Introduction: How to Make Leather Sneakers
Designing your own sneakers is way easier than it seems. I'd never made shoes of any kind before I took this one-day workshop at Tandy Leather Supply. I was so impressed with how simple it was that I knew I had to share it with you! Based on a kit that spawned from a successful Kickstarter project, this Instructable will show you how to create custom leather shoes in an afternoon with materials you can buy nearby or all-in-one kit you can buy online with everything you need.
Note: Although these directions reference leather, you can use the same pattern and directions to make your own shoes out of vegan leather (vinyl), industrial wool felt, or any other sturdy non-woven fabric. I can't wait to see what you make!
The easiest way to get started on this project is to buy a complete kit. A while ago, this rad company called OneDay ran a Kickstarter to make DIY sneaker kits available to everyone. Good for us, it succeeded! Now you can buy these kits directly from them.
If you're in Europe, you can purchase a kit direct from the manufacturer here: https://www.sneakerkit.eu/
If you're in the US, you can purchase the same kit from the Chicago School of Shoemaking and Leather Arts (how much do I want to go there?!) https://www.chicagoschoolofshoemaking.com/shop/
And if you're in Canada, pick one up from Lonsdale Leather: https://www.chicagoschoolofshoemaking.com/shop/
I do not make commissions on these links, I'm just providing them to be helpful!
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Step 1: Additional Supplies
Depending on which kit you choose (or if you want to go full-bore DIY), you may also need to gather the following:
- 2 sq ft. Leather. Anything from 2oz to 5 oz / 0.8mm - 2.0mm will do. If you start with basic veg-tan like in the link, you can stamp it or carve it or paint it however you like. I don’t recommend lightweight chrome tan because it tears too easily (ask me how I know).
- Leather hole punch (I like this rotary one because it's useful for all sorts of projects and has squishier handles.)
- Eyelets and an eyelet setter. Eyelets are like one-piece grommets. These are optional but will make your shoes last longer by reinforcing the spots where you pull the laces.
- Leather stitching needles (different than a leather sewing needle which has a triangular eye for punching through the leather. Since we're making our holes first, you just need a long, blunt needle)
- Heavyweight waxed thread
- Soles and insoles
- Poly cutting board (optional, but helpful in a couple of the steps)
- Mallet for setting eyelets
- Leather tooling set if you want to get fancy
I do make tiny commissions on these links, so click 'em and help me keep making rad Instructables!
Step 2: Cut Leather Uppers
Print out the pattern in one size up from the size of your soles (as indicated by the file name) here: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1PDTMOy9k8x
I included the pattern I used from sneakerkit.eu to demonstrate what your pattern will look like. You can see that even though my sole is a size 39, I used the size 40 upper pattern. These are European sizes, so check a conversion chart if you need to.
Choose the style of shoe you want (high top to low top) and cut out the paper pattern.
Trace your pattern pieces on your leather. Normally I would only trace them on the back of the fabric, but in this case, you're drawing a cutting line, so it's fine to trace it on the top. This way you can see any imperfections in the leather that you might want to avoid or patterns that you want to incorporate.
Trace the right side of the sneakers by flipping the pattern. Make sure you end up with 8 pieces in total: two inside parts, two outside parts, two tongues, and two backstraps. Don't forget the backstraps! Those are the little rectangles on the page with the tongue pattern.
Be sure to mark on the BACK of the leather which pieces are for the right shoe and which are for the left shoe. If you marked the lines on the front of the leather, then the left sides are the ones with the pattern instructions facing up. (If you marked on the backside of the leather, then the right sides are the ones with the instructions facing up.)
Cut out everything except the backstraps.* We're going to punch the holes in those first. I used scissors, but you can use a utility knife on the poly cutting board if you prefer.
At this point, you can paint, carve, and tool your leather if you chose to use veg tan. If not, you're ready for the next step.
I used a snakeskin-embossed veg tan leather, painted it with a blend of EcoFlo Cova Color paints, and sealed it with Eco Flo Satin Sheen. Then, because I wasn't satisfied with the interiors, I lined them with lightweight pigskin leather. If you want to know more about that process, leave me a comment and I'll do my best to walk you through it.
*Unless you're using very fine leather. Then move on to the next step and cut them after punching all of the holes.
Step 3: Punch the Stitching Holes in the Leather
The next thing we need to do is punch out all the little holes for stitching. The easiest way for me to do this was to use two awls to stabilize the pattern and leather on a poly cutting board (you can't stabilize without stab!). Then I used the tiny hole punch to punch the holes in every piece of the leather (there have to be synonyms for punch and hole, but that's the best I've got right now). Start with the pattern pieces facing up for the left side (depending on how you drew your pattern), then flip them and use the previously punched holes to punch the holes on the right side.
In the second picture, you can see my brother punching his holes before cutting out the leather. This is because he's using a very lightweight chrome-tanned leather that would stretch if he punched the holes out afterward. This is the same thing you want to do with your backstraps: punch the holes before cutting so the final shape doesn't distort.
Step 4: Punch the Holes in the Rubber Soles
Next, use the "hole guide" pattern piece to mark your stitch holes on the outsoles of the shoes. I marked these with a pen first and then used the rubber punchy thing to poke those holes. (see dem photos)
PRO TIP: When using any kind of squeezy hole punch, add a piece of material behind what you're trying to pierce. That way the tool can go through your leather/rubber/whatever and into the material behind it without damaging or dulling the tool.
Step 5: Set the Eyelets
I did this in the wrong order, so ignore the full composition of the photo. It didn't hurt anything, but it makes more sense to do all the stitching at once, so let's pretend the pieces aren't stitched together in the picture.
I had the luxury of using a hand press at Tandy (oh boy, do I wish I owned one of those), but your eyelet kit may have come with its own setting tool. If so, you'll need a mallet and a hard surface. Place the eyelets through the lacing holes from the front side and use the setter and anvil (part of the setting kit) to secure them.
Step 6: Let's Get Stitchy
Now comes the fun part! I'm going to refer you to the inimitable jessyratfink for a lesson on saddle stitching. Take a moment to get the hang of it, and come back when you're ready.
Before you begin stitching, take a moment to realize that we're stitching flat planes into curves. This is going to take a little finesse. Go easy and work with the tension of your threads to manipulate the leather into the shapes you want.
First, we're going to stitch the backstraps to the sides of the shoes. If you want to get fancy, you can add a little curve into this piece. Think of the way the shoe will curve around your the back of your heel from top to bottom. Now hold the leather with a little curve in it that way as you stitch it. Check out the heel in the last photo of this step to see the curve I'm talking about. (If this doesn't make sense, don't worry, it's not super important.)
Next, we're going to sew the tongue to the sole. The tongue of the shoe attaches right in front of the space where you punched the two extra holes below the stitching lines (for a "box stitch") on each (see photo 4). Line up the tongue and the uppers with the soles (matching that box stitch area) and begin to saddle stitch through the rubber, the tongue, and the uppers (see photo 5).
*This sounds tricky and like a hard way to start, but sewing the tongue first makes it SO MUCH easier to get your hand inside the shoe.
Continue this way around the entire upper and sole of the shoe. Once you reach the starting point, you can either backstitch and cut or burn your ends, or create a knot on the inside of the shoe that the insole will hide.
Now, repeat on the other shoe!
Step 7: BOOM, Custom Leather Sneakers!
YOU DID IT, you sexy beast! That was it. In an afternoon, you made your own custom leather sneakers. Drop in those insoles, lace 'em up and wear with pride. But be careful, pretty much everyone you meet is going to want you to make them a pair now.
If you made your own pair from this Instructable, I would be over the moon to know. Please share your projects here or tag me on instagram @scoochmaroo or feel free to reach out to me at https://sarahjames.myportfolio.com. I'm off to make my next pair. . . kisses!
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