The Shoe Snob Blog

What Is a Handmade Shoe?

Handmade, bespoke shoes by Gaziano & Girling

I recently wrote a piece about lies in the industry and how the terms ‘handmade’ and no-middlemen and the like were tossed around like confetti and that they meant nothing as were both used incorrectly. Of course, you have people that love to be blind to reality and want to believe in pure bliss like denial that their factory made shoes are ‘handmade.’ That being, as I am on a quest to really educate the masses here, let’s break down what this term means.

In the simple common sense nature of the word, it is easy to break down that ‘handmade’ means Made by Hand. Now what does ‘made by hand’ mean? Does it mean a hand touched the product, that it did so by 50% of the production, or did 100% of the work with nothing more than simple hand tools and no machine use whatsoever? I can tell you that when the term ‘handmade’ came around, there were no machines. Shoes had to be made by hand because machine production hadn’t been invented yet. And it seems from the day that machines actually were created to help with mass production, the term ‘handmade’ got lost, misconstrued and just downright abused as it is today.

Now as someone who has actually made shoes by hand and very much respects the trade and the work that actual shoemakers that make shoes by hand, I feel that the term ‘handmade’ should not be abused like it is today. So let’s look at the various handmade conceptions here.
—True Handmade Bespoke footwear – In real handmade bespoke footwear, you have a knife, an awl, a rasp, a hammer, thread, leather, pincers (shoe pliers), glue, sole irons (hand tools for finishing the sole), a glove and some glass for shaping the sole and smoothing it. That’s it. And everything is done with these things and one or two other hand tools like the make the fudging on the welt. The only machine used is a sewing machine to create the upper as it doesn’t make sense and is not better to do this by hand. There are no pre-cut pieces, insoles are cut by hand, heels are cut and stacked by hand (no heel blocks). This is how the Japenese make shoes, as well as certain French and English makers too.

—The quicker handmade bespoke shoe — this is like the above but there are some cheating techniques to make the process faster. These include using precut heel blocks instead of cutting the heel piece by piece and then shaping it by hand. This also includes using a sanding machine to finish/smooth/shape the edging of the sole and the heels. This faster way of shoemaking is typical of Italian shoemakers which is why their shoes are significantly cheaper as you save a lot of time doing this. (this is how I was taught)

My first shoe ever made, by me

THE TWO ABOVE ARE TRULY THE ONLY REAL FORMS OF HANDMADE SHOES IN THE SIMPLISTIC DEFINITION OF THE WORD

The one directly below I believe is also an acceptable version if one is not being rigid as it is pretty much a handmade shoe as in reality there is no true plus to sewing the sole on by hand only that doing all of the finishing by hand, looks incredibly better than a quicker, machine helped version.

—Semi-handmade shoes in small workshops — Brands like Saint Crispins and VASS (I have been told that they are 100% handmade but I have yet to see conclusive evidence that they stitch the sole by hand ****EDIT – a trusted source and friend has confirmed seeing that VASS stitches the sole by hand, thus, in fact, being 100% handmade****) and other small ones in the Austro/Hungarian market. These Eastern European made shoes are usually done so in small workshop-like-factories that can produce a couple of thousand shoes a year and tend to make the shoes by hand (think the Italian way), up until it the point of the sole in which they use a machine (sometimes even a hand machine, but still not sewn by hand) to stitch on the sole and most certainly will use sanding machines for the finishing.

–Handwelted shoes made in a factory — These are production shoes. Plain and simple. And sure they do some of the processes by hand, like lasting and welting but you better believe that these are businesses in the interest of making the best shoes they can in the fastest amount of time. And they are NOT HANDMADE.

Now, I can see how handwelted shoes could potentially be confused with ‘handmade’ as many people don’t stop to think why, or care why or how they are different because they would rather accept a blind reality and claim they are wearing handmade shoes than come to truly understand the product they are wearing and thus be able to appreciate further. But to call these handmade is literally a slap in the face to those that actually make shoes by hand and have to master an art to do so well.

What’s even more mind-boggling is when people think that cemented, blake-stitched or goodyear welted shoes are ‘handmade’. The funny thing is that goodyear is a machine as is blake. These are the names of the machines that make the shoes and the construction used, much like ‘handwelted’ and ‘handmade’ are also constructions, but not the same construction. By the very definition of GY and Blake construction, it is known that THE SHOE IS NOT HANDMADE. Yet companies market them as such, lying salesmen say so to get you to spend $300 thinking you are getting a really good deal and the blind consumer lives ignorantly forever spreading false news to his children and the vicious cycle continues.

So let’s end it here. YOUR SHOES ARE NOT HANDMADE. Here is a list of brands that are not handmade, never were and never will be:

-Gucci
-John Lobb (Paris)RTW or MTO that you can buy in a shop anywhere outside of St James street, London
-Ferragamo
-Santoni
-Chuch’s
-Crockett & Jones
-No shoe ‘Made in Spain’ unless done by a bespoke shoemaker.  —this pretty covers all of these new brands sold in the US claiming no middlemen and the like. That includes my own brand as well. They are not handmade either—
-JM Weston
-Alden
-Allen Edmonds
-Louis Vuitton
-Fratelli Rossetti
-Gaziano & Girling RTW or MTO
-Corthay RTW or MTO
-Berluti RTW or MTO

And the list goes on and on, but here are some of the big ones so you know better.

Okay, hopefully you have read this with open eyes and choose to believe the guy who has spent the last 10 years learning all of the secrets of the shoe industry in order to spread knowledge to the world and not continue allowing people to be tricked, fooled or led to believe otherwise, many things that simply are not true, the biggest one being that YOUR SHOES ARE NOT HANDMADE.

Sincerely

Justin, ‘The Shoe Snob’

  • Patrick Sandy

    at last someone open up about handmade shoes, thanks Justin!

    • Timofey

      That Would you say about silvano Lattanzi?

  • William Marques

    Some G&G may be hand made – the bespoke ones.

    • TheShoeSnob

      yes I realize I forgot to make the distinction, assuming that people would know that I was talking about their RTW stuff

  • Sam

    For this discussion, can you discern between handmade and machine made ?

    A lot of fancy tailors cannot discern between bespoke and a high quality machine made clothing.

    If no, is this a discussion we should be having in the first place. If in the end it doesn’t matter -it shouldn’t matter. If I cannot tell the bread I’m having is hand made or not, it probably doesn’t matter. Just my 2 cents.

    If yes, tell us how to discern. You did lay out a lot of points. But for the average joe, can they discern handmade and an extremely good quality machine made shoe?

  • Antonio garcía Enrile

    Dear Justin,

    I can say something about all this.
    The customer who buys a “handmade” shoe that demands to see the production process, any real craftsman who does this “well done”, will show his work proudly.

    The quality of the handmade shoe, is not only in sewing by hand.
    All the hidden parts inside the shoe, Tope, buttress and jimmies were made with vegetable tanned leather, given the way by wetting and hitting … when the shoe at its foot picks up moisture, these shapes adapt in a certain way to its physiognomy , and it’s healthy to perspire.
    Another important point is the heel made to strata, this guarantees a correct seat of the shoe.
    The gap created when sewing the fence and the insole is very subtle, almost non-existent, so the insole does not sink as it happens in goodyear.

    Then the sewing by hand, the handwelt and also the stippling of the sole, this is like welding two pieces, each stitch is crossed and this does not happen in the machine.

    We also have the flexibility.
    It should be borne in mind that there may also be badly made “handmade” shoes … poor workmanship or poor quality materials.

    Best regards
    Enrile

  • Michael Newman

    Bespoke is a much abused term in tailoring and menswear in general. I am a
    dentist. At a guess I have placed about 50,000 fillings. Every one of
    these has, by necessity, been “bespoke” and “hand made” but,
    of course, I have never used those terms. I have also fitted
    thousands of crowns, most of which have been hand made (by a
    technician, not by me). But over the last decade the whole industry
    is slowly moving away from hand made towards machine made mainly, at
    the moment, for crowns, bridges, and dentures. I am sure fillings
    will follow later. Ten years ago all the crowns I fitted were hand
    made. Today 95% of them are machine made either by CAD-CAM milling,
    3D printing, or laser sintering. There are several advantages but,
    from my point of view, the most important are improved strength and
    better fit. My patients would probably mention the improved
    aesthetics. There is also a cost saving, mainly because it is not
    necessary to use precious metals. Everything is still “bespoke”
    and there is always an element of hand work mainly in the area of
    aesthetics, especially for work being done at the front of the mouth.

    So I am moving from bespoke/hand made to bespoke/machine made to improve
    quality.

    So…accepting the many benefits is aesthetics, comfort etc. from having bespoke
    shoes made are there any advantages to machine made? I am thinking,
    for instance, strength of stitching or improved bonding of the
    various elements that might need adhesive but I guess there might be
    others.

  • Antonio garcía Enrile

    Dear Michael,
    Really the machine and the new materials, helped make a shoe less expensive, but not better than a “well done by hand” shoe.
    Although we want to compare constantly, they are simply different things ….. like pears and apples.

  • S.

    Dear Justin,

    On which category would you put Bestetti Bespoke or Novecento line ?

    Thanks a lot!

    • TheShoeSnob

      can’t say for sure as I have never see the work done in person. I have seen sanding machines in the workshop but not sure if they were also used for bespoke or only for Novecento

      • S.

        Ok, thanks a lot for answering !

  • Kenneth Darcy Brown

    great site Justin! – wanted to pick the brains of the informed folk on here – I love stylish shoes with Norvegese, (Norwegian) construction soles/stitching, (the real ones not the aesthetic mimics). Can anyone recommend some quality brands that feature these and bonus if they do not require a mortgage to purchase lol.

  • TheShoeSnob

    yes benchmade is usually done with human’s working at machines, whereas mass produced is usually conveyor belt style with limited human necessity and machines doing nearly all of the work