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Prior to any discussion about shoemaking methods, it is important to first understand the components and common terminologies used when describing shoes, which is what our very first article will be about.
We’ll begin with the uppers as it is the most visible part of the shoe, and probably makes up most of the “entire body” of the shoe or boot. For men’s dress shoes, they are typically cut from calf hides. The different parts of the uppers will be individually discussed as we move along.
It is the general area that lies between the captoe seam, and the lacing area. The vamp piece, is typically cut from the best part of the hide as it corresponds to the area where your toes bend, and consequently, probably the area that flexes and creases the most and under the greatest stress as a result. It is also a very visible part of the shoes where any imperfections on the leather are very easily seen.
Self-explanatory here, the captoe is the foremost part of the shoe, and is separated from the vamp by the captoe seam. This is an area not subjected to much stress, because it is “protected” by the rigidity of the toe stiffener, and is also not an area where the foot naturally flexes much. However, good, or relatively good leather still needs to be used due to the visibility of the area, and also the need for the captoe leather to be relatively smooth to take a polish well.
The general area of the “quarters”, are the sides of the shoe. The descriptive term for “quarters” came about because in a standard captoe oxford with a centre heel seam, four pieces of leather are required to form the uppers, with each of these “side pieces” being a quarter of the leather required. An exception to this descriptive term would apply for the balmoral oxford, where the vamp and the side of the shoe is a continuous piece, hence giving rise to the descriptive term “long vamp oxford” instead.
The heel refers to the back area of the shoe. If the shoe design consists of a heel counter seam, the heel area is easily defined externally by this. But if there isn’t, one can still easily define the boundaries by the feeling the stiffness of the heel counters within the upper.
Moving on to the base area of the shoe, in most cases, the outsole is the actual visible “sole” of the shoe. It is usually the first layer of leather that is found immediately beneath the welt. It does not include or refer to the heel stack and is the actual part of the shoe that comes into contact with the ground. This can sometimes be confused with a midsole, especially in shoes done in a Norvegese construction, where the uppers (which are folded outwards instead of inwards in a more conventional method) are first stitched to a midsole. And the midsole is then stitched to an outsole.
The heel stack
This usually consists of numerous layers of leather stacked one on top of the other, to lift the heel part of the shoe. The lowermost (furthest away from the uppers) layer is also called the toplift.
This is a narrow strip of leather running around the forepart of the shoe, from the breast (start) of the heel on one side, to the breast of the heel on the other side. In welted shoes, this is a very integral part which forms the point of attachment between the uppers, insole, and outsole. The top surface of the welt is the most visible to us, especially when viewing the shoe from the top down, with part of it, “tucked away” beneath the uppers. Apart from being a point of attachment for the different parts of the shoe, the welt (and the outsole stitched beneath it) also serves a protective function, protecting the uppers if the shoe is kicked against a hard surface.
Although not visible to us from the outside of the shoe, the forepart of the insole can be visible when one looks into the shoe provided the maker has not used a full sock liner. The insole is an especially integral part of a pair of hand-welted shoes as it is where the holdfast is carved. More of this to follow in our topic on hand welting.
The heel counters and toe puffs
While not visible to the eye, these are pieces of leather that lie between the upper leather and the lining, at the heel and toe areas. They serve the purpose of stiffening and strengthening these two areas respectively, as these areas do not undergo any dynamic movement or flexing while walking, and hence do not need to be flexible. The rigidity they confer also plays an important part in maintaining the shape and silhouette of the shoe.
Toe puff. Image via the Secret Cobbler.
In the final component of shoe anatomy, we’ve got the shank, which is narrow, elongated piece of material, typically made from either metal, leather, occasionally wood or possibly even a combination of these, that lies between the insole and the outsole. It extends from the heel stack to the forepart of the shoe near the treadline. The treadline is where the front of the shoe actually comes into contact with the ground, and corresponds quite closely to where the toes flex. The function of the shank is to provide a rigid, stable support along the length of the shoe. Without it, the amount of stress that is placed on the insole and outsole from the drop in height forwards of the heel stack, coupled with the wearer’s body weight, may cause the outsole to sag or collapse, destroying the form and the silhouette of the shoe. The shank also plays a part in the formation of a fiddleback waist, which we will be getting to in the articles to come.