12 hours daily, 11 consecutive days, and a pair of derbies for a lifetime.
Enter TaF.tc’s Bespoke Series: Men's Derby Shoes.
Taught under the guidance of master shoemaker Noriyuki Misawa, this in-depth course takes you through the artisanal steps to craft a pair of hand welted derbies from scratch.
Even for welted enthusiasts, Misawa remains a hidden gem in the world of bespoke shoemaking. Nestled in the heart of Arakawa ward just north of Asakusa, every creation coming out of his eponymous atelier is meticulously made in his inventive vision.
Notice I said creation, and not just shoes.
Besides his bespoke shoes being worn by members of the Japanese Imperial Household, Spike Lee, Kazunori Kumagai (the tap dancer opening the 2020 Tokyo Olympics), and clients who desire well-fitting shoes, Misawa is a maverick pushing the artistic boundaries of shoemaking.
Having done exhibitions in New York, Cannes, London, Singapore, and Tokyo, Misawa’s creations include a furniture shoe, a Frankenstein shoe made from shoe parts of legendary shoemaker Tuczek, balmorals with thousands of brass nails nailed to the outsole, and plenty more. It’s as imaginative as it sounds and you can read more on the Shoegazing blog here.
The first step is to sketch the mould of the shoe, also known as the last. You can think of it as the mannequin for the feet. Since this is a derby-making course, the lasts provided have a fixed silhouette, though you can certainly choose your size.
If you’re interested in last making, Misawa teaches it separately, check it out here.
The last reflects Misawa’s time in Eastern Europe, having apprenticed in Vienna-based, bespoke powerhouse, Materna. Characterised by a wide width and toebox, an orthopaedic arch, and a high instep, it’s a deceptively elegant silhouette that’s suitable for both men and women (note: The Chukka Boot from Misawa’s Master Series: Men's Shoes using Hand Welting is made from the same last).
Design elements like the number of eyelets, style of quarters, and toecap, if any, are then drawn onto the sketched last.
Next, paper is pasted onto the last, allowing the insole and upper patterns to be derived and cut, along with other key points of reference.
Based on the initial upper pattern from Day 1, a standard form pattern is created.
For those new to shoemaking, this can be mind-blowing. Just from this pattern, all other patterns — the vamp, quarter, inside lining, outside lining, sidelining, back panel, heel and toecap counter, for both the right and left shoe — can be made.
Lines are cut in the standard form pattern without intersecting each other, so that specific patterns can be marked on the leather to be cut later.
Many deft manipulations and folds later from the standard form pattern, the paper patterns are finally formed. They are then traced onto their respective sample upper and lining leathers, which are then cut.
From the panels cut on Day 3, the sample uppers and linings are glued and stitched together using a leather sewing machine.
The eyelets are then hammered and the handstitch (the contrasting stitch where the quarter meets the vamp) is sewn before lasting the sample panels onto the last.
Lasting involves pulling the leather using a lasting pincer (the Japanese call the pincer wani as it looks like a crocodile!) and nailing it below to conform to the shape of the last.
Making the sample helps one to visualise the final product, so any stylistic modifications to the derby can still be made at this point.
Once satisfied with how the sample panels appear on the last, the leather panels that’ll actually be used are cut. Next, insoles made from stiff veg tanned hide are dipped in water to soften them, then nailed to the last and tightened with wide rubber bands to mould it to the bottom curve of the last.
Like with the sample uppers and linings, the actual leather panels are stitched and glued together, with the eyelets hammered and handstitches (no contrast on the actual shoe) sewn into place.
Next, the toecap and heel counters, cut from thick veg tanned leather, are skived anywhere from 1-3 mm, depending on the area of the counters.
These counters will later be glued between the lining and upper, acting as a reinforcement to prevent deformity.
Besides rigidity, the leather heel counters help to anchor the feet to the shoe as it moulds to the shape of the wearer’s heel. Contrast this with cheap leatherboard, which will break down over time, or thermoplastic, which will crack if bent too much. Accordingly, a shoe horn is often recommended.
Meanwhile for the toecap, Misawa likens it to the face of the shoe as it is the most attractive area where the eyes gravitate toward. Hence the toecap counter, to perfectly smoothen it — a botox for the toecap, if you will.
Remember the insole attached to the last from Day 4? The rubber bands can now be removed, and the edge of the insole is bevelled, with a channel carved along its perimeter. The channel acts as a starting point to punch holes onto the insole, lining, upper, and welt, which will be stitched together.
After glueing the heel counter between the back lining and upper, the stitched panels are lasted onto the last. Nails are hammered to fix the leather, insole and last in place. The toecap counter is then glued on, before lasting the front of the shoe.
The lasting step is perhaps the most difficult aspect of shoemaking. Using the lasting pincer (wani), you’d need controlled strength to pull the leather panels taut against the last, while ensuring the balance remains. This means ensuring the eyelets and quarters stay centred, the heel does not shift downwards, and that there are no bumps between the panels and last.
Difficulty aside, this allows the leather to conform to the shape of the last, and any excess leather beyond the insole is trimmed.
A strip of leather, also known as the welt, is sanded and dyed.
The hand welted construction is a defining element in many high end dress shoes, often bespoke in nature.
By stitching the welt to the upper and lining via the channels of the insole, and later to the outsole, the result is a sturdy shoe deserving of its heirloom quality.
Next, the linen threads are prepared. They were already hand rolled by Misawa, but had to be waxed with sesame resin and lightly coated with beeswax for strength and smoothness.
Following that, holes are individually pierced from the insole channel, through the lining and upper, and onto the welt using an awl.
The welt is then sewn to the shoe using the linen thread via a saddle stitch, whereby 2 threads pass through the leather from opposite sides. This creates a strong stitch that doesn’t continue to unravel even if it breaks.
Contrast this with a typical machine lockstitch, whereby the 2 threads are “locked” between each other at the midpoint of the leather. Any breakage of the thread will cause the entire stitch to unravel.
After sewing the welt onto the shoe, a steel shank is glued below to ensure the shoe returns to shape after every flex at the midfoot.
Because the insoles of hand welted shoes are usually 5-6 mm thick to create a deep enough channel, there is little space, about 1-2 mm, between the outsole and insole. Thus, only a thin leather strip and felt (or sometimes cork) are needed to fill the space.
While cork is the more common filler, especially in goodyear welted shoes, due to its ability to mould to the wearer’s feet, this characteristic is less pronounced considering the minimal space in hand welted shoes. On the other hand, felt is marginally more breathable — ideal for those prone to sweaty feet in the tropics. Practically speaking, there is little tangible difference between the two and its usage is simply a matter of a shoemaker’s convention.
The leather outsole is glued onto the shoe and cut to its desired shape.
I cut mine into a spade sole, a detail found in shoes from the 1920-30s that accentuates the defining curves of the last.
A fudging wheel is then rolled above the welt to indent grooves that indicate the stitch points between the welt and outsole. Afterwards, a thin flap of outsole is sliced from the heel onwards to create an invisible channel.
The welt is then saddle stitched to the outsole, before glueing down the flaps to cover the stitches, resulting in a clean “stitchless” outsole.
A block leather heel (as opposed to a stacked leather heel, which is taught in Misawa’s Oxford course) and rubber toplift are then glued to the outsole.
Next, the heel edges, sole edges, and soles are sanded. The former two are dyed light brown like the welt, while more unconventionally for the outsole, seaweed extract is rubbed onto it to reveal a burnished effect.
The lasts are removed, but the shoes aren’t done yet.
Nails are hammered from the top of the insole to secure the heel block against the shoe. To prevent the nail heads from prickling the wearer’s heel, a sock sheet is glued over them… and the derbies are finally complete!
If you’re inspired to craft a pair of hand welted derbies of your own (or your loved ones!), strap on your apron and join us for the next run of Misawa’s Bespoke Series: Men's Derby Shoes workshop.
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