Featured Project – Custom Embroidered Shoes

This project is absolutely near and dear to my heart, because I have long been lamenting over not being able to embroider my own shoes. Well Marna Jean aka Wickedstepmother1969 has outdone me today, because she had the same thought, but instead of sitting here daydreaming, she went out and learned how to make her own shoes!

Yup, you read that right. Something most of us only picture being made by elves in the dead of night, she went out and learned how to do. Being able to make her own shoes also meant she could pre-embroider them, so she could add any stitched decoration she liked! Marna joins us today to share a very thorough walk-through on just how she made these shoes, and all the interesting challenges along the way.

Lets start with shoemaking… how did you get into this?

I have been a Victorian dressmaker for many years, and the one thing that always drove me NUTS was the fact I couldn’t get good shoes to go with my creations. I have a friend  Lisa Sorrell who is a bespoke bootmaker who makes the most AWESOME cowboy boots — the inlay is just incredible. Then her daughter Paige started making shoes.  I kept drooling and longing, and started taking apart old shoes and haunting the Met Museum’s website. My husband finally took pity on me and arranged for Paige to teach me a class on making simple flats when she was free on spring break. You can’t believe how excited I was!

Starting out: Printed out the embroidery design full size from my embroidery software, cut it out, and played with my placement. The shoe forms pictured are called "lasts."

Using the lasts (forms) to make a pattern using tearaway stabilizer.

Placing the design on the shoe pattern.

Using a double tracing wheel to mark 3/4 inch lasting allowance at the bottom of the pattern.

What was it like learning this technique?

I found that a lot of my sewing skills transferred over to shoemaking. I still am “skiving challenged”; skiving is the thinning of the leather with a special knife (you can actually do it with a sharp X-Acto)  at joins and overlaps to reduce bulk. It takes a practiced hand, and it’s something I am still working on.

Once Paige showed me the basics my mind kept jumping three steps ahead of where I should have been. Right now I just work in glued construction shoes- one day I hope to learn welted construction (sewn on soles) as well. I think the best description of learning would be “liberating” — my first pair of shoes I made I chose purple kid leather; if I had been just purchasing a pair I would probably have gone with something more basic black. Once you understand what parts go into the making of a shoe and why they are there, then the techniques become adaptable to your imagination.

Unfolded and referring to the lines of my tracing wheel to make sure I like the top line placement. Then I sketched the cutting line on the upper pattern.

Cut out an insole pattern, wet it down, and nailed it in place. First heel, then toe, then ball, then waist (the narrow part between heel and ball).

When the insoles were nailed, I wrap the lasts and insole tightly with strips of lightweight denim to make the leather conform better to the bottom of the last. Then I have to leave it alone to dry -- that is hard waiting.

Counters (stiffeners at the back of the heel that provides some arch support for the shoe) must be skived thin along the edges to reduce bulk and improve the look of the finished shoe. True confession time: I suck at skiving.

The newly soaked counter is not exactly put on evenly- more length goes to the instep to support the arch

Starting with a nail at center back of last, I nailed around both sides and then started tacking down the bottom.

Counters nailed down and drying. After this dries the nails will come out- they just hold everything in place.

Did you always have the idea of adding embroidery to your shoes? Or did this come later?

I think I always had it in mind I would embroider shoes. I’ve always loved embroidered shoes, but the challenge comes with working on an already constructed project, and some of the embroidered shoes available can be disappointing. I have a pair of cowboy boots with skulls embroidered on them, but when people comment how much they love my little owls on there … well, it makes you want to do it yourself. You would not believe the amazing things embroidered on Victorian era shoes. These shoes from the Met make my heart jump every time I look at them.

What I wasn’t sure was whether I could embroider on leather,  but I jumped on that one after I saw the leather embroidered bracelets on your site.  So when I knew I could embroider them BEFORE they were shaped — well, I was pretty much set! I decided to use the light stitching Sweetness skull.

I marked the center lines on heavy tearaway stabilizer with felt tip, and then marked the center lines on the shoe upper pattern.

I traced out shoe pattern onto kidskin using a special silver pen that wipes off leather, marking the centering lines when I traced. I left a quarter inch all the way around and did not cut out the center in case I needed to make small adjustments after the piece was embroidered.

To hoop it, I sprayed the toe of the back of the upper leather with basting glue. I traced the placement of the roses with a silver pen and cut out the shapes slightly bigger than that from gold silk to add a highlight to my design, and set it to stitching.

Repeating the process, I embroidered the second piece and then trimmed on cutting lines. I also trimmed the roses down with an applique scissors and frayed the edges with my fingernail.

What were the kinds of considerations you made when choosing your design? Was it tricky embroidering on the material for the shoes?

I knew for a leather shoe I needed a lightweight pattern (fewer stitches) because too many would cause the leather to become weak from piercing. I also needed a design that would fit where I had in mind on the toe of the flat.  Thanks to the magic of temporary fabric adhesive, hooping was not really a problem — I hooped the stabilizer and sprayed the back of the leather. The hardest part is placement  and mirror image placement on the opposite shoe as I had used an asymmetrical placement. The best advice I can give is check and recheck placement before you start. Also, start with a full bobbin- once leather is pierced its best to not have to go back over it.

The upper pattern is traced all the way around for the lining, but the lining is made a little bit smaller than the upper. I then traced the lining out on pigskin suede and flipped the pattern for a right and left shoe.

After making leather strips for beading, I removed the nails from the dried counters and took them off the last.

After stitching the lining together with nylon upholstery thread, I applied double sided basting tape to hold the beading in place. It should just barely show above the edge of the leather.

I skived down the beading leather at the join (the inner side of your foot). If you put the join at the back it will rub your heel, & the outside will show more, so the best place is the middle of the foot. Here the beading is in place.

To hold it in place while you sew, use double sided sticky tape. The lining leather should look something like this when properly in place.

Stitching the layers together. Yes, I use a flat bed machine to sew shaped objects. This is not a skill for everyone. Make sure nothing gets folded under -- remember, stitches in leather will show if pulled out.

Starting the lasting process. Position the center backseam of the shoe on the last first, and spray the leather. I pulled the toe first, pulling both layers over so you can make sure the shoe is positioned well over the last, then secured it with nails.

One placement is secure, you can unpin the top layer. Nails are added around the toe line working from side to side. The toe will end up with tiny gathers on the underside of the foot, but the top of the toe should be relatively smooth.

Open the leather up to prepare for gluing, and apply contact cement to the lining leather and insole where it will overlap. Pull the lining leather smooth and press it in place. Once it's stuck down you can remove the nails.

Pound the heel and toe flat, and then fit the counter over the heel. Once it is in place, the outline is traced for contact cement placement. After it's glued in place the bottom is "hammer lasted" (beaten down with a hammer).

I cut out two half moon shapes for toe boxes out of flexible cowhide and skived them, then smoothed the leather over the shoe and trimmed the excess at the bottom. Then I painted the leather toebox with toebox cement. This will harden it to help keep the shape of the toe.

Contact cement is added over the toebox before lasting is started, and worked with while wet (instead of waiting until dry and tacky like the norm) and using the lasting pliers, the center toe is pulled over. The top layer is pulled and nailed down, ready for gluing.

The upper leather is glued with contact cement and nails have been removed.

Talk about the awesome touch you added to the bottom of the shoe… how did you do that?

I got the idea after seeing this great pair of shoes that had been laser etched. Now since I don’t have a laser lying around in my workshop, I decided I could get the same effect by using a wood burning tool. I dampened the leather down, used a ball stylus to trace over the pattern, and then wood burned the lines. To darken it up I rubbed some extra shoe polish down in the grooves. I started out trying to center the design, but decided to put it right at the arch or waist area of the shoe, kind of peaking around. I’ve been glad I did because after wearing the shoes the image has remained unworn.

The sole is traced to make a pattern, which will be cut out of leather. I decided to add a matching design to the sole.

I cut the pattern out of leather and Traced my skully onto the bottom of the sole in prep for woodburning.

Skullies are wood burned into the soles. I cut the black heels out of crepe soling and glued them on with contact cement. The overlap was trimmed and sanded once the glue was set.

Decided to try some shoe cream to finish the bottoms. I like the look of this!

I put contact cement on the shoe bottom, and two coats of contact cement on the sole leather. Then the sole is put in place and "hammer lasted" with a heavy hammer. They are so very close to being finished.

Finally, I used an edger to remove the excess lining down to the stitching line. The shoes are done!

So, is this the first pair of many shoes? Is this the start of a business? Or just a really awesome hobby? What are you going to tackle next?

This was my 4th set of shoes, and the second with an Urban Threads design on them. When I started, I never really intended for it to be the start of the business, but I could see it becoming one as I become more confident in my abilities. Right now I consider myself a very enthusiastic amateur.

My next pair is in progress as we speak — a pair of steampunk booties with the Urban Threads cogs designs on them. I also have a pair of cloth flats laid out with the “runs with scissors” design — I really think a seamstress needs a pair like that!

If you want even more depth on the whole process, you can see an even more detailed version of her process here, which pretty much amounts to a tutorial if you’re feeling extra brave and have some shoe forms around. I have to say I am so blown away by this process, it’s always such a treat to see someone take their love of embroidery and their mad skillz in other areas and combine them into one amazing process. If you decide to take these into the business world, I’m sure it won’t be long before the orders fill up — after all, where else can you get shoes like these?

Thanks so much for sharing your shoes and your process with us Marna, you’re an inspiration to the brave when it comes to diving headlong into a challenging process, and now you have some fantastic shoes to show for it. I can’t wait to see the next creations you make.

Do you want to have your project featured on StitchPunk? Drop us a line at support@urbanthreads.com or upload your Urban Threads stuff to our flickr group!

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42 Responses to “Featured Project – Custom Embroidered Shoes”

  1. 1

    Wow! The shoes are fantastic! I would love to learn how to do that someday!

  2. 2
    Nancy Eidsmoe says:

    I am a tough fit, loads of baaadddd shoes in my youth so this is awsomely inspirational, as a wicked stepmother ( they just wold not eat the damn apples), I can find nothing to fit that suits me. Too young to wear old lady velcro. SO! THIS ROCKS!!!!!!!!! Bless her heart! And thanks again for amazing me 1st thing in the am. Also, it’s my birthday weekend so if I can find the gear my husband will be thrilled to not have to figure what to get. THANK YOU!!!!!

    • *apples- mua haa haa haa* I know the feeling well- I have a teen daughter and well- I don’t want to be a twins- but I gotta have something that is not “Granny” Am working on a “essentials list” will post it on my facebook page when I get it done.

  3. 3
    DuhBe says:

    All of those shoes are SO beautiful. I tried making simple shoes a few years ago and found that supplies and instructions were really hard to find. Thank you for stepping us through the process, I learned a few neat tricks!

  4. 4

    Wow!I always wondered what it took to make shoes. Mystery solved!

  5. 5
    Lizzi says:

    wow. This is completely amazing, and the shoes are beautiful!

  6. 6
    Caitlin Rose says:

    Stunning stunning and more stunning!!!

  7. 7

    On the road so it hard to type thanks for the kind words. I have located many of my tools on Ebay. Got to have a pair of lasting pliers is the main thing and a pair of lasts.

  8. 8
    debbie says:

    Love the shoes you made! Thank you so much for the project instructions. You made it sound so simple and fun.

    I doubt I try to make a pair, but when your site is open please remember to make some narrow sizes!!!!

  9. 9

    What a fun read this was! Bespoke shoes certainly can be spendy, so I can imagine there’s a few dollars to be made there, if you decide to go that route!

  10. 10
    Cecily says:

    I follow Wicked Stepmother on FB and love seeing the incredible things she makes…I totally want a UT embroidered pair of shoes…

  11. 11
    MAD14kt says:

    Very UNIQUE!!!

  12. 12
    Jenaay says:

    Wow! I had no idean how much work went into making shoes. I’m impressed. They’re awesome!

  13. 13
    Suzanne says:

    Wow….. how long take work the shoe’s? Very Awesome!

  14. 14
    marjolein says:

    This is stunning…………….so I’m not finished yet with embroidery.!
    Chapeau lady!

  15. 15
    Kim says:

    I am in awe of your talent! Enthusiastic ametaer i dont think so! Take pride in being a very good designer.

  16. 16
    Sharon Carns says:

    I want a pair! Your shoes are amazing! Could you make me a pair? If so, what would you charge? You’re truly talented.

  17. 17

    This is incredible! I love it! Thanks for sharing!

  18. 18
    Emily Goyins says:

    So impressive! Gorgeous work and super inspiring. I’d wear these shoes.

    Besides lasting pliers and lasts, what’s the minimum equipment you’d need to make a simple pair of shoes?

    Had you worked with leather before? I’ve been wanting to try leatherworking (bookbinding) but I haven’t known who to turn to with questions.

  19. 19
    Jane Olivera says:

    This is awesome! Both my daughter and I have shoe fitting problems. We’ve been flirting with the actual making of shoes for years, and she’s currently working on a pair of fabric shoes. Reading about your project has the ideas popping in too fast to catch them all! Love it!

  20. 20
    Marji says:

    Oh, my, just oh, my! Stunning idea, stunning execution, and what a tutorial! I’m just blown away, thank you so much for sharing this art!

  21. 21
    Ernie says:

    Wonderful! I read and then reread the article and must say I am so facinated. Wow, the wheels that turn in some peoples’ heads is amazing. Thanks for sharing the process.

  22. 22
    Angela says:

    That is amazing! Such beautiful work. I’ve always wondered about the process and you explained it so well. Makes me want to start a new project….

  23. 23

    Hurahhh! I look foward to all your comments. Your stuff is great! Please keep up the quality work for which you make. thank you so much

  24. 24

    Thank you for showing us the step by step pictures of how to make leather shoes.. Your shoes are absolutely beautiful and you did a fabulous job on them..

  25. 25
    kimofrancesca says:

    Hands-down my favorite of the Featured Projects! Oh, my stars & garters… I LOVE these! Purchased a book on shoe-making years ago – this project makes me want to dig out the book (it has great patterns) & tackle my own embroidered shoes (have embroidered just about everything else on my machine). Fabulous that the step-by-steps are shown and explained. Gives one a better idea of what’s actually involved in the process. Thanks, Wickedstepmother, for sharing your talent!

  26. 26
    Mary says:

    Absolutely incredible! I’ve tried my hand at a lot of crafts over the years, but never making shoes. I am in awe.

  27. 27
    LoriRay says:

    I LOVE these shoes! Great job!!! 😀

  28. 28
    vicki says:

    These are incredible! Truly my favorite!

  29. 29
    Kyna says:

    I always wanted to know how to do something like this! Awesome!

  30. 30
    Kay Kay says:

    The shoes are anazing. I am overwhelmed at the creativity of all of you envolved in Urban Threads. Although I may not make these shoes you have inspired me to explore other area with my machine embroidery. You are Extraordinarly Awesome.

  31. 31
    Keri says:

    WOW….your shoes are amazing!! As they gave us a link to your Flicker account I went there and was gazing at your other shoes. I absolutely LOVE the black pair with the skull and butterfly. They are so impressive!! What really caught me off guard was the IORG Installation pics!! My daughters were third generation in WA/ID. They are majority members now but we have our first granddaughter so I guess I get to start sewing again. What state are your girls active in?

  32. 32
    Victoria says:

    Excelente!! estoy dando mis primeros pasos, siempre me intereso hacer zapatos…gracias!! por mostrar la técnica en forma sencilla y clara

  33. 33
    Ekanem says:

    I will love to work with you

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