Few things say so much about the actual quality of the making on a pair of welted shoes as the work on the sole and heel edges. In this article I go through a number of details on the construction and finishing of welts, heels and sole edges and explain levels of difficulty, the difference between various solutions, if practical function or solely aesthetic, and so on.
Welt and sole edges
In many ways the most visible part, since it’s faced forward of the shoes and do so much for how we perceive a pair. The reason of having the protruding sole edge on welted shoes, and also Blake / Rapid-stitched shoes (note, different from Blake), is utilitarian, it’s all due to the need of having a connector where one stitch the sole to the welt (or midsole in the case of Blake / Rapid). Coincidentally it also acts as a highly practical bumper protecting the more sensitive upper of the shoes (more on that in this article). Now humans have a tendency to quickly refine something utilitarian and make it to something much more, which also is the case with the welt and sole edges of welted shoes. And in general, the more this is refined, the more work goes into it, and the more you need to pay.
Lower-priced factory-made quality shoes often do things rather basic. You trim the sole edges straight, and leave the welt as is (when we talk about the welt here, it’s the upper part of the welt, sole edge is the side of the welt and the outsole, plus side of potential midsole). Not that much sanding, no fuzz. Some use trimming wheels with some sort of shape, often with protruding edges on top and bottom. None of this really adds any difficulty or practicality, it’s just looks. When you step up in price ranges you start to see more work going into the edges. The welt can be finished with a machine fudge wheel which leaves decorative markings, it can have the seam hidden in a channel inside the welt (not talking about hided stitch under the sole here), and so on. The edges are usually more carefully sanded, perhaps finished by hand. And the stitch density goes up, from 5-6 spi (stitches per inch) on entry level up to 8-10 spi on finer factory-made shoes.
Since it’s the edge of the leather that you work with here, with the corium exposed, the more work you put in to smoothen and protecting the edges, the more it matters, also in the long run. Moist and wear will always change things, but less so if a lot of finishing work has been done in the manufacturing. Also something that sets cobblers apart, most do much more basic edge finishing than what’s done in the making, so be on their back about this.
On fine handmade bespoke shoes, in general a lot more efforts are done, and most if not all is done by hand. Edges are cut, rasped, glassed and sanded smooth, finished off with warm edge irons which hardens the surface further, and so on. For the welt, when you stitch the sole by hand, in general you have markings done with a fudge wheel or another type of tool, and the stitches are also often pressed tighter with a stitch prick (also enhancing markings) and fudge wheeled again after stitching for tighter seam and a smoother appearance. Here the fudge wheel has a practical purpose as well as for appearance, and you see that the stitches match the dimples from the wheel, unlike on machine stitched soles where the wheel is just run over the stitches.
Making the sole stitch clean and neat takes skill, but making a tighter sole stitch isn’t really harder per se, up to a certain level of spi, it mainly takes more time and also you have more amount of stitches that needs to be made clean, but the main difficulty lays in making it clean and neat either way. Then, above say 14 spi or so the tightness starts increasing difficulty for real, and you have to use thinner and thinner thread to be able to make the stitches and not perforate the welt and sole too much to loose strength. Above 16 spi is very rare to find on customer shoes today. From a practical standpoint, an 8 spi sole stitch is just as strong and durable as a 14 spi sole stitch, if done the same way, as in a lot of cases the refinement is made to show off a higher degree of craftsmanship and enhancing appearance, not necessarily to make stronger or more durable shoes.
A misconception I see spread from time to time is that it’s more difficult to cut a sole edge close. Since you are still far off from the uppers it doesn’t really affect how complicated it is to make (a bit less space to have the stitches on, but that’s a highly marginal increase in difficulty), it’s all appearance and usually has it’s base in different schools of shoemaking. For example, in Italy the general style is wide sole edges, but they don’t do it because they are less good shoemakers, it’s just their style. You can find closer cut sole edges from lower-priced brands like Crownhill Shoes, up to full bespoke like Yohei Fukuda (if you choose his tight cut, with him you choose wide, normal or tight sole edge when ordering). A con with sole edges that are too tight is that you will have fewer resoles possible before the welt is too thin to be able to manage a stitch (since you always have to sand things down a bit to make the edge uniform and smooth after attaching a new sole), meaning you’d need to replace also the welt quicker, in worst cases already at the first resole.
Again, we start by looking at the cheaper and simpler versions. Here the basic solution is a square waist (non bevelled on the bottom and straight, square edges), which means that you basically continue the same shape as the front part of the sole through the waist, with the same shape going all up to the heel. You don’t need to do any changes to stitching or edge finishing, you go ahead in the same manner for the whole welt and sole edge. In general this also is associated with more casual footwear, so also very expensive and fully handmade shoes can have a square waist, chosen for the style.
On factory-made shoes you then have the next step in “refinement” being smaller changes in how you trim the waist edge, usually it’s rounded off to a certain degree to have it become tighter and look more neat. The tighter you want to have the edge, the more careful you have to be with placement of the sole edge and other preparations are needed to get the waist really narrow and tight. Since a basic half resole which cobblers do most of don’t mean changing the waist, only the front part of the sole plus the heel, this does not affect in the same degree “resoleability” as when you cut the front part of sole edge tight. One can also have a square outside and rounded tighter bevelled inside of the waist.
Stepping up to finer handmade shoes, you can do a lot more to a waist edge. Most noticeable and famous is obviously the blind welted waists, basically always in conjunction with a round bevelled or marked fiddle back bottom of the waist. What is done here apart from a bit different preparations is that you cut the welt very narrow at the waist, and hide it below the edge of the outsole. If one is after a neat look, this is the way to go. To make a proper blind welt the waist have to be stitched by hand, and it takes skill to do it well. A sort of half way used by some is making prep and the waist stitching more in a normal way and just hammer the sole edge up towards the upper to also hide the stitching.
When you do the waist edge, the closer it’s cut the more difficult it is to make it well, and to not damage the upper. Here you are working directly towards the upper, in comparison to the front part of the sole edge where you always have space on welted footwear, with very small margins.
For heel edges, we also in general have the same rules applying as with waist edges. Here, the most easy way to make things is to cut the heel further away from the upper, meaning you’ll have more space to work with and can do things quicker and easier as you finish off the heel. It’s no coincidence that on Goodyear welted shoes, in general, the more they cost the closer the heel is trimmed. But again, some comes to down to style. For more casual shoes one can choose a 360° sole stitch perhaps also with storm welt, meaning you will have a wider heel, and same thing is often done on for example service boots even if they have a 270° sole stitch (where the sole stitch stops at the heel), the heel base is rather wide. The basic reason for this is utilitarian, you have the more solid, hard heel protecting the upper of the shoes or boots. No need for that in the same way on elegant refined dress shoes.
Looking at straight or tapered heels, similar to the sole stitching none of them are really more difficult to make per se. On factory-made shoes you have machines doing the first shaping and trimming and it’s just about types and settings on these that differs between straight or tapered, and when done by hand the difficult thing is always to make all sides and both heels levelled and even, but in fact it can be just as difficult to make a fully straight heel really straight and even as to make a tapered one levelled and matching. But, difficulty here comes in the fact that when you make a tapered heel it tends to need to be cut rather close, to have that blend together with the upper as one is after with this type of heels. What one also can add is that the type of heel that is often called a “bespoke heel” or similar, where the sides are straight and the back is tapered, basically have to be made by hand and can be rather difficult to get well-balanced and matching.
Otherwise when one looking at the edges of the heel a lot of what one pay for is how smooth they are. In this article I won’t go into more in detail on different ways to build heels (where basically all factory-made shoes have pre-built heels put on as a single piece, while handmade bespoke shoes in general have them built layer by layer), but what one can say is that to be able to have a really smooth, good looking heel the heel stacks need to be of real leather (not fibreboard or leather board, as can be especially on lower-priced welted shoes) and it needs to be finished well with grinding, preferably hammering and glassing, sanding and ideally a hot edge iron packing the leather fibres real dense. Good bespoke makers also tend to choose paste for when building their heels, since it leaves less pronounced streaks between the layers compared to stronger adhesives. Makes it a bit more complicated to build the heels, but appearance is enhanced.
Which type of edge dressing that is chosen doesn’t really affect anything else than appearance, there’s solid coloured edge dressing and more transparent ones where you can see the leather through the finishing. Which type you prefer is personal.