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August 2014

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shoes!

Project: Casting your own shoe lasts

One of my graduate students, Samantha Coles (a rising 2nd-year), has a very specific area of focus: custom cordwaining.

She's taking the usual courseload for an MFA in Costume Production in terms of classwork in draping, tailoring, millinery, and so forth, but her longterm goal is one of shoemaker, and whenever we get shoe projects for mainstage shows, I kick them to her (ha ha, bad pun), for her portfolio and work experience. So, for example, in the recent Importance of Being Earnest, she did a shoe modification for Ray Dooley as "Lady Bracknell," turning a pair of what was essentially a men's-sized character shoe into a period court shoe with an ornamental vamp.

Now that summer's here, she and i devised plans for some independent projects we hadn't time for during the mainstage season and school year. One of these was to explore the last-casting method devised by Mary Wales Loomis in her book, Make Your Own Shoes.

A shoe last is kind of like a cross between a dress form and a hat block, but for feet. It is the matrix upon which a shoe is constructed. As with hat blocks, you need a last for every permutation of a style, so if you are going to do a single shoe design for retail, you need a right and left last for every size you are going to release. Custom couture shoemakers like Louboutin will cast the feet of their bespoke clients and make lasts specifically for a single patron.

Loomis outlines a method in her book for casting shoe lasts in plaster from existing damaged shoes you love. You have to be willing to sacrifice a pair of shoes to this project, but on the upside, if you succeed, you have lasts from them on which you can build lots of future pairs just like them or similar in fit/feel.

In addition to your pair of sacrificial shoes, this method requires the following supplies: tape, plaster, water, utility knife, crappy funnel, petroleum jelly or other mold release, and finishing tools like sandpaper, rasps, and chisels. It also requires a willingness to get messy, and i thought that some points we were helped by having two pairs of hands, so if you can partner with a pal or colleague, that's probably best.

We figured that a pair of lasts takes about four cups of plaster and two cups of water, and that mixing batches any larger than that was not practical--it just sets up too fast. And, if you try this, be sure to clean up your mixing bowl between batches, or the catalyzing happens so fast you can't get the stuff mixed and poured.


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My initial pair of shoes. Cute! But, made from such cheap vinyl
that you can only wear them for about 20 min before your feet overheat.
Note how i have taped up the tongues for mold integrity.
I taped up the sides, too (forgot to take a pic, though).

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Samantha's shoes, being taped up and prepped for casting.
Both these pairs got coated with Vaseline inside at this point,
which you can see in the greasiness of the open shoe.

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Loomis suggests slitting the toe tips at the top to let air out.
We found a roofing blade (hooked) worked best for penetrating the
thick plastic of a shaped toecap, rather than a straight blade.

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Samantha pours the plaster into her shoe as i hold the
makeshift funnel. We then let these guys set up overnight.

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My shoe untaped and ready for demolding!

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I sliced the center back seam and peeled it back from the last.
Note that spillover at the top (which we termed "the cankle"),
which we'll deal with in a minute...

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It's ready to pry out!

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Left: Samantha's last directly out of the mold.
Right: Her original shoe style, denuded of tape.
Note all the wrinkles and unwanted topography.

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Samantha uses a rasp to smooth down the surface.
Note how she has chiseled the cankle away at this point.


We used chisels, sculpting loops, and carving knives to knock off some of that cankle-bloop happening at the tops of the lasts, and sandpaper to smooth them out into a true last shape, patched bubble holes with more plaster. I'll be interested to see how they perform as lasts to build a pair of shoes on... Pretty cool project!

If you want to try it yourself, and learn more about the process of building a shoe onto these, Loomis' book is a good place to start. She's not an apprentice-taught cordwainer--she's an autodidact who developed her method intuitively by deconstructing shoes and thinking through how to make them from those observations. Her book explains how to make straightforward women's pumps in cloth and leather.

Next up...cloning hat blocks with plaster cloth and insulation foam!
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Comments

Oh gosh, this is so neat. Now I have the urge to pick up her book and give this a go myself!

Can't wait to see the post on hat blocks! :D
OH do I hope this is part of a series showing how to make shoes. it's been a long lost life goal. SO many unanswered questions... like soles? do I buy them, make them and how does one permanently attach them?!?!? Terrifying stuff. Not that I expect you to answer these questions here I just hope there's shoe making afoot! ;)

(Anonymous)

Cool!

Thanks for sharing this little tidbit of info. I have looked at buying Mary's shoe book but this is all the explanation I need!
Thanks for this post! I've begun researching shoemaking because I can't seem to find boots that fit me properly, and I found your entry while googling info about custom shoe lasts. Every little bit helps. I'd already given a look at Loomis's website, and it's great to read the experiences of others putting her advice into practice. Plastic bottles as disposable funnel are a great idea!
I googled "make a last from a pair of shoes" and here you were, complete with awesome photos. Thanks!