Green Shoes, Woodland Boots and Happy Feet
I will add more pictures to this when time permits
Rob Exton visits an environmentally sound and ethical producer of quality shoes to make a pair for himself.
With awkward feet to shoe I have long wished I could make my own to gain some comfort and the satisfaction of their production. I have attempted moccasins at home but need that professional tuition to move forward.
Unfortunately my daughter has inherited my wide feet and finds it impossible to buy shoes that fit and she has often commented on the, cheap rubbish imported from across the world, and then dumped into landfill as they fall apart and cannot be repaired.
Upon recommendation I was placing an order as a present for my daughter, a pair of, made to order shoes, using the Green Shoes website, where I discovered that they run workshops at which you can experience the design and practical skill necessary to complete your own pair in a single day.
No sooner seen then booked, I was off to Buckfastleigh, Devon of a Saturday in late March to learn a new craft. I am a reasonable leatherworker by this time so did not feel intimidated by the processes but rather the principals of pattern making, cutting out and making.
The Green Shoes team claim that no experience is necessary, as you will have expert assistance at every stage to complete your project from one of the professional shoemakers facilitating the workshop. To test this theory I was taking along my good friend and colleague Carol as a birthday present for her. Carol is no leatherworker, nor seamstress, but she does love nice comfy shoes!
The company was started in 1981 by Alison Hastie and now employees a team of 5 creating an ethical product, using eco-friendly materials and without workforce exploitation. All of the shoes they make can be made from Eco-Tan leather (vegetable tans without any chemicals) or from Lorica, an artificial material made form cellulose fibers and resins which vegans will prefer. All shoes can be resoled many times, while children’s can be stretched up a size as they grow, the ultimate in recycling, with most of the soles made from natural rubber.
Which style to make was not an easy choice out of so many, with the desert boots being a good choice for woodland folk of both gender. I was however keen to have a pair of relaxed fit, camp moccasins, to replace a pair of 10 year old deck shoes. Loosely based on Native American Centre-Seam Moccasins these would be in veg tan leather with a crepe sole. Carol decided to make the Laurel shoe – suitable for town and country.
We arrived at the Old Mill, on the River Dart at 9.30 where the smells of leather and fresh brewed coffee filled the workshop with their rich aromas. Along with 4 other students we were soon picking styles, colours of leather and getting started with our tutors, Alison and her business partner Stephanie.
Design, Layout and Cutting
The type of shoemaking we are undertaking is based on the South African Sandal Veldt construction, which translates as bush shoe or field shoe, popularised in the UK by Nathan Clark who designed Clarks Desert Boots in 1949. His idea was based on a boot that officers of the British Eighth Army wore in Egypt during the Second World War which they had made by local tradesmen. The technique for manufacture is simple and follows on from moccasins with the uppers turned outwards and sewn to a sole rather than turning under as in European styles.
These shoes are definitely foot shaped and fit the individual foot, they are in no way similar to the average shape of a shoe factory last.
The layout process starts with foot drawing, which for the ticklish can be a riot! with the outline of the foot being traced onto paper to give the basis of the sole shape. This will dictate the eventual fit of the shoe and must be done with some accuracy (especially if you are ordering by mail order). Various measurements are taken and transferred to a template from which the leather will be cut. It was quite a shock to find out I was going to make a size 91/2 G after years thinking I was 81/2 EE￼
We carefully cut out the 6-8 pieces required from the outer leather using a curved Clicking Knife, a professional shoe maker’s knife which has evolved over many years to suit the task. As all our shoes are going to be lined we cut corresponding pieces form velvet soft lining and attach them to the rear of the face leather.
Assembly of uppers
The upper components need to joined in the correct order and to the points specified by your pattern which are marked with a pricker. Before sewing commences the leather is thinned down (pared) where they overlap to reduce the bulk. This paring is undertaken with the clicker knife on the edge of a bench or stone so that tiny slithers of material can be removed reducing the thickness by only a millimeter or so.
￼Keeping to basics I have elected to hand stitch using an awl to create holes and two needles from either side of the work.
There are whoops of laughter as the others get used to running industrial size sewing machines to assemble their uppers. Carol hadn’t touched a sewing machine since school days but with some practice and expert help form Alison was able to complete the task.
After the sewing all of the seams are given a good bashing with a hammer to seat them correctly which is enjoyed by all as a therapeutic aside.
There are many types of soling with leather being an option if you were making these in the woods although leather does wear away very quickly and if you are not careful the stitching can abrade and split.. I have elected to use natural crepe rubber but you can have chunky Vibram soles if you wish or if your requirement is for a very thin sole for bushcraft and tracking this can also be specified.￼
There are three soles in the construction:- Firstly the inner sole, which goes next to the foot, is cut from the same leather as the uppers and firmly glued (rubber cement) to the midsole which is a thin slice (3mm) of crepe sole material the same material as the outer sole which is much thicker at 10mm and applied later.
The outer 10mm of the leather inner sole are pared, abraded and glue applied all around the edge and left to dry while applying glue to the lower 10mm of the inside uppers. When both are dry the two parts are drawn together, starting form the rear and gathering any excess material as you move toward the toe forming now a recognizable shoe for the first time.
The sewing of the uppers, through the innersole and then through the midsole is a critical point in construction and the one which dictates the fit depending on how far in or out the stitching is from the edge. With time pressing and experience being beneficial we all elected to have Alison complete this stage for us which she did with speed and precision.
￼At this point any hardware such as buckles, eyelets and snaps are sewn on or hammered into place along with adding any adornments such as flowers or shapes.
It is a strange stage to be at – the shoes are indeed wearable, they are shoe shaped but appear to be a dead, crumpled mess of rubber, leather and string. They are waiting for some magic to breath life into them, which Stephanie will share with us soon.
The thick outer sole and the shoe are glued and carefully rolled together to exclude any air pockets, This now means the stitching is sandwiched between two layers of crepe rubber and cannot be abraded away as you walk. They now need another pounding with a 5llb lump hammer to ensure that the two parts are welded together.
The truly astounding transformation takes place next under the tutelage of Steph who picks an appropriate last from the shelf, steams the inner of the shoe and with some violent swings of the hammer forces the last into the shoe, twisting and thumping until transformed into a stunning, beautiful shoe.
The soles are ground down on a course sanding wheel to within a couple of mm of the sole stitching thus completing the major construction of the shoes ready for trying on.
The shear Joy, laughter and happiness of everybody dancing around in their new shoes was a sight to behold. It was a hard, tiring day but the resulting sense of achievement and satisfaction was truly outstanding and an experience to be recommended.
My shoes are soft and comfy, fit the best of any shoes I have, I made them, had a great day at a great workshop and it was superb value at £150 including the shoes – what more could I ask?
Carol was truly thrilled with her present, the experience and great results. So good that half of her girlfriends do not believe she did the workshop and bought the shoes!.
Once trying her shoes my daughter just kept saying “they fit, they fit” and beaming with pleasure, she summed up her thoughts: “it means such a lot to have a comfortable pair of shoes that are fashionable, repairable and ethical which result in Happy Feet!” Green Shoes have a friend for life in her.
To check out workshop dates or order your woodland boots check out their website www.greenshoes.co.uk