Home » Big Book of Leather Chapters » Confession is good for the sole

Confession is good for the sole

I have a confession to make: I’ve been cheating. I’ve glued shoe soles on instead of doing it the right way.

A bit of background first – I offered to resole a pair of commercially made seventeenth century latchet shoes for a friend who’d worn through the supplied soles very quickly (I think they were harness butt rather than sole leather). I don’t know who made them, I was told they were bought over the Internet from someone who claimed that she’d made them and they were completely accurate other than machine sewn seams in the upper. The website now seems to be dead and she isn’t responding to email any more.

The shoes turned up and I started work. Through the innersole I thought I could feel tacks holding the heels on. I little more investigation revealed the “innersole” was a thin garment leather layer glued over the structural innersole. A hard plastic innersole as used in modern street shoes. The upper was the right shape, but had simply been wrapped around the edge of this hard plastic sole layer and had been machine sewn in place. A leather intermediate sole had been stitched on, giving the appearance of a welt from the edge, but there was no real welt. An outer sole had then been glued down on the outside of this and the heel then built up using glued layers on the glued sole layer. Needless to say, it didn’t last long, only a couple of wears but still managed to wear most of the way through.

I rebuilt the heel using glue to hold each lift in place until it was high enough with the outer lift of sole leather, then drilled and fitted oak pegs to secure it properly. I can justify this because we know that seventeenth centure cordwainers used a paste to do exactly the same thing. I then fitted a half-sole in sole leather. With glue. My reasoning was that the construction was pretty dodgy, other bits were glued, it wouldn’t matter if this was also glued. If I’d taken the reasoning to the next step, I would have concluded the sole had come off for this very reason. Of course I didn’t think it through, with the obvious result.

This plaster cast of Henry VII's tomb effigy clearly shows the groove in the sole for the stitches. I know this is a little early but it's the clearest image I have of the practice. V&A Museum.

Those of you who do turnshoes can ignore this bit and keep attaching clump soles with tunnel stitches. To put the sole on a welted shoe properly, a slit is cut in the sole and the stitches come from the welt, through the sole layers and get burried in the slit. Each stitch gets tied in an overhand knot that is slid into the hole in the sole layers so if one stitch breaks, the whole sole doesn’t come off.

Cutting the slit for the stitches. The sole was loose at the toe, so I started there.

When the stitching is done, the sole is dampened and the slit is hammered closed. This protects the stitches from wear, yet results in a secure and stable attachment that’s easily undone when the sole wears out. I hate doing it, almost more than making patterns for uppers. Unlike most of my other posts, this isn’t easy. You have to push the awl through 7-10mm of hardened leather and get the point to pop out in the width of a knife cut. I know some people who use a small nail and hammer, and I’ve used a 1/16″ (1.6mm) bit in a powerdrill to do the holes, but these methods don’t have the accuracy required.

The sole stitched on, with the slit still open.

The boomerang shoes ended up on my doorstep again and for pennance I’ve sewn the sole on properly. Did I mention they don’t have a welt? The upper goes right to the edge of the sole, meaning there is nowhere for the thread to come out on the top, I had to go diagonally through both sole layers and bring the thread out at the very edge of the upper, in the process expanding my vocabulary and breaking the point off my awl a couple of times. I’ll be making a new one from a sharpened diamond-section 4″ nail once my hands have healed enough to be able to grip things again.

Finished sole with the slit dampened and hammered closed over the stitches.

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One thought on “Confession is good for the sole

  1. Thanks again for sharing. When you get around to making that awl, it will make a very interesting article all on it’s own. You’ve probably already considered that. I’m just saying.

    Thanks again.

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