Classic quality shoes are in many ways well connected to it’s historical roots, which in a way makes it even more interesting to understand it’s heritage. In several articles I will cover different aspects of the history of shoes, and this one is focusing on the historical base of the welted construction.
The brilliant thing with the welted construction is that it’s easy to replace the outsole without touching the shoe’s fundamental structure, since the internal parts of the shoe are completely closed and also without seams that enters the inside of the shoe. This way to make a shoe wasn’t invented by some lone genius who sat in his or hers chamber and thought about how to build a shoe in the best way, it slowly evolved gradually over many years.
During the Middle Age (about 500’s to 1500’s) so-called turnshoes were almost exclusively the ones made. A simple and smart shoe design, where you sew a leather sole directly to the upper, soaking it all wet and turns it inside out, and then let it dry and depending on the type of leather used you could achieve some stability after they had dried up. This places the seam on the inside and it wasn’t worn down towards the ground. They stitched turnshoes both when they were placed on a last or stitched the loose pieces. The disadvantages of this type of construction is mainly that they could not do particularly solid shoes that gave support to the foot when they needed to be so soft since they were going to be turned out, and when the sole were worn down the shoes were done. You could rip off the sole and reuse the upper in some cases, but usually you had to make a pair of brand new shoes. It was also difficult to make shoes that fitted well and had a shape close to the feet. The lack of an insole also made the shoes less comfortable, and there was not anything to attach a heel to, so all the shoes were completely flat. Often the sole went a bit up at the back, like the rubber studs on modern car shoes for example, to extend the lifetime a bit.
As time went by the simple turnshoe were modified and they started using a sort of wedge between the sole and the upper, to provide increased stability. Around the year 1500 one figured out that if you extended the wedge a little and made a welt of it, you could sew an extra sole to the outside of the shoe onto the welt. They still made a regular turnshoe, and then sewed on the outsole once the shoe was turned.
The next step in development came some years into the 1500’s, when one realised that they could do the same procedure as above but without turning the shoe inside and out. The shoe could be made directly on the last and remain there throughout the manufacturing process, and no stitches went into the shoe. Here the method we call welted construction was born, and today’s hand-welted shoes are actually built on exactly the same principle now 500 years later. Goodyear welted shoes have the difference that you don’t attach the welt directly to the insole but to a canvas rib which is glued to the insole.
With the ability to make welted shoes that did not have to be so soft that they could be turned inside out, you could produce much better shoes than before. Over time, one began to stabilise the uppers with extra leather pieces that were placed between the outer upper leather and the lining. You could build a stable sole where you inserted pieces of wood or hard leather, later named shanks, in the shoe’s waist between the insole and outsole. And in time they figured out that they could attach a heel to the insole, which both gave a comfortable walk and made the shoe fixed better in the stirrup when riding.
As mentioned the turnshoes had it’s peak in the Middle Ages. For example, the Vikings in the north wore this type of footwear. The Bocksten man which was unearthed from a peat bog in Halland in the southern parts of Sweden and are estimated to have died around 1350-1370, it is a unique find because it’s the only fully preserved medieval male attire found in Europe, and he wore a pair of turnshoes very typical for this period. Turnshoes was still there long after the invention of the welted shoe, there were people entitled turnshoehoemaker in as late as the mid-1900’s in Europe. The shoes they made were mainly cheap women’s shoes worn in the home, or shoes for children.
Later on there will be articles about the Goodyear welted and Blake welted constructions, as well as other historical articles.