Disclaimer: This article explains and compares the handmade shoes with high-end factory made shoes. We acknowledge that the differences and benefits are often rather small and, also, under a continuous debate. We also acknowledge that the construction methods of both factory made shoes and handmade shoes vary. However, we present the most common differences and their benefits.
As examples of handmade shoes, we use various impeccable shoes made by Mario Bemer, a Florentian artisan shoemaker par excellence.
In the world of today, shoes are often seen as nearly disposable, mass produced items that represent the “buy, play, throw away” -philosophy in its purest form. Still, people frequently talk about “old good days” when the shoes would last for years and when a decent cobbler could repair the shoes – and when the shoes were made from “proper leather”. Those things are now seen as things of past and, supposedly, do not even exist. Or so does the common world think.
The rise in popularity of classical menswear has brought the proper shoes back even to Finland, where this online magazine hails from, and, while it is a far cry from the glory days when the Finnish shoe manufacturing was among the best, proper shoes are again available from a couple of vendors. The customers have begun to understand the benefits of investing into quality and also the aesthetics of classical styles. The “sense of leather”, so to say, is returning slowly. Currently, though, the emphasis is still on the low-to-mid level manufacturers of a price range of approximately 200-600 euros, since the public comprehension about the shoe prices has been brought down by cheap, disposable products that have been the only thing available for decades.
When moving upwards from low-to-mid level factory made shoes towards the high level of a 600-2000+ euro price range, the most noticeable change is in aesthetics. The shape of the shoe is sometimes more curvaceous, as the lasting is occasionally made by hand and, thus, the leather of the upper can be shaped more aggressively without damaging it. Of course, the materials itself are often of a superior quality, as well. The finishing of the shoes is better and many features that are often seen in bespoke shoes, such as fiddleback soles with a beautiful, angled waist with a hidden sole stitching, are rather common. Generally, production stages that are handmade, especially in finishing, are increased.
Still, while the high-end factory manufactured shoes are often very beautiful and definitely impressive, the realm of handcrafting artisan shoemakers is usually on its own level, representing the apex of shoemaking. The pricing is usually similar to high-end factory made shoes, although very exotic leathers and special features affect heavily to the final price, even on ready to wear (often actually made to order) collections.
Clearly set aside from their factory made companions, a handmade shoe remains a peak of elegance in a gentleman’s wardrobe. Although the process of making a welted shoe remains similar to their mass-produced cousins, a handmade shoe is commonly crafted from superior, hand selected and hand cut leather. The shoes are crafted as pairs, instead of being paired after production, as is often case with a factory made pair. That gives the leather an even quality between shoes and allows the pair to gain a similar patina during the years of use and shoecare.
Of course, even when talking about handmade shoes, the amount of actual hand sewing and other completely handmade processes varies. The uppers and lining are usually machine sewn, as machine can produce a uniform seam that has a more even appearance. Some decorative or otherwise special seams may be handsewn, such as aprons of loafer shoes. The lasting is usually made by hand, giving leather the optimal tension to form around the last, while the factory made shoes are usually machine lasted. Hand lasting is especially beneficial when dealing with exotic or delicate leathers.
High-end shoes are commonly made with a welted or similar construction to ensure both durability and resoleability. A welt is a strip of leather to which the sole is sewn onto. An artisan shoemaker can, of course, use any technique to create a shoe, but welted or otherwisely sewn construction is usually the norm. Cemented construction, which is most popular in cheap ready-to-wear shoes, is very rare in high-end and limited to special cases, such as handmade sneakers.
Welted construction is built around the insole, which is first grooved to create a ridge, known as feather or holdfast, where the actual welt is sewn. In factory made welted shoes, the holdfast is often created by using a glued-on strip of fabric in a process known as gemming, which creates a resoleable shoe that is faster to construct but, sadly, lacks in durability when compared to the grooved leather feather. The welt can be sewn to the feather either by a machine – when the process is called Goodyear welting – or by hand, when the shoes are said to be hand welted. Even handcrafting shoemakers use the machine sewn construction every now and then, since there aren’t any significant differences in durability.
The sole of the shoe is attached to welt by sewing. Machine made lockstitch is the most commonly seen variety. However, for this purpose, handsewn edge stitch offers a superior durability and beauty that gives the handmade pair a considerably longer sole life before resoling due to its greater control over thread tension and the method of sewing, which creates a knot in every stitch.
After attaching the soles, the heels are built. On a leather soled shoe, the heel is made from layers of leather, stacked on each other. In factory made construction the layers are held together by adhesive and nails, while in handmade construction wooden pegs are used before the final layers and brass nails. The finishing of a heel is usually seen as one of the signatures of a high grade shoe and sets it clearly apart from its mass produced cousins. The heel is often slightly asymmetrical to both stabilize the shoe and to refine the curves. Naturally, everything is finished and, usually, polished to perfection in a time-consuming process.
The soles come in variety of styles and materials. Leather soles are often superior in comfort, especially in city environment. Rubber soles offer water resistance and, depending on pattern, grip that comes in handy in shoes that are mainly for outdoor and winter use. Leather soles can also be equipped with different features, such as injected rubber inserts for grip, golf spikes for traction on course and, most commonly, rubber insert on heel and a metal toe tap for durability. While factory made shoes are offered in several sole options, an artisan shoemaker can use any sole with any kind of shoe. A pair of golf double monks, anyone?
When the shoe is constructed, it is a time for finishing. In a factory made shoe the edges of the soles are usually machine finished and the final polish – with its possible patina effects, called burnish – is made often by polishing wheel machines. The result is often rather pleasing and definitely nice enough for shoes that are intended for everyday use.
However, artisan shoes are, again, in their own class. To achieve a patina effect, the shoe is often constructed from crust calf – which is neutral in colour – and then painted by hand to the desired colour and style. Of course, the patina may be created by other time consuming methods, as well – even by repeated polishings, emulating the true patination.
When the possible colouring effects are completed, the shoes are hand polished to perfection. A special attention is usually paid to toe, heel and sole edge areas, as they’re most prone to hazards. Some extra layers of shoe polish give them a welcome protection, as well as attractive, mirror-like shine.
After polishing, high-end shoes are laced and shoe trees are slipped in. Usually the shoe trees are made to match the last the shoes are made on, supporting them perfectly when the shoes are not in use. As a finishing touch, fabric shoe bags are slipped over shoes before packing the shoes into a sturdy box – the best makers often use wooden shoe boxes – to protect them in prolonged storage, as well as to show that the artisan’s touch extends throughout the whole process, all the way to the details of packaging.
Economics and rationality
Although the initial price of high-end shoes may appear high, it is worthy to remember that the shoe is usually the longest lasting item in man’s wardrobe. High quality leather gains a beautiful patina during decades of use and the shoe literally gains the shape of its users’ foot.
Of course, the high-end factory made shoes have a similar lifespan, but it is worthy to invest to some special pieces – shoes, usually, become the most beloved objects of their owners. In my personal opinion, every well dressed man should have at least a couple of especially nice artisan made shoes in their shoe rotation.
Text: Jussi Häkkinen, Anu Rautalin
Photos: Anu Rautalin