Custom Shoemaking Process

Ever wonder how a pair of shoes really comes together? At the Cordwainer Shop, every shoe is made completely by hand using decades-old techniques, patterns and equipment. All of our shoes hold true to the mission of our founder, Edward Mathews: to create beautiful yet healthy and comfortable shoes that will last for years. Here is a look into our custom shoemaking process.

A selection of Cordwainer footwear styles on display at a craft show

Step 1: Trace feet and select shoe style and leather.

Feet, like fingerprints, are unique. We trace each person’s feet to ensure that the shoes are precisely fit to the unique shape of YOUR feet...and in most cases that means even your own two feet are not exactly the same size! Custom shoes ensure the best possible fit for your unique feet.

Students and clients browse through over 30 styles of Cordwainer Shoes, including oxfords, slip-ons, boots and sandals. The majority (about 90%) of these timeless, classic shoe styles were designed by Master Cordwainer Paul Mathews from the 1930s-1980s.

Our leathers come in a huge variety of colors and textures, so there is something for everyone, from conservative to fashion-forward to funky.

Custom leather soles cut from patterns that were made by tracing feet

Step 2: Hand cut uppers and soles from pattern pieces.

Our patterns have stood the test of time and are themselves pieces of shop history. Some are made of 1970’s milk cartons, and others are made of old-fashioned file folders or green pattern paper. Most of the older patterns have customer names and dates. The oldest one in use is from 1952!

We use 3 different antique machines (each is over 100 years old) to cut and prepare our oak-tanned leather soles. The first machine cuts the top channel, the second cuts the bottom channel, and the third punches holes along the channel for stitching. Even after a century of use, this equipment is the best for the job.

Punch, stitch and assemble leather uppers

Step 3: Punch, stitch and assemble uppers.

Most styles are stitched together on Molly’s antique Singer sewing machine, through which she is able to maneuver the leather and create perfect rows of tiny stitches. The Cordwainer Classic style called the Candace, however, is stitched together completely by hand and is therefore perfect for teaching at craft schools.

Our hand punches are old Osborne punches that can’t be beat!  We use these to create decorative patterns in the uppers and to make the holes for stitching the uppers to the soles.

Hand-stitch leather uppers and soles together

Step 4: Stitch uppers and soles together.

Hand sole lacing (once you get the hang of it) is very relaxing and rewarding as the shoes really begin to take form. Uppers and soles are stitched together by hand using waxed cotton lacing that is specially made for us by a company in Maine.  Our specialized hollow needles are also custom made for us.

Last, cure, burnish and lace shoes

Step 5: Last, cure, burnish and lace.

Lasting is the process by which shoes are shaped around a wooden form, called a last. The last is slipped into the assembled shoe (hence the name “slip lasting” given to our shoe making style) and then placed into a warm oven overnight to allow the leather to tighten around the form, or cure, and take the final shape of the wearer.

Once the curing process is complete, we make the heels and taps, trim the soles, and wax and burnish the sole edges, creating a very sleek finished product. The shoes can then be laced, if applicable, and the shoes are ready to wear.

From start to finish, it takes several days to complete a pair of oxford style shoes. Depending on the style of the shoe or particular fitting challenges, the process may take more or less time. Creating each pair of shoes is an extremely rewarding labor of love that preserves decades-old techniques and shoemaking traditions!