Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Cold feet?

It's March, but winter refuses to go away. I know that most of my medieval gear works fine when the temperature creeps below zero, that's one of the advantages of wool - it's good at keeping you warm. If necessary, just add another layer. There is one thing I'm not happy with, though: my shoes.

Medieval shoes pose a bit of a problem for me since I insist on making them myself. I'm a reasonably competent spinner, a passable seamstress and a rather good weaver. I'm not a shoemaker. To date, I've managed to cobble together a handful of shoes and, looking back, I think I ought to be rather pleased with my leaning curve, if not the shoes themselves. Learning new things about old things is why I do this, after all - it's the reason I've spent 10 years making historical clothing without actually joining a re-enactment group until just recently (as of September last year I'm a member of Albrechts Bössor). However, wearing a pleasing learning curve on your feet when it rains, snows or when you're wading through 10 cm of mud is not necessarily an enjoyable experience, especially when the learning curve mostly consists of low, slipper-style shoes.

For the medieval-style LARPs I take part in, I bought myself a pair of ankle boots online. They were cheap, but - according to the seller - still made of vegetable-tanned leather. Well, um...no. They weren't. But they were cheap, and I suppose you get what you pay for. I just hope the Indian worker who made them got paid too. Even though the Cheap Shoes refuse to accept any kind of oil or grease and stay as hard as cuir bouilli after getting wet, I use them. They look acceptable at a distance, and will probably survive a nuclear explosion.

The Cheap Shoes taking a mud bath. This is not an arranged photo - the entire camp looked like this for two days.

The first pair
I made my first pair of proper turn shoes in 2009. I took a line drawing of a front-laced shoe from the Museum of London book "Shoes and Pattens" and simply enlarged it until the sole fit my foot - and there I had my pattern. I cut it from 2.5 mm vegetable-tanned leather, sole and upper both, and stitched it together using the seams and stitches described in the MoL book (I skipped the bit about using a last, since that would mean having to make one first). My biggest problem back then was to make the seams tight enough - it's still a bit of a problem for me. My first shoes served me well, though, although they kind of twisted themselves around my feet after a while. I blame it on the pattern not being adjusted to fit me properly.

The first pair of shoes, with a twist

Still, I wore this pair until last year - in the forest, on gravel roads, asphalt and cobbled streets. They put up with a lot of abuse and bad weather, but, despite looking like something chewed on by a goat now, they've held together.

The second pair
For my second pair of shoes, I reworked the pattern completely. I made the sole a lot narrower with a pronounced waist, which, according to a little googled research, should  ensure a better fit and stop the shoes from rotating on my feet. I constructed the pattern for upper using these instructions , a couple of fabric mock-ups and a lot of cellotape. Unfortunately, I got a little too enthusiastic about reducing the size of the sole and the finished shoes ended up a size too small. Not a huge problem, since veg-tanned leather stretch quite a bit and after a day of walking in damp grass they fit me well enough. Quite a bit of the upper is now under the shoe, though, to make up for the slightly-too-short soles. Lesson learnt: make soles narrow, not shorter! And try to make the seam holes on the soles exit closer to the grain side to prevent gaping seams.

The second pair

The third pair
For my third pair of shoes, I wanted to try something a little fancier than plain old front-laced slippers. I thought about adding a rand to improve the seam connecting the sole to the upper, but decided not to since I still had trouble with the basic construction. Instead I went for simple decoration and a latchet closure, using this shoe from Historiska museet (National Museum of Antiquities, Stockholm) for inspiration:

Eva Vedin SHMM 2007-04-17
 It's frustratingly dated as being "medieval" by the museum, but looking at other, better dated finds I think the style works fine for late 14th century.

The third shoe with fancy crenellation and latchet closure

At last I managed to produced a pattern that fits and the resulting shoes are my best to date! Comparing them to my first pair, I've certainly improved both the construction and the sewing. They won't keep my feet warm in winter, though... So I've made a forth pair: ankle boots with extra room for double socks. They will hopefully get a blog post of their own, some time in the not-too-distant future...

End and beginning of a learning curve

References and inspiration:
Making Medieval shoes:

Historiska Museet - Sök i samlingarna:

Grew, Francis & Neergaard, M. de (2001). Shoes and pattens. New ed. Woodbridge: Boydell Press