It’s one of the most intricate processes in shoemaking, it’s the one where machines has taken over even on the finest bespoke shoes, and it’s the part of shoemaking which most clearly has developed into its own profession. Here’s the history of how upper making of shoes has developed.
In large part of the existence of footwear, these have consisted of very basic constructions, which one more would refer to as sole covers – sandal types – or feet covers – where the sole and upper has been made out of one piece. The oldest known leather shoe was found quite recently, in 2008 in a cave in Armenia. This shoe is 5,500 years old, so older than the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge, and is surprisingly well-preserved. It’s one piece of leather, attached with lacing over the upper part of the foot.
Obviously, a lot has happened since. The footwear has followed the development of societies, has become more and more diverse and, as clothing, signals of various things, not just only something utilitarian. However, during approximately 97% of their existence, the uppers of shoes shoes has been made completely by hand. Even when one did really intricate, super detailed decorative uppers this was fully hand stitched.
The first ever sewing machine was actually made to stitch in leather, that and thick canvas fabric. It was invented in 1790, by the Englishman Thomas Saint. It took a few decades more before the development of sewing machines had reached a level where they could be used more widely. First for garments, but eventually also for stitching of shoe uppers. The first proper shoe upper sewing machine saw the light of day in 1851. Eventually they moved into shoe factories, initially steam powered and eventually electrified. And shoe upper making has since never been the same.
To make one stitch by hand takes time. To make hundreds of stitches by hand take shitloads of time. That’s of course the main reason that sewing machines took over upper making. Then, to stitch tight, straight even stitches by hand is difficult, to stitch two rows of seams next to each other of the same high quality, even more so. To put it bluntly, here the machine is superior to most humans (even if the best ones still can outperform a machine in most regards also on hand stitching uppers, but that’s very few people). When a machine do it as well or better, and way, way quicker, it makes sense that this technique takes over, also on the most expensive and best bespoke shoes.
Now, stitching uppers is just one part of upper making. It’s a lot more to it than that. It’s pattern making, how one put the pieces together, how one reinforce the upper, lots of details, and so on. It’s very difficult to research in detail the development of all these parts, but what one can say is that most of the development that has resulted in better uppers was made up until the mid 1900’s, after that, it’s basically only development to make upper making cheaper or more efficient that has taken place, very little to improve quality.
Since this blog is about quality shoes made of leather, that’s what I focus on in this article. If you read books from early 1900’s, how one describe upper making in those is very similar to how bespoke shoemakers today still do things. One use leather backings for reinforcement, one build patterns manually on the lasts the same way, one click the leather by hand, and so on. For mass production, some of the things that we’ve seen is fabric and synthetic backings, digital processes for pattern making and grading, leather pieces are cut with cutting press machines machines or laser cutting machines, things like that. Things to make it cheaper or more efficient. But yeah, the assembly will be made on the same type of sewing machines, in all cases.