Unless you’re a r/malefashionadvice regular or stalk the halls of Styleforum, the details of shoe construction might be somewhat amorphous, if not downright puzzling.
One of the principal problems in cobbling is this: How exactly do you get a shoe’s upper to stick to its sole?
People have addressed this question in a variety of ways over the years, but crucial to understanding these solutions is something called a ‘welt’, which is to say a strip of material (typically leather) that’s used to stitch a shoe’s upper to its sole.
But the means of attachment can be a surprisingly involved and varied process. In A Well-Dressed Gentleman’s Pocket Guide, Oscar Lenius suggests that ‘between 200 and 240 separate operations go into the proper construction of a shoe made on the welt principle.’ He also goes on to distinguish it from ‘any of the grossly inferior glue or cementing processes’. Point taken, Mr Lenius. There will be no further mention of glue or its like here.
Welting can be the source of spirited disagreement among menswear enthusiasts as far as preference goes. Here, hopefully without getting too inside baseball, are the ways it can be done.
This method is perhaps the most intuitive. It involves the top of the shoe simply being stitched downward, directly onto the sole of the shoe.
Given this straightforward approach, it’s no surprise that this technique is one of the oldest types of construction, dating to the seventeenth century where it was used by Dutch settlers in the South African Cape Colony to turn rawhide into a veldtschoen or veldskoen (from Dutch and Afrikaans respectively, literally meaning ‘field shoe’).
This is still a popular shoe style in South Africa and its best-known international incarnation is the Clarks’ Desert Boot.
Next up is Blake construction, which was created in the 1850s by American inventor and former Singer sewing company employee, Lyman Reed Blake.
His eponymous construction involves the upper again being sewn directly onto the sole, although unlike in stitchdown, the stitching is done inside of the shoe itself. This means no seam is visible along the outside edge of the sole, resulting in a slim and smooth profile.
Blake construction is most popular among Italian shoemakers, which is no surprise given Italian design’s prioritisation of sleek elegance in shoemaking as in tailoring.
Apart from these aesthetic advantages, having stitches directly inside the sole and below the foot also offers some ventilation, which might well be hoped for in Italian summer, although it can be a downside in a downpour.
This is where Rapid construction comes in. Created a century or so after Blake’s innovation, it used a Rapid stitcher — which, true to its name, significantly sped up the soling process globally — to attach an additional outsole to the bottom of the shoe to cover up the exposed Blake construction stitches and aid in durability and weatherproofing. The second outsole is attached along the external rim of the shoe, which makes for a wider sole overall.
Even if you’re new to the welting game, you might have heard of this one. Not only does it share a name with the famous tyre company (the process is named for Charles Goodyear’s son, he of vulcanised rubber fame), but it’s also a firm favourite in menswear crowds.
Goodyear welting is a slightly more intricate process than what we’ve seen so far. In brief, the shoe’s upper is sewn onto a new ridge of leather (the welt), before attaching that to the outsole. The stitches connecting the welt to the insole aren’t visible on the outside of the shoe, but those attaching the welt onto the outsole are. In order to make room for the latter, soles on Goodyear welted shoes are typically wider than their Blake constructed equivalents.
Why the extra fuss? Well, apart from the weatherproofing difficulties sited above, Blake construction requires the insole to be punctured directly by the thread used for stitching, which means that it can’t survive too many resolings. There is, in other words, no welt that can weather the beating the insole takes in resoling.
Goodyear welted shoes, by contrast, are prized for how often they can be refurbished with new tread, as well as their hardiness and weather resistance.
Goodyear welts are popular among many British and American shoemakers, like Crockett & Jones or John Lobb in the UK, or Alden and Red Wing in the States. The price for this type of shoe typically starts around the £250/$350 mark, which is steep by high street standards, but considering its lifespan, you could argue the cost comes out in the wash eventually.
This one ups the ante with an additional layer of visible stitching. While a Goodyear welt’s insole stitches are hidden from view, in Norwegian construction they’re fully visible. So the stitches attaching the upper to the insole and those attaching the insole to the outsole can be seen on the shoe’s exterior, stacked up along the welt.
Made for inclement conditions and resulting in a much chunkier silhouette, Norwegian construction is perhaps best exemplified by the French manufacturer Paraboot’s cult favourite Michael shoe.
All of the techniques covered thus far are mechanised. Such is the nature of the vast majority of modern shoe production. But for some the gold standard of cobbling remains that which is made to order and sewn by hand. Of course, bespoke shoes come at a hefty price, but if you have a taste for the finer things and four figures burning a hole in your pocket, perhaps you’d prefer your welts hand-stiched.
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