing edge/flesh seams on thin leather is that the thread won’t pull through if the leather of the upper is wet. Haven’t tried it yet but it sounds right.

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