What Is a Handmade Shoe?
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)
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:
-John Lobb (Paris)RTW or MTO that you can buy in a shop anywhere outside of St James street, London
-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—
-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.
Justin, ‘The Shoe Snob’