How Shoes Are Made

More than 100 operations go into the construction of a shoe. The first and most important step is the creation of the last, a hand-carved wood or molded plastic replica of the human foot. It alone determines the contour of the arch and how evenly the wearer's weight will be distributed throughout the food, both of which are critical in establishing comfort. A different last is required for each shoe style, whether the shoe is handmade or mass-produced. Lastmaking demands great skill and a trained eye for fashion. After recording as many as 35 measurements from a "footprint" that shows the distribution of body weight, the maker judges the symmetry of the toes, calibrates the height of the big toe and the contour of the instep. He also estimates how the foot will move inside the shoe.

The lastmaker's challenge is to address all these ratios without compromising the architectural beauty of the shoe design. For a heeled shoe, he visualizes the heel height, then proportionately determines the size of the throat. Next the appropriate height of the shoe's quarter is established: too high and it will rub the tendons; too low and the shoe will fail to grip the foot properly. Most crucial to the fit of a shoe is the measurement of the shank curve, the area that includes the ball and instep of the foot, because this is where the body's height falls when the foot is in motion.

Then, using the last as a guide, the patternmaker cuts out the shoe's upper and lining, bevels the edges to ensure a good fit and sews the pieces together. Next he constructs a toe box, adds the conter (a stiffener for the shoe's back) and soaks the leather so it will easily conform to the lines of the last. A master craftsman carefully positions the upper on the last, tautly stretching it before nailing it tightly in place. The upper dries on the last for two weeks before the sole and heel can be attached. In the final steps, finisher trim the welt, pare the heel, burnish the sole and add the insole lining. Last but not least, the shoe is polished and buffed-and ready to wear.