The fact that leather shoes stretch is something that most people learn when they are children. In what way and how much they stretch, however, is another matter, and not something for which there is a fixed formula. There are lots of different aspects that affect how much or how little a shoe stretches, here I go through some of them.
One aspect that affects is how much stitching there is on the shoe. It’s partly about the seams holding things together a bit, but also about overlapping of leather here which generally means less stretch than when it’s one piece of leather, so to speak. So a wholecut usually stretches a bit more than a full brogue, but seams also stretch, and contrary to what some people think, it’s no problem to stretch also a full brogue.
It’s also important to remember that shoes stretch differently in different places. At the heel and toe they stretch almost nothing, while at the ball of the shoe, its widest part, they can stretch quite a bit.
An important variable for how much the leather expands is how much stretch there is in the leather, and this is determined by a variety of factors. Of course, different types of leathers from animals of different ages, tanned differently etc. highly affect the stretch of a hide. Then, there can be some difference between the stretch in different hides even though they come from the same batch, and it can even vary between different parts of a hide. A soft part closer to the belly tends to stretch more than a more solid grain structured part close to the spine. In addition, stretch is affected by the type of lining leather used, as well as how much reinforcement is used and where it’s placed between the upper leather and the lining leather. As many manufacturers vary between different suppliers of both lining and uppers, even for the same colour, this makes it even more difficult to make calculated predictions.
It then also affects how tight the leather was pulled during the lasting process. On factory-made shoes this difference is smaller, but with hand-lasted shoes it can vary a lot depending on the person who lasted the shoe, although of course you try to have a standardised level so to speak. When you hand-last, you can also pull the leather harder than with a machine, as you have more control over the process. Machine lasting should work for all shoes in a batch without changing the settings and then they are set to last a bit looser by default.
The material also matters here, a classic example is Hungarian Vass whose smooth leather shoes are very hard lasted, and therefore stretch relatively little as a rule, while suede and cordovan which have less tensile strength are not lasted as hard, and therefore often both perceived as larger than a smooth leather shoe even though they are made on the same last in the same size, and then also tend to stretch more (not cordovan though, since it has very little give). Also embossed grain leather often are stretched a bit softer, to not remove all the embossing. This above also do apply for factory-made shoes, but can be a bit smaller differences than in some hand lasted cases, but still highly noticeable.
The construction method used can also play some role. A Goodyear welted shoe with a very soft cork filling will be compressed a bit over time as they are worn, becoming more roomy especially at the widest part of the shoe where the cavity is the largest. A shoe that is hand welted, Blake/Rapid-stitched or Blake-stitched does not change as much here, as there is a smaller cavity on these that does not sink in the same way, although the filling and the leather insole also mould well and do compress to some extent.
In other words, to simply assume that a shoe “stretches half a size” or similar, as you may sometimes hear, is not very realistic. There are so many different parameters to take into account, and in many cases it’s very difficult to determine in advance what the stretch will be. When even a shoe of the same size and model from the same manufacturer can vary depending on the material, the person who lasted it, and so on, it sure makes it difficult.
Read more on the topic in this follow up article, where I go through other aspects of what affects how shoes stretch, above it was mainly technical aspects of materials and making, in that post it’s more on how they fit and are worn plays a role.
Great info, but difficult to read. I love shoes and read every blog post I find, and that was an English teacher’s nightmare.
Interesting article. I have recently purchased a second hand pair of Cheaney 2-eyelet derbys. They are a 10 F UK size. I, over lock down (ahem), have found my feet to have become slightly wider: I’m most probably a 10 G UK. The Cheaney shoes in question have given my blisters on both little toes! Agony as I love the shoes (I brought them back from the dead as a botched refinish job had messed the colour up. I renovated them and they look very nice. I’ve considered stretching them to a G width but am concerned it might not work. I’ll be doing a bit of research, starting with re-reading this article before I make a decision to stretch….
Mario: I know the article might have one or two issues for a native English speaker, But forgive me for saying – Jesper is doing a sterling job considering he’s Swedish! I’m impressed with non-native English speakers who can not only speak English, but write essays and articles in English.
Mario: Sorry, this article was translated from its original Swedish version using DeepL, then I just went through it quickly. Tight with time today, if I can I’ll go through it more properly later today. Normally I write the English articles from scratch first (and then translate to Swedish for the .se site), and I believe they are a bit “less bad” then, but being a non-native English speaker I’m afraid there will always be language errors here.
Anthony: If it’s just the pinky toes that are tight, it’s usually no problem to stretch that part out just behind the toe stiffener. Take them to a cobbler and hear what he/she says about it.
Also thanks for thinking I write decent, as I write above will never be perfect I’m afraid 🙂
Jesper: Thanks for the advice; I think I will try my cobbler. Jesper, you write more than decent 🙂
Whenever I hear about stretching and shrinking I remember the bespoke Brighton gentleman who regularly shrinks and stretches his shoes by inches – length wise too….although I watch him regularly this is still a very mysterious thing, as when I even would like 1mm room or shrink I am not able to get this. Any chance to interview him for your fine blog?
Peter: I’ve written about his Youtube channel before on the blog: https://shoegazing.com/2018/08/06/the-web-tip-bespoke-addicts-youtube-channel/
If it’s for example bespoke shoes with real leather heel and toe stiffeners, you can slightly shorten them in length, but not much, certainly not inches. And when shrinking shoes, as I write in the article: “Leather that shrinks in this way also tends to stretch back again more easily (hence Lee Morrison often repeats the process over the years)”.