The Gentle Craft: Welting a pair of shoes by hand.

"The art of simplicity is a puzzle of complexity. "

-Douglas Horton

When you watch the shoemakers at Vass welt a pair of handmade shoes, it looks surprisingly easy. But don’t be fooled. Only a few of the modern day shoemakers still welt the entire shoe by hand. It is a process difficult to master, without real aesthetic benefit since the result is hidden on the inside. What’s more, since every stitch is carried out by hand, it takes time and does not always go without error.

To explain how a handmade shoe is welted, let’s start at the beginning. A shoe is formed on a last, traditionally made out of wood. This last will give the shoe its final shape, and creating a good looking last is an art form in itself. The precise dimension of each last is a trade secret, for only the brand itself to know.

After the first steps of cutting out the leather (done by the clicker), and sewing the pieces of leather together into what is called an ‘upper’, the leather upper is pulled over the last and tacked in place with brass or metal nails. These are hammered in one by one, simultaneously stretching the leather over the wooden last. The upper begins to take on a more elegant shape.

To hold the upper in place, and ensure there is a way to attach the outsole, shoemakers use a strip of leather, known as the welt. On a pair of hand-welted shoes, such as Vass shoes, the welt is a crucial part on the shoe. It acts as a bridge between the leather upper, the insole and eventually the outsole.

With the leather upper still firmly held in place by the multitude of small nails, a ridge is shaped on the bottom of the thick leather insole. Then, with a curved needle, known as a welting awl, a hole is pierced through the ridge, the leather upper and the welt. Two hand-braided lengths of waxed linen cord are pulled through, intertwining at the middle and each coming out at the other end. This knot is pulled tight, but not too tight. It takes years to perfection just this step, and the shoemakers at Vass can do it on the touch.

This process is repeated along the entire shoe, except for the heel, where wooden pegs are used to keep the welt into place.

The result is a semi-finished shoe. At this stage, the leather upper is left to rest for up to two weeks, while still pulled over the wooden last. A step often neglected but of great importance to how the leather will stretch and behave over time.

Until next time where we will explain how the last is removed, the insole shaped and the sole built up!