The Top 7 Differences between Handmade and Conventional Shoes
I’ve been making shoes for a long time now, and people always ask me what the difference is between my handmade shoes and shoes they’d buy off of a store’s shelf.
My response is, “Just about everything.”
- The Materials: Conventional, mass-produced footwear, is made predominantly on machines that do all the heavy lifting - and with good reason. Making shoes is difficult. Extremely difficult to master. With the machines though, comes a new set of issues that have to be worked through.
For example: Conventional shoe patterns are cut from a machine, rather than with a knife as I do. Placing the leather on the machine and cutting it makes it more difficult to control which parts of the leather are used. Since leather comes with scars and veins and stretch marks all in seemingly random places, and conventional shoe factories can’t control the leather they use well, they have to resort to using highly processed or synthetic leathers. Synthetic leathers tend to crack quickly and do not respond much to creams and polishes for longevity. Highly processed leathers are those that have been split from the strongest parts of the hide and ran through a machine that gives perfect uniform thickness and a finished/polished surface. While the leather looks great, the fibers tend to be quite loose and not only causes more stretch in the shoe over time, but also will begin to break down much quicker than say, full-grain leather.
That’s just one example, and this is before the shoes are even put together with more materials.
I can’t speak for every shoemaker out there, but here at Standard Handmade we use only full grain leather for our uppers and we carefully select the best parts of the hide before cutting out the pattern. In fact, our shoes consist of 95% leather materials. Very few conventionally made shoe brands could claim that.
Now that we’ve established how the leather differs from handmade to conventional, we can discuss the other materials used.
The linings in conventional shoes tend to be “man-made” material, the stiffeners in the toe and the heel tend to be made of fiberglass or rubber, the insoles tend to be “man-made,” and the soles made of rubber or, again, “man-made” materials.
Why does this matter?
Well, let me try to answer that. Shoes, because they have to bend with the shapes and movements of our feet, have to be made in such a way they can handle the movement while still holding shape and supporting our feet.
Fiberglass can’t bend or stretch, and can actually be a hindrance to the longevity of a pair of shoes. Similarly, rubber has trouble with the stretch not because it can’t stretch, but because when it bounces back its rigidness causes cemented components to loosen.
Also, neither of these materials have the ability to conform to the shape of your feet.
This is why we only use leather. It is more comfortable because it will conform to your feet and feel more like a glove fit. Also, it is flexible enough to be stretched and bent in all the directions a foot can bend, yet is rigid enough not to come unglued or pulled from its stitches quickly. When a shoe is made by hand – the leather wants to have that shape. It wasn’t forced into the shape of a shoe by a machine, but rather trained, over the course of several weeks to take and want to take the shape of a shoe.
- Leather soles, insides: I touched on this above, but it’s important enough to warrant its own point. I can’t stress enough the superiority of leather soles. When I say sole I am speaking about the sole as a whole, the insole, midsole, and outsole.
Now, I’m not opposed to using rubber on the outsole. We all walk around on predominantly concrete surfaces and rubber can be great for both wear and traction (especially in the rain). However, for comfort and longevity a leather sole will give you the most satisfaction. Leather seems to come alive as you wear shoes with leather soles. The leather begins to soften where most of your weight is placed and creates a mold of your unique footprint. The shoes will really become yours after a while.
Almost no modern, conventionally made shoes are made with authentic leather soles anymore. I think a large part of the reason is because it’s a multi-step process to apply leather soles. Rubber soles can be attached to the shoes quickly and in one step. Leather soles have to be stacked, glued and sewn. Here at Standard Handmade our leather soles have 3pcs to the stack, and the heel has an additional 3pcs to the stack. This process can be one of the longest ones in the construction process, but we know it is also one of the most important.
- Hand lasted: When I mention “lasts” when talking about shoemaking I am referring to the wooden or plastic forms that the shoes are built around. They are what give the shoes a particular shape or look. It is impossible to make shoes without them. Otherwise the shoes wouldn’t fit around our ankles or have any real shape. They would be mere pieces of leather sewn together.
Hand lasted shoes are shoes that have been stretched and shaped around the lasts by hand. The leather is stretched around to the underside of the last and nailed. Before you can do this you have to make sure you have enough extra leather to wrap around to the bottom, and the leather has to be wet so that it can be stretched to take and keep shape.
Conventionally made shoes are placed on a machine that pulls and stretches the leather and secures it to the bottom.
The problem is that the job is typically rushed. When we hand-last our shoes we soak the leather in water for 10-20 minutes before stretching around the lasts. Because we do this slowly we are able to get the stretch completely out of areas that the machine can’t feel. Leather does not have uniform stretchiness. The machine can only pull once and sometimes leaves stretch in the leather that later makes the shoes appear to look uneven or to become much larger than when originally purchased.
We also make sure to let the shoes dry in their new shape for a minimum of three days. This is how they are trained. Once they have dried they will want to remain in the new shape more than go back to the old. This gives them more longevity.
- Quality control: In mass produced shoe factories quality control has one tier. When a shoe is complete, it is looked over to see that it is in good enough shape to sell. That’s it. I personally think that just isn’t good enough.
You can’t know anything about whether all of the right steps were following and executed correctly just by looking at the outside of the shoe.
Because the process of making shoes by hand is slower and more methodical than in conventional shoemaking, there is by nature more quality control during each step.
First because the same shoes do not pass through 20-30 different hands. With that many people you are bound to have errors. Second, the pace of a knife, for example, rather than a laser cutter, allows for the whole shoe to be seen and examined as it is being made. Often while I work on one step a slight mistake from a previous step will pop out at me and I can correct it before moving on.
You can’t do that when a pair of shoes is being made in 2 hours or less.
Look at it like this. Think about the difference between running through the woods, and walking through the woods. If you’re walking you’re able to take much more in. The smell, or the sun shining through the trees, for example can be appreciated. If you’re running you can really only see what’s in front of you. It’s hard to see the whole picture. When walking you can speed up or slow down with the terrain and see things that runners miss.
It’s the same in shoemaking. A pair of shoes that is made at a running pace will most likely contain mistakes that cause the shoes to fall apart sooner because much was missed.
- Philosophy: Mass produced shoes tend to be made for the moment. They are made for whatever the trend is. They are meant to be made and sold in giant quantities until the market is so saturated that a new trend must be latched on to in order to sell shoes again.
This is how we end up with far too much waste and far too many fashion trends. This is how we end up with poorly made, fast fashion.
Handmade shoes are made with the idea that we can have fewer, but better material goods in our lives. Goods that aren’t out of style after a season, and which stand up to the elements. Handmade shoes are individually made with care and attention to detail, fit, and comfort.
One pair of shoes will fit many occasions, and last for years and years.
- Details: In my footwear I spend a great deal of time on the details. I am meticulous about finishing the shoes properly, using the best leather possible, constructing them with care, making sure they’ll fit properly, etc… there is no square inch of the shoes that I haven’t taken the time to get right.
In mass produced shoes this is an impossibility. The manufacturer’s margins are already so low that the amount of extra hands they’d have to employ to get the details right would cause them to lose money.
A prime example of not getting the details right is the infamous squish sound some shoes make. That sound comes from dead air space in the soles of the shoes that get moisture in them either from sweating or from walking in water. If the manufacturer would spend 30minutes checking the space before attaching the soles, there would not be an issue.
- Customization: Lastly, and one of the greatest perks of handmade shoes, you get to customize them! Every company is different, but typically you are afforded at least a few options.
This allows you to have a pair of shoes more suited to your specific taste. It also gives the shoes a look that is unique. At Standard Handmade we offer any stitching color. We also offer different leather colors. We can even make completely custom shoes from the ground up.
Conventionally made shoes only come as they are. While they might come in a few different color combinations that’s as far as they can go in keeping the same shoe style. If they were to produce the entire color spectrum for the same shoe model the overhead would be too high since they make everything in advance. How are they going to know what sells and what doesn’t?
I hope you find this article helpful. There are many, many more differences between handmade shoes and factory made shoes, these are, for me, the most apparent. If you have any comments please feel free to add one below. I’m happy to answer questions as well. Feel free to shoot me a message too!
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