‘Siping’ and the Soles of Boat Shoes

Clarkes tan boat shoes with razor siping
Image is my own / All rights reserved

If you read the recent entry on boat shoes, you might recall that Paul Sperry single-handedly (not counting the input of his dog Prince) solved a problem for sailors across the world and birthed a fashion icon in the process by inventing the Sperry Top-Sider. All of which began with his unique slip-resistant design, which he created by cutting a herringbone tread pattern into a rubber sole. 

Or was it entirely unique? It turns out a similar patent was filed just a few years before Mr Sperry’s own and has proven enduring enough that it continues to describe shoe soles to this day.

That patent was for a process called ‘siping’.

It’s named for a New Yorker named John F. Sipe, who filed his patent in 1923, in which he describes his design as ‘having a tread portion provided by a multiplicity of radial cuts or incisions’. Luckily for Paul Sperry, who arrived at his tread design independently, Sipe’s idea was applied to automobile tires rather than shoe soles. All the more fortunate given their strikingly similar origin stories. 

Legend has it that Sipe’s design came about when he worked in a slaughterhouse and found that cutting notches into the soles of his shoes gave him more traction on the slippery floors. Another story has it that Sipe — like Sperry — was a sailor looking to stop himself sliding around on deck. Unlike Sperry though, Sipe ultimately had cars rather than cobbling on the brain.

Sipe’s earlier design meant Sperry called his own design Razor-Sipping, which added the term to the footwear lexicon and ensured that ‘siping’ continues to characterise not only tires but top siders.