When people say they can tell a man by the shoes he wears, we’re pretty sure they are talking in terms of how well the footwear is made. Sadly, general standards in shoe construction have dropped owing to mass manufacturing methods. But as the world now strives to move away from a throwaway mentality, and show interest in product longevity again, we look into what it takes to make a great pair of shoes.
shoe construction 101
Shoes come in many styles, shapes and sizes, but even more so in the methods of their construction. Footwear from reputable makers will be more than transparent in announcing their manner of construction. Here are some that you are likely to have come across.
Cemented – Common in budget, off-the-rack shoes. Outsoles are attached using glue rather than stitching.
Blake – The pioneer method in mechanised shoe construction. Insole, outsole and leather upper are stitched together.
Blake Rapid – An expansion on the Blake method, utilising the Sutton Rapid outsole sewing machine. The insole and outsole now feature a midsole placed between them.
Goodyear – A curved stitch holds the leather upper between the insole and welt. This creates improved water resistance due to the absence of stitching on the insole.
Stitchdown – One of the oldest forms of shoe construction, dating back to the 17th century. The leather upper is flanged outward and stitched down on to a midsole and insole. Some variations also employ an additional welt stitch like in a Goodyear construction.
Norvegese – This method of construction originally from Italy offers greater water resistance. It uses at least two rows of outsole stitching but can go up to four.
From the shoemaker’s mouth
While knowing what these terms mean can be handy, they’re just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Fortunately for us, home-grown bespoke shoemaker Josh Leong answered some of our burning questions.
1. What are the differences between a Blake and a Blake Rapid-stitched shoe and how does it affect the shoe?
The primary difference between the two would be the presence of an additional midsole for the latter. There is also the additional round of stitching that secures the midsole to the outsole.
Aesthetically, a Blake-stitched shoe would have a slimmer profile compared to the Blake Rapid-stitched shoe. It would also be more flexible as there is only the insole and outsole, without the extra midsole that’s present in the Blake Rapid construction.
2. Why is the Goodyear welt so popular with shoemakers and enthusiasts?
Before the introduction of industrial shoe factories and machinery, all welted constructions were hand-stitched. A shoe made with hand-welted construction was akin to the “Rolls-Royce” of footwear. The real difference between hand-welting and Goodyear-welting lies in the type of insole that is used.
There are many advantages of the “one-piece” insole used in a hand-welted construction versus the “two-piece” insole used in a Goodyear-welted construction. A hand-welted insole is always going to be more durable than a Goodyear-welted insole. It is also able to be resoled more times without concerns about the canvas “rib” separating from the insole. The thicker leather used for the hand-welted insole also means that it moulds better to the bottom of the wearer’s foot. This means that a hand-welted pair of shoes gets increasingly comfortable in terms of the footbed of the shoe; not just from the uppers softening and breaking in with wear.
The Goodyear-welted construction was invented by industrial shoe factories to replicate the processes involved in the hand-welted construction. One of the main advantages of a welted shoe versus a Blake-stitched shoe would be that the insole is never compromised or “stitched through”. This means that you should be able to resole a welted shoe multiple times.
It is almost impossible to resole a Blake-stitched shoe. This is because you would have to utilise the holes in the insole that were made during the initial stitching. In terms of craftsmanship, durability as well as aesthetic appearance, a welted construction is by far a superior construction versus a cemented or Blake-stitched shoe. These are the factors that have led to its rise in popularity as the construction of choice for both bespoke shoemakers, as well as shoe enthusiasts.
3. Some people believe that stitchdown-constructed shoes have less resoles in their lifetime compared to Goodyear welted shoes due to the upper being stitched directly to the midsole and outsole. What is your take on this?
First, we need to understand what are some of the factors that contribute to how many times a pair of shoes can be resoled.
One – Are the existing needle holes in the leather that were created during the first round of stitching reusable? Would the cobbler be able to use the same set of holes to stitch on the new outsoles? Having to create new holes would further compromise the integrity of the leather.
Two – Can the leather components that require re-stitching during the resoling process be replaced easily by the cobbler, in the event that the existing components are too worn out or damaged to be stitched through during the resoling process?
It would be very difficult to re-stitch a new outsole onto the existing midsole. Reason being, the stitching needle always pierces from the outsole side first. After which, it goes all the way through the midsole and then finally the upper that has been flanged outwards. This means that it is virtually impossible to get the needle to pierce through the exact same stitching holes that were created when the shoes were first made, because the cobbler would have no idea where the needle is piercing the midsole or the uppers.
Compare this to the hand-welted and Goodyear-welted constructions, where the existing stitching holes in the leather holdfast or the canvas “rib” that were first used to stitch on the welt are easily reusable. This means that the entire welt can be replaced if needed. With a brand new welt, stitching on a new outsole to the new welt is exactly the same process that is done when making a new pair of shoes.
In my opinion, if you feel better about having a shoe that allows itself to be resoled multiple times, then there’s no doubt that you should buy a hand-welted or Goodyear-welted pair.
4. The modern interpretation of the Norvegese construction looks ornate, since it sometimes has up to four rows of exterior stitching and braided stitching. Is there any functional benefit to all this or is it purely aesthetic?
The horizontal stitches that you see on the uppers of the shoes, are the functional stitches that attach the insole to the upper and lining, before they are flanged outwards and then stitched to a midsole or directly to the outsole (depending on the style of Norvegese shoe that’s being made). The braided intertwining stitches that you sometimes see on the upper are purely aesthetic, and don’t have any functional benefit.
As for the vertical stitches that attach the flanged upper and lining to the midsole, or the midsole to the outsole: these are all functional stitches that are required to hold the various layers together. The primary functional benefit of the Norvegese construction is that it is the most water resistant of all the constructions, and is designed to be worn in rainy climates.
5. Are there real benefits to cemented construction or is it just a way of cutting costs?
There is absolutely no functional benefit to the cemented construction. You can’t even argue on the point of flexibility, since you can get the exact same flexibility or level of comfort from a Blake-stitched shoe. And the Blake-stitched would offer you the added benefit of the soles being stitched to the insoles, which means there’s almost no chance of the outsoles ever separating from the uppers. Cemented shoes were introduced purely to cut costs, to make dress shoes at a price point that is accessible to the masses.
It’s been said: “Invest in your shoes and your bed. Because if you’re not in one, you’re in the other.” While well-made shoes will cost you a pretty penny, their durability and return of investment make them all worthwhile. Keep this in mind the next time you go shopping for shoes. You don’t want to end up purchasing something that’s all style but no substance.