Well, the story is indeed a bit more convoluted than a cobbler-made pair of shoes’ would be and is most definitely longer. It covers a good part of the entire learning curve of a self-taught shoe maker. That cobber turned cobbler would be me.
The why is a fair question to ask, but if you have gotten a feel for what we are about here, you probably agree: the real question was rather that of when?
My daughter’s likes and some of my great dislikes, a push from my dear and wise wife were the ones to give me impetus – oh, and one more thing: a Nutcracker.
By then she had probably watched the same British movie, Ballet Shoes for the fortieth time… The words and the sound track featuring parts from The Nutcracker infiltrated our patient subconscious. Truth be told, it was getting to be bothersome but being an innocent kind of story, we let our lass gorge herself with. Despite her age of two and a half, she just loves dancing!
With a close to spontaneous and almost last-minute decision, it was only natural for us to buy two tickets (for three) to the seasonal favorite, The Nutcracker, a guest performance put on by the Kiev Ballet at the nearest town’s theater.
The show was not more than a couple of weeks away and my only suitable shoes to wear, a brown leather pair with flapping plastic soles needed a repair badly, again. So when we went to town next we took them with, this time to an old-fashioned cobbler, only to find out that he cannot fix them – it would have taken some special kind of glue. We walked away incredulously and pondered what to do.
How could we, who did not have any chemicals in our household any more, buy into a highly toxic procedure for a pair of shoes that itself had a huge environmental footprint?
Buying a new pair of conventional shoes or any clothing item, for that matter, was completely out of question. We had pledged at least half a year before that we would wear out our pre-shrunk wardrobe until we can gradually replace every garment with handmade ones for all three of us in the family, but not purchase anything new (or second-hand).
Right there and then, while walking and talking on the street, we came to the conclusion that it was time for me to craft my own shoes! The much we would have liked, we couldn’t afford to buy organic, vegetable or brain tanned leather yet, neither were we successful in persuading any company to support us with.
All of a sudden it dawned on Cheryl that Hemingway in his For Whom the Bell Tolls talks about Spaniard countryman climbing rocky mountain paths in their rope-soled shoes… The decision was made. Instead of a glue specialist, we headed over to the hemp store and bought 20 m (about 20 yards) of 0,5 cm (1/4 inch) braided hemp rope, the kind we had already used as outdoor clothesline for some time.
I was ready to just toss my useless shoes in a street garbage can, but found it more educational even for myself to first take some pictures of its nasty structure first. This is perhaps how your shoes are built, too, far from being genuine leather:
Seeing such a multitude of materials where even those at one point natural are now irreversibly rendered synthetic and therefore will never biodegrade safely, can we assume that we really know what we are walking on? I don’t think so.
Ironically, the very ink stating genuineness, so material purity, may well be toxic at an even closer look, not to mention the environmental implications of the statement – Made in China.
I desired something pure and highly customized to my own feet, not a hypothetical person’s. A sole pattern that takes into account every curvature of my two individual feet, not only their average length. In the real world even our feet differ from each other, at least slightly – who on Earth is actually symmetric?
As it often happens to me, I hugely underestimated one factor though – how long it would take me. Naively, I was going to proudly wear the shoes for the ballet only one week later…
So I grabbed a pencil, stepped on a piece of cardboard and let imagination, intuition, spontaneous design ideas take me with their flow.
My idea was to fill in the blanks with as few pieces of rope as possible – but not at the cost of the integrity of the sole -, coiling and spiraling them in a single layer and sewing the rope folds tightly together both on the top side and the bottom. I always made sure the ends of the rope pieces were finished off to prevent fraying from the interior. The thread I use is natural flax, made for weaving and sewing.
The heel is done, but keep going… I allowed for at least two rows of framing rope wrap around the entire sole for further strength.
For the heel and the part under the “axial” bones that we roll our feet on, I coiled the rope inspired by simple fingerprint patterns, also thinking that it would allow for an optimal weight distribution as well as provide resistance to sheer forces and friction on these two critical points.
At times I enjoyed the company of two enthusiastic seamstresses:
Taking note that the axis of rolling our foot isn’t perpendicular to the longitudinal axis of the foot, but turned in a flat angle, so did I turn the padding for it, which resulted in two main parts for the sole.
Joining the two parts of the sole together was probably the most challenging part. First I wanted to purposefully stitch them looser, allowing for the motion of rolling the foot, but then I realized it would probably wear out the thread even faster and put more trust into the exterior framing instead.
Framing was fun and when it was all finished in the plain, the rope cut off, my daughter happily stepped up for a fitting. She enjoyed my little accomplishment, too. The sole sounds like a slice of shelf fungus (if you can imagine), or a piece of thick leather, but it’s much more pliable than the same thick leather would be.
Raising the front of the sole to better protect the toes, yielded the idea that I should perhaps accommodate for an easier, stronger connection with the future shoe top by simply raising the sole all around.
And here it is, the finished rope sole prototype in plane view:
This is the design feature meant to take care of the protection of the toes, including the big toe:
And how it fits? Just perfect, from all angles…
It feels wonderful under my foot with its porous, natural texture. It’s warm and seems like it will be quite flexible for walking while still being grounded, so I can continue the earthing that I do, barefoot.
In the meantime the ballet is long over. I went to the theater in my tennis shoes. I had to.
Two months down the rope and thread what I can proudly say, however, is that one of the two soles is done. I feel fairly confident that it turned out well. Only time and usage will tell.
I’ll report about the performance of the shoes from the northern Italian hillsides we are going to visit in May (there are some edible chestnut groves in the area!).
We take connecting with the Earth seriously here at Handcraftedtravellers, so nearly all of our writings are at least indirectly related to a nature-bound life philosophy. For a resource of those posts that are more explicitly about earthing (grounding), barefoot walking and earthing footwear, we recommend you to check out our informative core page of the topic: Earthing in Earthing Shoes.