One of the most difficult aspects of getting started with shoemaking is trying to find detailed (& comprehensible) information about pattern making.
There are a couple of books available on the subject, for instance the relatively well known red book called “Pattern Cutting” by Tim Skyrme, but they’re typically pretty expensive and even if you do bite the bullet and buy one they’re incredibly difficult to follow if you don’t have someone available to explain things as you go along. There are also a handful of YouTube videos that give a cursory treatment of the subject but they somehow always manage to leave out a key step or two so that it’s almost impossible to follow along.
Recently, however, I came across an online shoemaking guide (Textbook of Footwear Manufacture, by J.H. Thornton) whose instructions are actually comprehensible. Like most of the guides that are available online in full, this one is on the older side (published in 1953) but unlike the other guides, this one is well illustrated and doesn’t bury you in incomprehensible industry jargon that’s almost impossible to follow. So I’ve done my best to follow this guide and document my progress along the way. I’ve included real-world examples of each step described in the guide and I’ve reproduced (& distilled) the instructions for each step in language that’s a little bit easier to follow.
1 – GENERAL
There are two (maybe three) fundamental challenges that must be overcome in order to make an effective pattern.
- A pattern is a 2-dimensional representation of a 3-dimensional shape (i.e. a last). Not only does this present a challenge in that any 2-d representation of a 3-d object will necessarily introduce distortion (think: the apparent massiveness of Greenland on a mercator map), but it is even more difficult because a last (unlike a globe) does not have any consistent geometry. The volume of a last is an odd combination of convex and concave curves that presents almost no regularity.
- Once you’ve overcome the first challenge and created a sufficiently accurate 2-d representation of the last, there is still the issue of designing the layout of the pattern in a way that accommodates the shape and mobility of the foot. To quote from Thornton: “The depths of back and sides are governed by the position of the ankle bones and the necessity of keeping the shoe on the foot. The top of the facing must not be so high as to restrict the free movement of the ankle joint and the vamp position must be low enough to permit easy entry and yet high enough to clear the ‘crease’ line of the shoe, caused by the flexing of the foot. The cap depth must not rub the foot when the shoe is flexed.“
- Bearing all of the above in mind, the shoe should also look nice.
We’ll start by addressing challenge #1 and create a 2-d representation of the shape of our last.
2 – SLOTTED FORME
Most modern pattern making guides tend to prefer using the last taping method rather than the slotted forme, likely because last taping is relatively fool proof and grants you the ability to design your pattern on the last itself rather than on the flattened representation taken from the last. However, in this case, we will not designing our pattern on the last. Instead we will use a system of measurements to determine the layout of the pattern on a flat surface with respect to a handful of reference points. Although there is more opportunity for creativity when you draw your pattern on the last itself, the slotted forme method give a stronger sense of the metrics and rules involved with pattern creation and so is a little bit more useful for learning the basics.
Before we can get started with the slotted forme, we’ll need to make a few marks on our last that will be transferred onto the forme. Namely, we’ll be marking the center line and the vamp point.
2.1 – CENTERLINE
The centerline divides the last in half lengthwise. This seems easy enough, but the fact that the last is not symmetrical can make this a little bit tricky. Thornton suggests marking a few easy-to-find points and then connecting them. First, find the center of the instep near the top of the last (which is roughly symmetrical) and mark it (shown in fig. 30 as “I” for “Instep”). Then mark the front of the last at the very tip of the toe (shown in fig. 30 as “E”). From there, I found it easiest to lay a piece of masking tape at “I,” pull it down to “E,” and then flatten it down the middle to make a straight line connecting the two points. Do the same for the heel, which is a little bit more symmetrical and easier to eyeball. You should get these measurements as close as possible, but don’t worry if they’re not perfect. Any unevenness in either side will be averaged out in a later step.
2.2 – VAMP POINT
Now that you have the centerline marked off you can begin to locate the vamp point.
For anyone who’s curious, here’s a brief explanation of the significance of the vamp point and why it’s so crucial in the pattern. If you’re not interested and you just want to find the vamp point, skip the next two paragraphs.
When you put your foot into your shoe, you have to pass the widest part of your foot (i.e. The ball) past an opening that must ultimately fit snugly around the narrowest part (i.e. The ankle). In order to solve this problem, a shoe is made with facings that allow it to open up and then laces to draw it closed again. The facings need to allow the shoe to open up enough to get the widest part of your foot past a constrictive opening and into the part of the shoe that is wide enough to accommodate it. Therefore, the facings need to extend the opening of the shoe all the way down to its widest part.
The vamp point tells us where the facings should stop and the vamp should begin by marking the intersection of a line drawn across the widest portion of the last with one drawn straight down the middle. This gives us the minimum length of the facings; if they were any shorter than this it would be difficult to get your foot in the shoe. Additionally, if the facings were much longer (and the vamp were lower) then you would run the risk of having the vamp line intersect with the natural crease line of the shoe caused by the flexing of the foot when walking; which would be uncomfortable.
The first step in finding the vamp point is to find the widest point on either side of the shoe. Do this by setting the shoe against the edge of a table and marking the point on the forepart of the last where it makes contact with the table.
Once you’ve marked both points, wrap a string across the top of the last so that it touches the marks that you’ve made on either side. The point at which this string intersects the centerline that you marked earlier is the vamp point. Mark this on your last.
2.3 – MAKING THE FORMES
Next, you will create a forme of each side of the last then average them together into a mean forme.
To do this, lay your last on its side on top of a piece of paper and draw a rough outline in the shape of the last. This just gives you a rough shape to start with and should not be contoured to the last; you’ll need to create a generous margin around the entire last in order to have enough material to work with. Then, cut out the outline. (I’ve found that thick paper works best for this, since it’s less apt to tear and won’t accidentally crease as easily as printer paper; I used a cut-up grocery bag).
With the rough shape cut out, draw a line across it from the toe to the top of the heel. Cut out three small windows along this line like in the picture below. These windows will be covered with tape, which will be used to adhere the forme to the last and hold it in place while we trace our outline.
Also, before putting the forme onto the last, go ahead and make a few cuts all around it as shown. This will allow the forme to flatten against the last more easily. Generally, however, you want to make as few of these cuts as possible because each cut introduces a small amount of distortion. I, for one, can never manage to do this and always end up cutting way more of them than this.
Next, place the forme onto the last, being careful to ensure that the form is big enough and positioned correctly so that it will cover the entire half of the last (all the way up to the center line). Now mark the center line, the back line, and the feather edge (where the upper meets the sole) on the forme. You don’t have to trace the throat (opening) right now if you don’t want to. This will be drawn in later according to measurements. Before you remove the forme from the last, mark the position of the vamp point on the centerline of the forme! Then remove the forme and cut it out along the lines that you just drew.
Once you’ve done this on one side of the last (which will come out looking something like the picture below) create another forme and do the same on the other side. In the next step, the shapes of these two formes will be averaged together to create a single mean forme.
3 – MEAN FORME
Once you have formes for both the inside and outside of your last, trace the outline of the outside forme onto a piece of paper. Then, lay the inside forme on top of this tracing and align it at the tip of the toe and the top of the heel, then trace around it as well.
The next step will be to find the average of these two shapes. Now, the heels should line up pretty closely with one another (because the heel is roughly symmetrical) and probably won’t require any averaging. And Thornton tells us that, instead of averaging the bottom lines, we should always just go with the longer of the two. This means that the only lines that you’ll have to average in order to create the mean forme is the center line. To create an average, simply draw a line that runs in the middle of the traced lines. Here’s an example from Thornton:
The dotted line represents the average between the inside forme and the outside forme. Next, you’ll cut out your mean forme and trace around it onto a piece of paper. This final tracing will be used to design your pattern.
4 – PATTERN DESIGN
I just want to make a note here that the pattern we will be designing is for a mens’ oxford shoe. Many of these steps will be different if you’re making a different style of shoe (e.g. a blucher or a boot) but the following steps are for creating an oxford pattern.
4.1 – STANDARD LAST LENGTH
Now comes the technical part. Almost every measurement that is used in the creation of your pattern is a function of the standard last length (abbreviated SL). Thornton points out that this is often slightly different from the real-world length of your last and that it comes from a standardized table of values that correspond to every available last size. Thornton gives only the following as a description of the SL values: “The scale continues with intervals of 1/3 in… The English size scale is thus divided into two, a children’s scale ranging from 0 to 13 (4 to 8 1/3 in.) and an adults’ scale ranging from 1 to 12 (8 2/3 to 12 1/3 in.).” If you extrapolate the adults’ scale for every size number & SL you get this:
According to the chart of standard last lengths, my last (which is a size 10) should use an SL value of 11 2/3″. Out of curiosity, I decided to see how accurate this was to the real-world size of my last. Turns out the SL table value (11 2/3″) was disconcertingly different from my last, which measures just less that 13″.
I began to get the sneaking suspicion that something may have changed in the way that lasts were measured over the past 60 years and that Thornton’s SL values, which would introduce a real-world discrepancy of around 10%, might not work out too well for me. So, I decided to go ahead and try measuring my pattern using the real-world length of my last (12.83″ or 32.60 cm); this worked out very well.
4.2 – CREATING A STANDARD
So, substituting the real-world length of your last for “SL” mark the following points on the outline of your mean forme in order to create a standard:
Next, draw a straight line connecting Q&A and extend it to meet a perpendicular line dropped down from T. Design the quarter curve from T, through A all the way to Q as shown. Next, add an allowance for a heel stiffener by marking a point 3/16″ out from S and connecting it with C using a curve that roughly mimics the heel curve as drawn. Continue this line from C to a point marked 1/16″ inside of Q; this will tighten up the top line of the upper.
NOTE: Thornton recommends measuring V as being 7/10 SL from C but I found this to be problematic. Measuring V in this way resulted in it being somewhere on the ball of the foot, which is clearly wrong. This is why I started us off by measuring the vamp point on the last itself and then transferring this mark to the pattern and finally onto the mean forme here. I believe this gives a more accurate representation of the vamp point’s location.
4.3 – MEASURING THE PATTERN PARTS
Next we’ll be marking off the locations of the individual parts of the shoe pattern; i.e. the toe cap, vamp, quarters, tongue, & back strip. Refer to the diagram below (fig. 35) for all measurements in this section:
- F = 1/2″ below E
- Draw a straight line connecting F and V
- <FVJ is 90°
- VO = 1/3 VJ + 1/16″
- OM = 1″ (parallel to line EV)
- Connect points V & M and extend the line to the edge of the standard, which indicates point X.
Now design the vamp curve from V’ (1/8″ above V) through M to X as shown.
Add an extra 3/16″ along the vamp curve for folding (beading) if desired. This is the process of skiving down & folding over the edges of each piece before assembling your shoe so that no raw edges will be exposed in the final product.
- EG = 1/2″
- VP = 1/3 VG
- Starting at point P, the toe cap follows the curve of a circle with a 12″ radius (whose center point would be in a straight line with PE)
If you’re not sure how to make an arc with a 12″ radius, follow these instructions: Tie a piece of string to a pencil as close to the tip as you can. Mark a point on the string 12″ from the pencil. Place the tip of the pencil on point P and, holding the string at the 12″ mark, pull it taught and align it with line PE, then press it to the table with your thumb. Keeping the string taught, move the pencil across the standard to form the toe cap line. (Add 3/16″ along the curved edge for beading if desired.)
The quarter is already formed. The only modification that you should make to your pattern is to extend it by 3/8″ along the vamp line so that the pieces can overlap when you assemble them later. (Add 3/16″ along the facings and throat for beading if desired.)
Fold a piece of paper in half and cut the strip to the following measurements:
- Length = Back of quarter + 3/8″
- Width (from the fold) =
- 3/8″ at the top
- 5/16″ at the middle
- 5/8″ at the bottom
Then cut out and unfold.
- Length = Same as line VT (1/4 SL + 1/4″)
- Width (from the fold) =
- 1 1/8″ at the top
- 3/4″ at the bottom
Then cut out and unfold.
4.4 – CUTTING THE PATTERN PARTS
Now that you’ve marked off the pattern parts on your standard, you can turn them into individual pattern pieces that can actually be used to mark off your pattern on leather.
Starting with the toe cap: fold a piece of paper in half down the middle and place your marked-up standard on top of it, aligning line EP with the fold. Then, trace over the shape of the toe cap (shown below in red) while bearing down enough to create an indentation in the paper below. Remove your standard and trace in the indentation in pen. Then cut along this line and unfold the paper. This will give you a symmetrical pattern piece that is twice the size of the toe cap on your marked up standard, mirrored along line EP.
Repeat this procedure with the vamp, marking along the line shown below in blue, aligning the fold with line PV.
The quarters will be cut out as-is. The only note here is that, when you cut out your leather for the quarters, you’ll need to cut out one quarter, then flip your pattern over and cut out the other. These will then be sewn together at the heel and the seam will be covered
And that’s the upper pattern complete. In the next section we’ll look at how to make the pattern for the lining.