So it’s not a real body. By the time I realized that I’d made so many mistakes that I couldn’t do anything to make this pair of boots turn out well enough to give as the gift they were meant to be, I was so embarrassed that I felt like burying them in the backyard as if they were a dead body. Over a month later, I’ve had time to reflect and get over my self-pity and my shame, and think of the failure as a step in a very long learning process…and laugh. This blog post is about sharing the mistakes that I made in the hopes that I, and others who attempt shoemaking, can avoid them in the future.
This lesson in particular is not without irony. Experimental archaeologists can look at a piece of leather that’s been buried in the mud for a thousand years and make a new reproduction based on how the old piece would have looked when it was brand new. I, on the other hand, attempted to make a brand-new pair of boots based on someone else’s reproduction of a Viking find, and inadvertently made a pair that looks like it’s been in the mud for a thousand years.
What were they supposed to look like? Check out the pair on the far left on this site:
The design was based on two-toggle boots from the 9th-10th century. Stepping Through Time by Olaf Goubitz shows a pair of this shape from Dorestad. My friend Gunnarr gave me the pieces that he had already cut out; they only needed to be stitched together. Sounds simple, right?
Since the boots were to be a gift for him to wear during his elevation ceremony into the Order of the Laurel, I decided to make them even more special by customizing them. I tooled a laurel wreath onto the sole of each shoe as a subtle decoration that would be hidden from most people, but visible to other laurels approaching him as he knelt in the ceremony. (My wife, who is a laurel, assured me that this was a great idea and not at all offensive to the dignity of the Order.)
Since I couldn’t be there to deliver the boots in person, I got even more creative and decided to decorate a Zappos box and make it look like some sort of medieval shoe delivery service, relayed by friends who offered to take the boots to the event for me. (Soffos — shoes by Sofya!)
The box decorating never happened. By the time I realized that the boots were turning out horribly, horribly wrong, there wasn’t enough time left to start over. Poor Gunnarr had to be elevated without new boots, and I consoled my shame by perusing the failures of others on pinterestfail.com.
What went wrong? I had a variety of excuses:
1. Modern dyes and products didn’t behave as they had on previous projects.
I started with a Fiebings mahogany dye on the uppers. When that turned out much redder than it looked on the swatch I had made of the exact same dye, I added a coat of Eco-flo dark cocoa brown dye. Satisfied with the color, I then added a clear coat of Fiebings resolene to seal the dye and keep it from rubbing off and/or staining things inappropriately.
I then attempted to soften it with mink oil. In other projects, this has worked to darken the leather and make it softer and supple, even on top of resolene. With this project, however, I was using a different brand of mink oil that apparently does nothing at all the same as the old brand. This was “golden mink oil” by Fiebings. The old stuff was a brand I don’t remember, white mink oil purchased at a shoe store. Fiebings is considered a reputable brand, however, so I expected it to be better.
Since the mink oil wasn’t sinking in, and the resolene had made the leather uppers feel more like shiny, hard plastic, I decided it was time to try out some deglazer — which states on its label that it’s supposed to remove glazes so leather can be redyed. This was Angelus, another highly reputed brand among leathercrafters. It smelled like nail polish remover (which makes sense, given its supposed function). It took most of the shine off the leather, so I figured it had worked. I added a fresh coat of dark cocoa dye and some more mink oil, and some neetsfoot oil for good measure.
When the time came to soak the shoe and turn it right-side out, the dye started flaking off. And, since I had used up the last of the dark cocoa dye, I had no way of patching up any bald spots. So, I began frantically trying to rub off as much of the dye as I could so that the boots would at least have an even coating. As the boots dried I ended up scraping and scraping, until some patches of leather looked really dry, scratched up, and dented. And, unfortunately, there were some small dark spots of the original dye that I absolutely could not remove, giving the boots an oh-so-pleasant moldy appearance.
What to do differently: Avoid modern dyes and resolene altogether. Save the neetsfoot and mink oils until after the boots have been turned right-side out.
2. Turning the shoe is hard on tooling and dyes in general.
I learned why so few shoes have tooled decoration on the soles: the act of soaking the leather for the turning process makes the tooling really susceptible to damage. Also, I thought that dyeing the leather uppers prior to sewing would prevent me from getting dye on the soles…WRONG! The water kept getting browner and more like tea the longer the boots were soaking in it, meaning that the soles were getting dye, too. And, because I made the additional mistake of drying the boots right-side up, that meant that the tool bench I dried them on embedded further indentations into my tooled design. Check out these before and after shots:
What to do differently: If I use any dye, I’ll carefully add it after turning the shoes — which should be dried up-side down on some sort of peg so they can be suspended in the air. I might try tooling after turning, too. It may be tricky, but there might be a way to get a flat surface in the shoe for it!
3. Sole leather is really hard to bore consistent box-stitch tunnels into, especially when it’s really aged and hardened.
Part of the trouble with ongoing projects is that the materials can sit around for a few years before they ever get made into something. I’ve learned the hard way that thick leather only gets more challenging to work with as it ages. Most of my experience has been on pieces thinner than 8-9 ounces, so 12-14-ounce leather takes more muscle than I’m used to using.
Complicating the issue is that getting the box-stitch tunnels to all have the holes in the sides at a consistent measurement takes some practice and finesse, which is not something that comes easily when I’m trying to hammer an awl through the leather with brute force.
As a result, my sole stitches bring the two pieces together unevenly, creating a gnarled “dumbest ‘gator in the swamp” look to the seams.
What to do differently: use the youngest sole leather possible, or settle for thinner leather — 9-10-ounce might be more workable than 14-ounce. I may have to toss out some large pieces of sole leather that are already really difficult to cut with a knife; if they’re difficult to handle with hand tools, I can’t guarantee that I have much control over the stitch holes.
Another option would be to use a Dremel boring tool attachment, if one exists. Otherwise, I may have to try to make an awl guider similar to the one shown in Frazier’s Compleat Anachronist on The Basic Craft of Turnshoes.
4. You should at least test the fit on the foot, or get a last.
I made this pair without a last — which, supposedly, it’s possible to do, but because I was making these boots for someone long-distance, I couldn’t exactly test the fit when the first pair looked like it might be a little small. I don’t know. I’m still hoping these will fit the recipient, but I won’t know for sure until he tries them on. The toes look a little small. Leather also shrinks when it’s wet. This pair not only got wet, but dried and hardened, meaning that we might have to get them wet again just to see if he can get his feet into them.
I’m starting to realize that while it’s possible to make shoes without a last, the last really helps shape the leather to the foot, especially in creating a rounded shape that makes room for the toes. I’d like to start making lasts, but that’s a level of woodworking I haven’t gotten to yet — meaning I might have to shelve shoemaking until I can figure out how to make lasts, too.
What to do differently: either use a last, or use thinner, more flexible leather. I think part of the issue with getting this leather to shape properly was that the upper was already rather stiff (partly because of my own gaffes with modern products, but also because it was at least 5-7 ounce veg-tanned leather to begin with, which is already fairly stiff. That kind of leather would make awesome boots, but it work better with lasts, I think. For lastless shoes, flexible chrome-tanned leather may be necessary to bend with the shape of a person’s foot.
There are other mistakes and regrets that befouled these boots — not re-examining Goubitz’s drawing to see how I should add the toggles, using the wrong type of stitch on the side seams, leaving the Zappos box out where my cat could chew it up — but the lessons there are fairly self-explanatory.
I’ve already promised Gunnarr that I will make him a fresh pair of boots. For that pair, I’m hoping to have him try these on so we can make any adjustments to the pattern necessary, use some fresh pieces of leather, and pray that I will have learned from these mistakes.
My favorite Russian proverb is “The first pancake is a blob.” In other words, if at first you don’t succeed, keep making boots until you do. And then, make boots…like a Viking.