What I learned while teaching a shoemaking workshop

Diane's 1st pair of home made shoesI taught simple shoemaking at Snow Farm – The New England Craft Center – in Williamsburg, MA, recently. I had seven of the most congenial and creative students that could ever be hoped for. I wanted it to be simple and successful for everyone. And, that’s how it was for most participants, like Diane who made this red/brown pair.

DSCN1050I made nomoc variation* soles for everyone before the workshop (note the yellow heel piece on the sole, that says “UnkonvenTional shoes, handmade by emily”).

DSCN0572Five participants fit into standard sizes, but two had wide feet. For their custom upper patterns I asked them to measure their feet at the ball and at the half-way point so we could make the front half (vamps) of the shoes.  Then I taped a standard heel section pattern onto the vamp pattern. Well, the front parts – the vamps – of their shoes fit great, but the heel parts weren’t sufficiently ample.

DSCN0574I have never forgotten a piece of advice I received from a British workshop leader – “don’t call it a mistake, make it a feature”. So, we pieced and stitched, (the purple heel was part of the original plan, but the blue “inserts” were not!) and came up with these heels for one of the pairs of shoes.


I don’t stop teaching until everyone has what they came for…a pair of shoes that fit, and a pattern they can use to make more shoes on their own. So, after returning home I made a masking tape copy of this colorful shoe, then a  mock-up of it for the maker to try on. If it fits, she’ll have what she needs to continue shoemaking. If it doesn’t, we’ll try again.



In my next workshop, that will be offered in Maine in August, I”ll teach how to make center-seam shoes. We’ll make a masking tape pattern over one of the maker’s feet, using the process described in my video “how to make custom shoes and lasts”.


And, we’ll make “nomoc basic**” soles for the shoes in the workshop.

If you’re from Maine or nearby, please consider attending. Here’s a link to the brochure:


*nomoc variation soles – soles with bottom sole of natural rubber or thick inner tube, and topsole of leather that is 1/4″ bigger all around than the bottom sole. The topsole has holes punched around its edge, so any upper can be stitched to it.
**nomoc basic soles – soles with the same two layers, but both are the same size, and the upper is stitched to the sole through both layers.

Sometimes you just can’t win..


I noticed this pair of denim slip-on sandals in my closet recently, and was reminded of the occasion of my making them– I was on vacation with my mother, and wanted to have a project with me. It was a laid-back vacation without much to do.

I decided to enter a contest found in a craft magazine: “Make something unique from denim!” I thought making these sandals would guarantee I would be the winner – what could be more creative and unusual?

I spent many hours making them, then mailed them in time to meet the deadline. I waited for the magazine’s decision, but didn’t hear anything.
Then, the next month’s magazine appeared, and I checked the back page to learn the results of the contest – and there was the winner and it wasn’t me! Someone won who made a pot holder out of a jeans pocket!

At least it allowed me to remain in that meditative stitching state for many hours during my time together with my mother, which was of great benefit to us both.

Results are in from my first shoemaking workshop in years


The suspense was high for five weeks, as the students in my local adult education class made “nomocs” for themselves. I have only taught one person at a time for years, so making six pairs of shoes that would fit six students all at the same time was challenging for me.
But, I thought that the nomoc process simplifies shoemaking so much that maybe I could pull it off. Now, the verdict is in – the shoes fit! A few were a tiny bit tight, but I think putting them on lasts will stretch them out just right. And, they are beautiful! (I’ll post a group shot next week, at the final class).
I was expecting to make espadrille-type shoes with the participants, but when they saw a little “flat” shoe, a shown in the photo, in my bundle, all wanted to make it instead. So, I’ll offer students in the other workshops I have this summer- Snow Farm, Vestitures in Lowell, Ma and at The Handmade Effect in Portland, Me. – both styles of shoes to choose from. Yay nomocs! (you see that little edge with holes in it rising up from the sole, that the upper is stitched to, that’s what makes it a nomoc) – although lomocs and fomocs are great shoemaking processes too!

Really exciting eco-method for making shoes

Two posts in shoemaking forum’s facebook page this morning might be of interest to you as they were for me…

link to article: http://showtime.arts.ac.uk/nidagonul

Did you see this, Ellen? Ellen is a weaver as well as shoemaker, when she sees this article, she’ll have a pair like this made by sundown.

I have fretted with how to make soles from inner tubes less smooth and potentially slippery – and here’s a technique – I’m imagining the soles made from cotton clothesline wrapped with bike inner tubes. I recently read that having a creative project does wonders for an aging brain – shoemaking provides endless problems needing creative solutions – I’m so happy to have problems to solve every day!


This article describes a technique for making faux leather from fermented tea, and a recent article was posted about making faux leather from pineapple waste.

One problem that needs a creative solution: if biodegradable artificial leather gets manufactured on a scale to eliminate the need for “real” leather, what will happen to all those hides that are a by-product of the meat industry?

How to get your sole straight on your last

Screen shot 2016-03-26 at 5.26.36 PMDSCN0726

While watching an old video showing a shoemaker at work, I saw a solution to one of my biggest stitch-down shoemaking problems. It is very important that the sole has an evenly-distributed  1/4″ lip extending out from the bottom of the last. In other words, there needs to be 1/4″ of sole peeking out all around the edge of the last. One has to have very strong hands to center the sole, then holding the last and sole in place, flip it over without the sole shifting.

The solution to this problem is shown here. Shoemakers use a leather strap that goes under the foot, then around the last and sole, so these two are held together sufficiently tight that they won’t shift. Then the sole can be nailed to the bottom of the last in the correct position.

As you can see, I used a bicycle inner tube instead of a leather strap, cut and tied at the proper length for me. Making stitch-downs just got a whole lot easier!

Take a shoemaking workshop at Snow Farm this June!


Does having a retreat in the Berkshires of W. Mass. at an exceptional craft and fine art school with a fabulous cafeteria (menu for everyone) appeal to you? Throw in a relaxed shoemaking workshop, and this might be the treat that you have wanted to give yourself for a long time.


I will be teaching “How to Make Funky Shoes that Fit” at Snow Farm in Williamsburg, Ma., June 18/19.

The shoes will be made using my “nomoc” process, that involves stitching the upper you make to a sole with stitching holes along its edge. This allows for relative “instant shoemaking gratification”.  These shoes provide an opportunity to get creative with surface design using acrylic paint, threads, punches, dyes, beads and thin leather for making appliqués. We will use earth-friendly biodegradable or recycled materials and non-toxic cements.

Snow Farm is a beautiful place, come and immerse yourself in care, inspiration and the practical pursuit of simple shoemaking.




I am excited about this new facebook group, and hope it will be of interest to you, too. There is a Shoemaking Forum facebook page, but most of the members are professional shoemakers, making footwear by the highest standards. The footwear that results is usually a refined men’s oxford shoe, or a women’s elegant high-heel shoe.

Shoemaking fun offers a page where those who make less conventional shoes can ask questions, share resources, etc. So have some shoemaking fun and become a member of the group!

1930s Film of a German shoemaker making boots

There’s a lot to learn from this movie if you are making fully-lasted shoes.. I don’t make fully-lasted shoes, but I still need to nail the sole to the bottom of the last when making “stitch-downs”. And, that has always been challenging. But after watching this video, I took a bicycle inner tube, cut it, then tied it together just long enough to pass under my left foot and then over a last between my knees. The sole was held firmly in place on the bottom of the last as I pounded a couple of temporary nails into the sole to hold it on the last. When I turned the last over, the sole was perfectly centered – voila!

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Walter’s shoes


Walter  taught English in Thailand, and became fascinated by the colorful cloth shoes that many people were wearing there. Upon return to his home in Roxbury, Ma., he googled a bit and found www.simpleshoemaking.com. Since it seemed that I made “unconventional shoes” from ecological materials using non-toxic cements, he got in touch and asked about doing an internship.  I thought I’d enjoy having someone to bounce shoemaking ideas off of who was many decades younger than me, so we made a deal; he would help me with photography and marketing ideas and I would help him design a prototype fabric shoe.

Challenges arose: how to make a fabric toebox so there was adequate toeroom and a smooth appearance in the toe area (we made a paste to coat the fabric toeboxes from an old recipe); how to make the shoe adjustable without using ties (there’s a strip of bicycle inner tube under the black and white strip over the instep); how to finish off the top edges of the shoe (he learned about the wonders of a serger); and how to make a nicely-finished stitch-down edge (he learned how to make bias tape from recycled jeans).

Here’s the shoe that has resulted from his many days of hard work! I can see him now with samples in each size at a Farmer’s Market in the Boston area this summer, vending footwear that is unique, ecological and beautiful! And I now have lots of great product photos and some interesting marketing ideas. I love having an intern!