Making Ancient Shoes

Before I can start making a pair of shoes, the first stage in the process is to create a last, or a foot mould on which the shoes can be stretched into shape.

Unlike modern shoes, Roman ones don’t normally have a raised heel or toe, which means that modern commercial shoe lasts aren’t much use for making Roman shoes, as they are the wrong shape.Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 19.58.24

Making a shoe last is not entirely straightforward, as it is not simply carving a foot shaped piece of wood. Although there are standard measurements – which give us our range of shoe sizes, with the different UK, European, and US systems, these need to be interpreted carefully to produce a functional last. For custom bespoke shoes, these need to be adjusted where necessary to fit the individual customer. It never ceases to amaze me how much difference there can sometimes be between a customer’s declared shoe size, and what the measurements they supply tell me.

Once the lasts have been prepared, either bespoke ones for an individual customer, or standard stock sizes, the next process is to create the pattern for the upper leatherwork, or to adjust an existing design to the correct size required. Again, this can be complex where there is a significant difference between the size of an existing pattern and the one required, as feet don’t grow evenly all over like a photographic enlargement. Sometimes it is quicker to start again from scratch.

There are several basic designs for Roman period shoes, the Carbatinae (which were worn by Romans and non-Romans alike) are a development of the very earliest type of footwear, the principle being similar to putting your foot in a drawstring bag. These vary greatly in design from those shown through to fully enclosing footwear. They nearly always have a sewn or laced seam running up the back of the heel.

Caligae, the famous army ‘sandals’, are very similar in design concept, in that the leather is wrapped round from underneath the foot, and they also have a seam running up from the heel.

The main type of hobnailed boots I make fall into the category known as Calcei. These have a separate sole, and the leather upper is usually, although not always, joined along the centre of the toe section. The design varies from the simple “Fell Boots” through to complex hand punched designs.

I only use vegetable tanned leather, of varying thicknesses, depending on the design requirements. I tend to err on the side of caution and use thicker leather for boots that are going to have a hard life, so for example, basic “Fell Boot” uppers are made of 2mm thick leather so that they will last for many years.

Once the uppers have been cut out and sewn together along the joining seam, they are soaked and then stretched over the lasts to form the final shape of the upper, with the leather insoles in place. They are held onto the last by temporary nails whilst the leather dries into shape.

Once dry, the uppers and soles are joined together with either glue or stitching, depending on the customer’s requirements, with any additional leather packing required, so that they can be safely removed from the lasts.

The outer sole is then secured onto the finished shoe either by invisible tunnel stitching, glue, or more commonly, hand-made hobnails which rivet the whole shoe together.