LEARNING FROM THE MASTERS: MY JOURNEY STUDYING SHOEMAKING IN FLORENCE - PART 4
The first few weeks of the course was spent teaching us the basic steps in handmade shoemaking:
- Insole preparation and cutting
- Insole rib carving
- Lasting of the upper
- Lasting and shaping of the leather stiffeners
- Thread making
- Stitching of the outsole
- Sole finishing
In essence, one of the main reasons why my partners and I decided to go for this course was to figure out the processes that could improve our shoes back home. It was not really meant for me to learn how to make shoes as an individual and for me to become a shoemaker myself. However, I could not stop myself from trying to learn the skills needed to make a good pair of shoes. I wanted to learn. It didn’t matter to me if our shoemakers can already do the motions I’m being taught, I wanted to train my hands (which is honestly the most difficult part), to make the best shoes I can. Cuts and bruises started accumulating, but after every cut and bruise, I just patch up the wounds, and I keep moving forward and practicing even more. I guess what made learning easier for me was also the fact that I’ve seen these shoemaking processes on a daily basis for the past 6 years. And being someone who stares at shoes for hours everyday, I already knew how things are supposed to look like, if proportions are out of place, if a curve is not flowing smoothly. So it was just a matter of training the hands to be very accurate and getting used to the strain of the motions.
During these first few weeks, one of the processes that immediately stood out to me was the insole preparation/cutting and the insole rib carving. This was a process I knew we could insert into our process right away. Their insole material was unusual to me, something I have not encountered from our local suppliers. Shoulder leather but 5.5mm-6mm in thickness and dense (not much loose fibers in the flesh side, compared to our local supply which has a lot of loose “hairy” fibers in the flesh side) while still being soft and pliable.
Their much smoother insole leather.
locally sourced insole leather we have back home (note how it's much more rough and fibrous.)
The first step was to cut an outline of the last. Once cut, we apply water using a brush on the skin side. Afterwards, we tack the insole to the last, and once secured, we wrap the insole and the last together with a thick-width rubber band. The purpose of this is to force the insole to mould to the curves of the last. These are then left to dry for about 4 hours. After drying, Maestro Masako started the lesson -- take the shoemaker’s knife and cut the insole as close as possible to the shoe last. We tried to follow the instructions, but we did so incorrectly. However, for Masako, it didn’t matter if we did it incorrectly as the lesson was primarily to train us with the motion of cutting. As a first result, we all did an undercut to the insoles. Meaning, our knives were too angled when we executed the motion. Masako then explained the concept why undercutting was incorrect: the insole is not meant only to function as the footbed, but to also aesthetically be an extension of the shoe last, to give the shoe its shape.
The leather insole to be used.
Applying water to the leather insole to make it more malleable.
The leather insole attached to the last.
Seen from the side.
Wrapping the shoe last and insole with a thick rubber band, to set it in place and to have the insole mould into the shape of the last effectively.
the insole as an extension of the shoe last (note how it extends the tip of the last and continues the shape.)
This was a great piece of information for me, as back home we never treated the insole as something special. It was nothing but a foot bed, something where your foot rests. But to our Maestro, the insole is as great a foundation as a last. If the insole’s shape contradicts the last, the output shoe will not be as great as it can be, no matter how beautiful the shape of the last is. Then the first day realization came back to me: the differences in resources and materials play a big role in shoemaking. The main reason they can make their insoles an extension of their lasts is mainly because of its quality - their insoles are thick, and can retain a shape better. While our insoles back home are thinner, and very fibrous, and too malleable, so it can lose the shape easily when hammered. It’s not that making our insoles an extension of the last is impossible, it’s just simply harder to achieve with a lower quality material.
This factor also applies to the next step that Masako taught us: carving of the insole rib. The insole rib is prepared to make the process of handwelting easier. The rib or “wall” as we called it during the lessons, is made so the welt stitches go through the insole, upper, stiffeners, and the welt. In a high-end handmade bespoke shoe, this rib is what people invest in because this rib is what holds the shoe together and makes it durable. The process is lengthy, and accuracy is needed to execute it properly. Any inaccuracy might lead to the weakening of the wall, and compromise the durability of the welt stitches, which can also compromise the overall durability of the shoe. In basic terms, the wall is divided into an outer channel, and inner channel: the outer channel is carved so the upper lays flat onto it upon trimming after lasting, and the inner channel is carved to make the entry and exit of the welting awl to the wall easier. Photos of the process are attached here to make the illustration clearer and for easier explanation.
Again, the difference in resources and materials become more apparent as we go along the processes of handmade shoemaking. Having great quality materials is imperative in order to have great quality shoes. Back then, I only made sure to get the highest quality upper leathers from France, Italy, Germany, England, and US, but I did not spend much time looking for suppliers of the leathers used in the foundation of the shoes. I knew I had to go around Italy to find out better suppliers for insole materials, outsoles, welts, the tools needed for forming these materials. Without these materials, the knowledge I gain from these lessons might not translate well with what our materials are back home. I cannot let the knowledge go to waste because of the lack of materials. With this in mind, I always made it a point to ask Masako about different suppliers they recommend for certain materials we used, and I was very happy that everyone in the school is open to sharing information about their suppliers and the best suppliers around. Masako gave recommendations on suppliers that can give us what we need, and also recommended suppliers that have low quantity requirements, which are great for us as importing materials in high quantities from the EU region might pose a significant dent in our budgeting in the future. I was feeling optimistic, I was getting nearer to getting in touch with some of the best suppliers in Italy that I have not known before.
One day towards the end of January, the school’s administrator, Benedetta, comes inside the classroom. She announces to the class an upcoming trade fair in Milan — Lineapelle, one of the biggest leather trade fairs in Europe, with around 1300 exhibiting companies from 40 different countries. It was to happen a few weeks from then, February 19th - 21st. She told us the school highly recommends all of us students to attend, and if we were interested, we could just let the school know and they would handle the registration. All we needed to spend was for the train tickets going to Milan. As I heard the news, excitement again built up within me. I knew about Lineapelle, but I did not know there was going to be one during my stay in Italy. I immediately signed up, and looked for train tickets going to Milan on the said dates. I could not miss this opportunity. I have the chance of meeting suppliers for the best materials we need to execute the valuable pieces of information being taught to us about handmade shoemaking. The Patron Saints of shoemaking seem to be in favor of me learning everything I can.
Fast forward three weeks, and I’m on a train heading to Milan to look for the most suitable suppliers for the knowledge I’ve currently learned from the school. We’re two steps forward in achieving our goal of breathing new life to the craft of shoemaking to our home country.