Introduction: No-sew Shoes
This project will show you how create a pair of shoes without using a sewing machine. Going one further than this, I am attempting to make a pair of shoes with the fewest number of specific shoe components as possible and the least amount of leather.
Don't get me wrong, I love sewing machines. They can be frustrating at times when they break down or jam, but in general they are hugely satisfying. I have owned and operated a range of different machines but also have found myself without them at times. During those bleak moments I wondered how I could still make shoes without a single stitch. After plenty of design attempts I have come up with a couple of ways of doing it. I will be sharing the simplest one with you in this Instructable.
Step 1: Tools and Materials
- Material for your shoe (preferably leather)
- A pair of shoe lasts (these can be purchased second hand on ebay, new on Amazon- the style of last will determine the size and style of the shoe)
- Adhesive (preferably neoprene cement or contact adhesive)
- Insole material (cellulose style or leather)
- Sole material (leather/EVA foam/rubber)
- Hair dryer/heat gun
- Shoe making tools (knife, lasting pincers, hammer, tacks etc. see my instructable "Testing a Shoe Pattern" for more information.
Step 2: In the Beginning...
Upon meeting my Autodesk Pier 9 colleague Jeff Ponitz I was intrigued by his exploration of parametric patterns and the space that can be created when these lines are expanded into a 3D space. A prime example of his exploratory work is in the beautiful cut and pressed aluminium domes that you can see in the photo shoot for this Instructable.
I saw the potential for the use of such parametric patterns in footwear. The dashed lines when cut can open up or remain closed as they form over the shoe last. With the correct combination and pattern of cuts you can add support or increase flexibility where required.
We started by taking his pattern and cutting it from leather. We laid this on a shoe last and began adjusting the many options available such as line orientation, line length, density etc. Changing these variables allows you to increase flexibility or stiffness all around the shoe in a unique way. This pattern also adds an attractive aesthetic to the shoe, tracing the contours of the last shape with closed or open cuts in the leather.
Funnily, after the first test I was browsing the web for other similar styles and no sew designs and I stumbled across a 4th century design from Northern Europe. Known as the Damendorf or Barbarian shoe it was fabricated using one piece of heavyweight leather and as such required no stitching. I was certainly surprised to see such a similar looking design from such a long time ago! Well, it is said that fashion designs get re-circulated!
Step 3: Designing Your Shoe
We made 15-20 different iterations of this style of shoe before settling on a couple of designs - I have decided to make a slip on shoe for this Instructable as it means I won't need to use any shoe laces or other fixtures. The design will use a 'mule' style front section and a heel cup for the back part. As there are two pieces it should allow enough flexibility of the material to allow your foot to get in and out of the shoe.
The shoe will be unlined and cut from a fairly heavy weight leather so the cut pattern will offset the stiffness of the material. As I have access to a laser cutter I have added a parametric pattern design to the shoe. If you do not have access to a laser cutter you could leave the pieces of the shoe blank with no pattern or cut the leather by hand.
The shoe pictured uses EVA foam for the sole. For the pair I will be using heavy sole leather instead as it can be purchased in a blank form from most good cobblers. You could also use rubber, whichever you have access to.
Step 4: Making a Pattern
Please refer to my other Instructable for a more detailed overview of how to make a shoe pattern. I prepared my file using vector graphics so that I can send it to the laser cutter.
Using my shoe last, I made a paper pattern for the last bottom which will also work as my insole pattern. I then scanned the pattern and converted it to a vector graphic.
Once I have made my shoe and attached it to the shoe last, I will make a separate pattern for the sole.
Step 5: Cutting the Shoe Upper
After testing the cutting strength, speed and frequency, nest the patterns together to reduce wastage. Cut the patterns from your material, including the insoles.
The laser cutter has a tendency to burn the edges of the leather so immediately after I have finished my cut I submerge all the pieces in warm water and agitate them to remove the soot. This precaution helps reduce the smell of burnt leather and also makes the pieces supple for the hand lasting process. I leave the leather soaking in water for about half an hour. You can also use a brush or cloth along your edges to help reduce the soot.
Step 6: Hand Lasting the Wet Shoe
Remove your leather pieces from the water and allow them to drip dry or place them on a cloth to remove excess water. These should be nice and supple and ready for forming.
Attach the insole to your last using tacks.
I begin by positioning the back part of my pattern into approximately the right position on my last and use tacks to keep it there. Once happy with that begin positioning the front part.
Tack the forepart in position by securing it either side and by the toe. Once you are pleased with its location, remove the tack from the toe part, take your lasting pincers and stretch the leather forward towards the toe and then secure it with another tack.
Continue stretching the leather evenly around the toe and add more tacks to keep it in place. Repeat these steps for the pair, and leave the shoes to dry overnight.
Step 7: Hand Lasting (continued)
You should have a pair of matching, leather shoes. If they do not match as a pair, now is a good time to correct them. Start removing the tacks from the bottom of the pattern pieces. Do not remove them from your insole yet.
Now use glue to secure the leather to the insole. Work your way around the shoe with your glue, making sure to glue the leather upper and the insole evenly.
Wait for the glue to cure.
Neoprene cement can be heat activated. This means you can start your glueing process, wait until it is all dry, then apply some gentle heat and it will become tacky again. Use this to your advantage in your workflow so that you can do something else whilst you wait for the glue to dry!
Glue and position the heel cup first.
Trim the excess leather underneath the shoe with a sharp knife. The aim is to keep enough leather to maintain adhesion but also to make the bottom profile as flat as possible.
Move on to the front part.
Starting from the toe part, apply a little heat from a heat gun (or hair dryer) and use your pincers to start pleating the toe and folding the leather underneath the insole. Once you are happy with each pleat it helps to hit it with a hammer - the combination of heat and pressure will make the bond very strong.
Work back towards the heel area, pulling the leather and pressing it into the insole. I like to go from side to side down the shoe, this way I can apply even pressure to the leather along both sides and it is less likely to become lopsided.
Once you have closed both of your uppers on the last and you are happy with your work, liberally beat the underside of the shoe to make sure it has made contact all the way around. It helps to put the shoe in your lap whilst you do this.
Step 8: Preparing the Shoe for Soleing
Remove ALL the tacks from the underside of the shoe.
Where you have made pleats, take a sharp knife and slice off the tops to create a flat profile all around.
Take a rasp or use a grinding wheel if you have one and rough the leather so that it exposes the grain. At the same time, continue to create a flat profile underneath the shoe. Once this is done we can make a pattern for the sole.
Place the lasted shoe on some card and sketch around it with a pencil. Cut this pattern out and align it onto the last. Check your work. If it is incorrect, either take more card away or repeat the step. It is worth spending time to get this correct- after all it is important to make your shoes look good!
This is your sole pattern and it can now be used to cut your material. I have used a scanner to take the approximate dimensions and then converted mine to a vector graphic so I can laser cut it. Print this and check it against your shoe before cutting the leather.
I have also added a heel to my sole pattern - it will be two pieces of stacked leather.
Step 9: Sole Making
I used the lasers raster function to remove some leather from the soles where I wish to position the heel. Removing the top layer of leather in such a way will allow the glue to seep in and ensure a more secure bond.
Once I have cut my heavy leather sole and heel pieces I use fine sand paper along the edges to remove any soot build up. Apply glue to both parts of the heel and bond them together.
Once I have my complete sole, coat the top in glue. For extra adhesion I wait for the first coat to cure then apply a second. At the same time, glue the bottom of your lasted shoe.
Step 10: Attaching Your Sole
Check and double check you have not left any tacks in the insole.
Once the glued pieces have cured, use heat to re-activate the cement. Whilst still warm, line up the sole piece and place it onto the shoe just using your fingers. Once happy with the position of it, use your hammer to beat the sole and ensure it is attached all the way around. Careful when you are beating the heel piece not to hit it so far as to dislodge it.
You can be quite enthusiastic with the hammer, the more you beat it, the more chance it has of staying put. Keep an eye on the leather that you are not marking it. If you can see some discoloration I would recommend using a thinner piece of leather over the top of it.
I now use my heat gun and blast the shoe all over. This has the effect of slightly shrinking the leather and will help in shape retention. For even better results, place the warm shoe in the fridge. I recommend leaving the shoe on the last for a minimum 24 hours for good shape retention.
Step 11: Finishing
I had to make a small adjustment to the shape of my sole after I had glued it on - it was too big for my last. I used a sander to do this.
There is also a brown-black discoloration from the laser cutter burning my leather. Because of this I am using a brown edge coating liquid.
Remove the lasts from your shoes. Check for tacks in the insole.
You can apply a decorative sock to the inside using your insole pattern to cut out a pair from leather and glue them in.
Inspect your shoe, clean off any soot and remove any small grains of leather.
Step 12: The Finished Shoe
Here is the finished product, ready for the next holiday in the sun. Perfect whilst strolling along the Amalfi coastline, linen trousers rolled up and no socks on. I can almost taste the espresso...
Back to reality!
You can see the burnt edges of the interior of the shoe- an artefact of the laser cutting process that i have grown to like. As with any hand made craft their is usually some trace- in this case it is not that of a hand but of a 120W beam of concentrated light.
I will be wear testing my shoes and thinking of how I can improve upon the pattern and the way that they have been manufactured.
Thanks for reading and good luck!