We all know of several brands of shoes. Each of those brands comes with a reputation. Some people swear by Cole Haan, or Frye. Others talk about Johnston Murphy or even Gucci. In the work boot realm you will find Redwing and Chippewa. The bigger spenders who shop bespoke shoes may talk about Bontoni or Berluti. But what makes a shoe of high-quality construction?
Several things, but in this post I will leave out the elements of quality that a skilled shoemaker would bring and talk only about the actual construction methods, whether by hand or machine.
- Always choose full-grain leather
Full grain leather comes from the upper most part of the hide. It has the strongest and tightest fibers, little stretch, and will hold up against wear and tear overtime. Many lesser grade leathers are processed to look like full grain leather, but there are some ways you can tell the difference.
First, full grain leather will have more texture and appear thicker or more full bodied than other grades. It will also seem unevenly colored with some areas lighter or darker than others, this comes from the animal’s skin not being uniform on the outside. An exception to this would be calf skin. The hide from a calf would have uniform coloring and few scars since the animal did not live long enough for more wear and tear on its body. Most often, if a shoe is made with calf skin (which is common), it will say so.
If you can’t get full-grain leather (it can be rare in store bought shoes) a step down will be top-grain, which comes from underneath the full grain. Its fibers are looser and not as strong. It will appear shinier than full grain and have a more controlled/even coloring because it’s more processed. While it serves most purposes for shoes and looks great with its even coloring, overtime it will have the tendency to crack, and stretch more than full-grain.
Never buy genuine leather shoes (third grade). Genuine leather is the part of the hide that is left over after the best parts are used. When people see that something is made with “genuine leather” they tend to think it means the item is of high quality. The truth is the term “genuine leather” is used to trick us. You’d be better off with synthetic material.
- Choose a shoe with either a Blake stitch or welted construction.
A few pages could easily be written on the differences between these methods, but the main point is that they are both a means by which the upper, insole, and sole are all sewn together so that the shoes cannot come apart. If the shoe is simply cemented or just has tacks in the toe and heel, the upper will not remain fully attached to the sole. Usually the waist area will come apart first.
The Blake stitch will typically be the easiest to spot. There will be a stitch on the bottom of the shoes about half an inch from the edge and will go around the perimeter of the shoe. Some shoe manufacturers fake the stitch and it does not go through the sole into the insole. A way to check if it is real would be to pull the insert up from inside the shoe and look at the insole to see if there are stitches in it. If the stitching in the insole matches that of the outsole – you have a Blake stitch shoe.
In some cases, as in ours, the Blake stitch is hidden and does not come through the bottom of the shoe. It’s good to check inside the shoe for the stitching.
See the diagram below for a visual on how the Blake stitch goes through all of the components of the shoes.
Welted shoes are harder to spot. The stitching is completely hidden. However, if you know what you are looking for, it can be easily spotted. Welted shoes have stitching that is ran through a notch in the insole connects it to the upper and to the welt. The sole will then be attached to the welt. The way to spot a welted shoe is to look very closely at the vamp in the place where the sole meets the upper. If you pull the sole away from the upper a little, you should be able to see some stitches.
See the diagram below to see how a welted shoe works. Notice how the soling has to be much thicker than that of Blake stitched shoes.
- Full leather soles
Most manufacturers have stopped using leather for their soles. It’s more expensive and does not hold up as well as rubber to wear and tear on pavements (which is what most of us walk on now). However, for comfort, look, and ease of repair, there is no better material to construct the sole from. A rubber heel and half-sole cap can be used for the wear and tear, but a leather heel stack and full sole will make all the difference when choosing a high quality shoe.
You can check on the inside of the shoe, if it says leather sole, you’re gold. If it doesn’t say anything either it is obviously rubber, or you’ll have to look closer to see what it’s made of. Many shoes have soles which are made to look like leather. Like using a leather wrap around a plastic heel, for example.
A true leather sole will feel the best, solid, yet forgiving. It will conform to the contours of your feet and the shoes will feel more like home to your feet. It’s almost as if the leather has a relationship to your feet. Rubber can’t do that. Rubber doesn’t have the ability to know one foot from another.
- Examine the stitching
Typically, although it is purely aesthetic, the closer to the edge the stitching is, the better. It has long been a sign of quality to stitch the very edge. When you see such precise stitching it’s easy to assume the rest of the shoe was made with equal precision.
Even more importantly though, it’s a good idea to examine the stitching for frays or loose ends. One of the most common things I see in store bought shoes is seeing the ends of the stitching coming undone, or just hanging out. For me, a loose thread hanging at the end of a seam takes away from the beauty of the shoes, and there is a risk that the shoe will work itself apart.
- Try them on
I saved this point for last because this one can be a bit more of a matter of personal taste. The thing to look for is comfort, yes. However, comfort doesn’t necessarily equate to quality, so I’d like to explain myself a little further. A well-made pair of shoes will feel good but not necessarily be the most comfortable shoe you try on. Like a well-made wine, it takes aging to really taste its qualities. What you’re looking for in the comfort is what the structure of the shoes feels like. You want the heels to sit flat on the ground when you stand in them and the rest of your foot should feel naturally comfortable. You want to feel your weight being absorbed by your entire foot, not just in the heel or ball. There should be an evenness to it.
Then when you take some steps you want to feel the shoe bend in the correct place. If it does not bend in the place your toes bend, meaning there is too much structure then I would be cautious about buying them. Likewise, if the shoe bends too easily, there is perhaps not enough structure.
You also need to feel how your foot fits into the heel/ankle portion of the shoe. Is there support? That portion of the shoe should be the most rigid, if not, I would pass unless you are purchasing beach shoes. Without the solidness of the counter (the heel/ankle of the shoe) your feet will not sit in the correct place within the shoe and you will experience discomfort and improper fit.
Lastly, the toe box must be rigid, otherwise it can easily be flattened and will not recover without the aid of a Cobbler. Some shoes are deliberately made without a solid toe box, you will find that these shoes do not hold their overall shape well over time.
Keeping the above in mind when purchasing your next pair of shoes will ensure you are getting the most bang for your buck.
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