Saturday, March 5, 2011

Medieval Shoes - Venturing into Footwear

I have been sewing historic clothing for over ten years now. That doesn't seem like very long, but it is interesting to look back and see how I have progressed - in either good, or bad ways - since then. For one thing, I no longer get the "big picture". That's sad. It really is. I spend so much time worrying about details that if I see a picture of someone wearing something I have made, I usually have a moment of shock and think "Oh? Did I really make that? I don't remember it looking like that!" If I make a new dress, instead of enjoying the overall look and feel of it, I worry about a certain buttonhole which may not be perfectly in line with the others. Or slightly more gathers on one side of the bodice than the other.

I blame David for this. It is all his fault. When we got married and I began to sew for him, he was very particular about the details. The first frock coat I made him I had to remake several times. He was young and selfish and demanding. I was young and selfish and full of sinful pride about how I could make anything for him, anything at all. I was eager to show off my skills and make my husband proud of me. Admittedly, the First Frock was really not very good. He was picky about it, and although I knew it was lacking, I wanted him to like it anyway, just because I made it. We both learned some lessons, with tears and yelling and, I admit, throwing uniform pieces upon the floor and stomping upon them in defiance. My, my. The immaturity of 19 and 20.

Now, it seems, we have both softened a great deal. I realize now just how far I have come from my beginning attempts at historic clothing and just as soberly realize how far I have yet to go. David has learned to enjoy the "big picture". But now I am worrying about the details.

So, of course, I love to think of the details in a particular outfit from a particular era. Shoes are something that can really make or break a good impression (at least, for me) and they are often one of the most expensive items to purchase if you are buying ready-made.

A month or so ago I began to seriously think about medieval shoes. At our last event, I wore my leather Victorian repro boots. They weren't glaringly bad, but they weren't right, either. The boys wore whatever dark colored, unobtrusive shoes I could come up with. So they didn't look right, either.

I did some research and read some articles about shoe making and decided that it sounded rather simple, after all. I decided on a very simple shoe shape from Marc Carlsons site,  Footwear of the Middle Ages. A simple, one-piece upper and a sole, with an opening at the side for lacing. You can see this design here: Side-Laced Shoe. I had the hardest time figuring out if the lacing was on the inner foot or outer foot. I experimented, and discovered that I preferred the inner lacing as I was able to shape the opening to acheive a better fit on the inner foot. I still don't know which is the right way or if it even matters at all. Suggestions?

I referred heavily to James Barkers great article on shoe and pouch making from Historic Life. I traced a basic sole for my foot, being careful to trace just exactly where the skin of my foot came in contact with the ground, or else the sole would be too big. I measured and eyeballed to come up with an upper shape, and then sewed the pieces together out of some heavy fabric as a mock up. I went through three mock ups before I got a nice, tight-fitting shoe that hugged the foot all around but left enough room in the toes for comfort. I also extended the sole to make a pointed (must of modest length) toe. I have to have a pointed toe, you know! It's one era of history where the pointy toe like this was in.

After my mock up was made and fitted to my satisfaction, I realized I didn't have enough leather on hand to make shoes for myself. I had odd scraps in various sizes of thin black and red leather, and heavier leather for soles, but not enough for an adult sized pair of shoes. I found out that there was a Tandy leather store close by so David promised to take me some weekend so I could find leather for my shoes. Well, one thing or another has come up so we haven't been able to get to the leather store yet. But let me continue.

I decided to make a child size shoe since I had enough leather for that. I started with Judah since he has the largest foot of all the children. Once he outgrows these, they will fit someone else - or so I thought. Now I am really thinking that there is no such thing as standard sizes for shoes like this. They are made to fit one individual and it's a matter of chance and luck if they will fit another person too.

So I made Judah's pattern in the same way that I made mine. Mock ups were gone through and perfected. I cut out the leather and began sewing it together. I finished sewing one leather upper to one leather sole and turned it and, my shining hopes and dreams fell and shattered when I tried the shoe on him. For some reason, the sole came out way too wide at the heel and although he can wear the shoe and keep it on, the heel slips up and down. That can't be comfortable.

I put the shoes and patterns away for a while and pulled them out again just this morning. I think I am ready to tackle this again. Amy from A Day in 1862 recently completed a darling pair of 1860's leather shoes for her little girl, so she has inspired me to give it another go. Amy, you are majorly inspirational!

I wish I could stick to one era of costuming but that is just impossible! My mind is once again filled with kirtles and tunics and veils and happy thoughts of events this summer. :)



  1. I love the look of the shoe, even if it is a poor fit for him. Could you add some leather to the inside of the heel to make it smaller or reduce slip?

    I have recently purchased my own pair of Soft Star shoes to fence in, and crummy china flats for the rest of the family because the thought of making 8 pairs of shoes along with 8 sets of garb + my own rapier armor frankly makes me panic.

    I'm hoping that my darling husband will become our resident cobbler. It's the sort of thing he would do very well.

  2. Sarah

    I made myself a pair of medieval type shoes, but had a seam at the centre back of the heel, which I reinforced - it makes them easier to wear. A friend who makes shoes then added an outdoor sole for me as my hands are no longer strong enough to work that thick a leather. Well done you - those shoes look really good - don't be discouraged - his foot may have moved when you measured.

  3. I feel your pain! I *hate* making shoes, they never seem to turn out the way I want them to.... My only consolation is that they are mostly hidden by my skirts.... For a first try I think you're doing well, though.

    And I agree with trying to stick to one period - it's impossible for me as well.

  4. I've only been sewing for less than a year, and I found a Butterick pattern for "Historical Footwear", and I made some Medieval long-toed Poulaine shoes... they turned out great even though I just used faux leather. It is very easy with a pattern. It must be hard to draft them yourself! Great job!!!
    I thought leather for shoes only came in brown/black until the 1780s... do you know?
    Great job on your project!
    -Julia <3

  5. Julia, thanks for the tip! I'll have to get the pattern at the next 99 cent pattern sale, for reference. I'm determined I will conquer this ;)

    I honestly don't know about the shoe leather color, although I would assume that brown/black as the only available colors would be true, due to tanning techniques. I used the red since thats what I had and I didn't want to use black (I really want some nice mature chestnut-colored leather!!)

    Of course, our next event is not until June, and if I make shoes for us before then, chances are we will all be going barefoot anyway. . .it seems things happen that way!

  6. Good work on that first try, Sarah Jane! Frankly, I think they came out well for all that. Shoes, I from all I read, can be really tough to manage, but are so rewarding for those who catch the bug.

    Very best,


  7. You're so inspiring! I am no where near a seamstress... but you are inspiring me to brush up on my skills. Do you re-enact or just frequent festivals?

    Any tips for a beginner?

  8. I happened upon your blog. Love it!
    I am a storyteller, looking for an image of a red shoe. I'm posting a new translation of a story lost for 150 years. Could I use your beautiful image? Of course I would give you credit in any way you like.

  9. Hi Margaret! Sure, you are more than welcome to use this picture. I am flattered you may find it suitable for your project - it sounds like a wonderful thing to be working on! I'd love to read the story when you have translated it. Will it be available online anywhere?


Thank you for your lovely thoughts!