How to make simple stitch-down shoes for people with swollen feet

My own mother had problems finding shoes to fit her swollen ankles, so I had wanted to make her a pair. However, before I was able to, she moved into a nursing home and was not getting out of bed. So, I had some ideas in mind when I recently received a call from a daughter frantically trying to find someone to make a pair of shoes that her mother with swollen feet could wear.

duct tape mockup of mother's swollen foot

duct tape mockup of mother’s swollen foot

I suggested that she follow the directions in “How to Make a Custom Last”, a three-part video on my blog, to make duct tape “molds” of her mother’s feet. She sent me the duct tape molds, and I used them to make mock-ups in polyester felt. I sent them for her to try, and – I was a little surprised – no alterations were needed! She then sent the mock-ups back.. Her mother wanted a slip-on, so she marked where the topline of the “clog”  would be.

felt adjusted copy of mock-up

felt adjusted copy of mock-up

To make a shoe with such height at the toe, I decided to use a center seam style.

I had asked what color her mother wanted – brown, black – red, purple?! She wanted purple! I had a nice “dignified” purple, so purple slip-ons she will have.

I used the felt mock-ups as lasts, so I stuffed them with wool batting. They gave me the shape and height I needed to drape the upper over, while cementing the upper to the sole.

using felt mock-up as last

using felt mock-up as last


completed pair

completed pair

Once cemented, the shoes were stitched together, and I have my fingers crossed that they will provide the spaciousness and comfort her mother needs so she can soon walk outside – in her new purple shoes!

alpargatas, espardenyers, espadrilles, and a German shoemaking manual!

What riches! Today I happened upon, where I discovered a “sole mate”! That is, a woman who is fascinated by all kinds of techniques for making shoes, and who no doubt finds solutions for shoemaking puzzlements while cogitating between 2 and 3am, as do I.

I like the blogger Katya’s moccasin-making technique; I planned to do something similar in making the “plug” (the part of a moccasin that goes over the top of the foot) with a friend who wants to make shoes for refugees who have wider ankles and feet than can easily fit in U.S. shoes. We will be making bellows tongue boots from How to Make Simple Shoes for Women to hopefully solve the problem. The leg of this style boot can expand or contract according to how tightly the laces are tied.  Hopefully these boots will be comfortable for the refugees as well as anyone who has swollen ankles.

katya's moccasins

I was delighted to see how she solved the problems of making espadrille soles – she has created a totally-natural sole that looks substantial and attractive.

Another great gift of her blog is this German booklet on shoemaking – how wonderful it would be to have it translated!

german shoemaking book

Here’s a traditional espadrille-making video, which I find especially interesting to view in conjunction with viewing Katya’s technique for making the soles ourselves.

This url goes to multiple videos about alpargatas; the dearest one is entitled “espardenyers”, with the most charming “thumb piano”  music.


Multi-color boots better than ever!


I made myself a pair of brown boots with laces several years ago. Unfortunately I didn’t make the pattern quite right, so even when the laces were laced as tightly as possible, the boots still had too much room in them. I didn’t like the way the sides slumped down, so one day I decided to cut the strips of leather off between the two rows of eyelets. At least then I could tighten the laces so the boots would fit!

However, they didn’t look too good with that chopped-off strip quite visible down the front of the boot, so I decided to put a leather flap across the eyelet area, which would snap to the boot. I found enough matching leather for the two flaps, so they were stitched in place.


That looked pretty good, except it became clear that one flap wasn’t enough, the thin edge between the eyelets was still visible higher up the boot. I thought a flap that fastened with buckles might look better than two with snaps. Then, since I had no more of this particular brown leather, I thought I would use another color – and I had a mauve-purple that looks good with anything I wear. So, the purple flap was installed.

I had been thinking for years maybe that I needed to make a black pair of boots to wear with my grey corduroys – brown just wasn’t the right footwear to wear with gray I had learned many years ago…. but why not embellish these boots in some manner that would bring a touch of gray into my brown boots – then I could comfortably wear them with gray pants! I devised a little “collage” of the purple, green and gray that I thought I would stitch to the brown flap (I also have a green pair of pants that would look “cool” if I had a bit of green on my boots – as “cool” as a 68-year-old woman can look!) In the photo below I temporarily taped the “collage” on the flap where I would have put it if RISD students hadn’t advised me otherwise, for you to see..(does anyone think they would have liked it this way?)


But the little mosaic look “contrived”… Since I was soon to do a quickie shoemaking workshop for a group of students at Rhode Island School of Design, I thought – I’ll present my design dilemma to the students, and ask for their advice as to how to best bring these colors into my boots!

And, I got a couple of really exciting suggestions that I have now incorporated and I’m so pleased with the results! One student said, “Change the color of the tab at the heel  to one of the other colors you want. Another student said, “Put colored leather strips around the edge of the lower flap.” I realized that their thoughts involved making color accents more integrated into the boot instead of being an “artsy” design plopped down onto the front of the boot.

So here’s how my boots look now. I love them, I wish I could do nothing but make these boots with custom color accents – but maybe one of you reading this will turn this idea into a thriving business!

derby boot w/color accents

You make the straps, I’ll provide the soles…(or you can make those too!)

1/28/12: A fellow recently emailed me asking for sandal soles that can be used to make “capri” sandals. He provided me with the link

I realized that even though I hadn’t known of these sandals, I do have all the tools and materials to make

denise's sandals

these soles. So, I have decided to offer them for sale. I have a die press to cut out the soles, a Danny Marlin groover to make the groove for the stitches on the bottom sole, and a Cowboy stitcher for stitching the soles together. The fact that the soles are stitched together makes them perfect for me to make, since I don’t use toxic shoe cements. The alternative cement I use will not hold a sole on by itself, so my soles are always stitched in their final stage.

I’m looking forward to putting the soles for sale on my etsy shop.

My book Slow Sandals will teach you how to make the soles for yourself if you’d prefer that approach.

What is unique about these sandal soles is that they have two slits in the big toe and in the instep area, through which the sandal maker can insert straps that her or his customer chooses. Imagine a shop with all kinds of sandal straps on display. Jewelry makers, especially those who create with leather and stones, could create bejeweled straps similar to those made in Capri. Other artisans that I can imagine making straps would be, of course, leather workers and carvers (maybe the purchaser’s name carved into the strap?), weavers of bands, beaders, stitchers…

The designer can create sandals for the customer in just minutes.

loop sandal

These soles will supplement the sandal soles that I already have in the works – these have three loops on them, through which a long tubular piece of cotton or silk – or thin leather – can be threaded, then wound around your leg, just like the sandals I see on the feet of every model on the web (mostly in high-heeled versions) strutting down a runway.

I’m hoping these soles will make many small businesses possible.

Professions making a comeback – shoemaking

James Roberts of Melbourne, Australia makes footwear and leather goods by hand, using methods and tools much the same to those used a hundred years ago. His shoes start at $800 AUD (about $790 USD), with boots and custom work going much higher—and he has a waiting list of six months plus. Numerous other leather-workers ply their trade on’s online marketplace, crafting custom shoes, boots, and bags. There, a pair of custom-made men’s or women’s shoes can command $500 a pair, and bags draw $100 on up.

In this age of mass production, shoes come cheap. Why the interest in bespoke, even in such a down economy? For many, it’s about quality and luxury. “Handmade shoes are now in the realm of luxury goods when they were once the only option,” says James. “So to keep the profession alive, I strive to make the shoes fit that small luxury market and thus raise the quality and craftsmanship of every step in the process that I can.”

James uses all leather for his shoes’ uppers, linings and soles and stiffeners, he hand-sews the shoes, and he dyes his own leather. “A day in the workshop is hard work. I usually have a few different tasks that I aim to get done that day. Sometimes it can take all day hand- stitching the soles on.” He spends anywhere from 40-70 hours making each pair.