How are handmade shoes made?

In a footwear market replete with every kind of shoe style and quality you can imagine, brands are vying for consumers’ attention. Board members, creative directors and others under the brands in question get together to determine what their bases will want and need from footwear in the seasons to come.

Speaking only for myself and my brand, I’ve found that one thing consumers will always appreciate is a well-made pair of shoes. And the way I, and some other small brands like mine, have delivered that high-quality product is by employing handmade methods.

In short, the best handmade shoes and boots are made with excellent craftsmanship and attention to detail executed over days and weeks, rather than in a matter of minutes, as is the case for off-the-rack shoes. But if you’re looking for detailed information on how handmade shoes are crafted, read on.


These shoes are made with high-quality leather, fabric or synthetic material

As with any type of footwear, apparel or accessory, materials used factor into the quality of the product in question. High-quality, not necessarily Italian, but certainly European, skins elevate the look and feel of leather shoes. For example, Berluti uses materials like calf and alligator leather for its dress shoe and sneaker offerings alike; and such refined materials are handled with care by knowledgeable craftsmen.

Some designers avoid using animal-based materials and instead employ synthetic materials, and these are more than acceptable, depending on their source. (Such options are not always biodegradable; oftentimes, they’re plastic.)

In terms of how and where the materials are allocated, not many companies use a leather sole, which maximizes comfort (this is because leather adapts to the way you walk and therefore breaks in quickly and effectively). As I mentioned in an earlier article, other companies use less refined materials that sacrifice comfort and quality in the process. Brands like Nikeand Common Projects use soles made of sponge and cardboard respectively, which shoemakers glue to the shoe structures rather than sew them.

In the handmade process, leathers may be treated with dyes to achieve a unique finish, sewn together to create a structure and massaged onto a last (or a mold of a human foot), to name but a few steps.

They also involve much thought, creativity and time

“Handmade” is a tired word in the fashion industry, so it’s important to remember that true handmade footwear—regardless of whether it’s bespoke, made-to-order or already stocked—is made by skilled shoemakers from beginning to end.

Generally speaking, the handmade shoe-making process takes time because it is, well, made by hand rather than automated machinery. There are countless steps the cobblers must follow to complete your handmade shoes, but the process ensures that no element of your shoes has been mass-produced or will be exactly the same as any other pair crafted by the same designer, particularly if your shoes are custom-made (a.k.a. made-to-order). And depending on the complexity of the shoe design in question, their work could take days to weeks.

These artisans dye the leathers to your liking. If your shoe style has perforations, they hand punch the holes. They’re working on the shoes every step of the way and therefore being mindful of the quality and workmanship of the item they’re creating—but more on that later.

A great benefit to using traditional shoemaking techniques is longevity. Famed English shoemaker John Lobb uses a Goodyear welt—a layer of material sewn to the bottom of the shoe separating the insole and the upper from the outsole, which allows for shoe resoling. The welt can be unstitched to detach the sole without causing damage; once that’s done, a new sole can be added to extend the life of your shoes.

And they require sharp attention to detail

The best handmade shoes are perfectly imperfect. And by that, I mean that they’re crafted with perfection in mind, though what the artisans will achieve is only the kind of perfection that is manmade, not machine-made. To give you an idea of the steps they take, the artisans assigned to your shoes cut and trim the leather or fabric with precision in mind, sew them together gingerly, mount the materials onto the shoe mold and stain the leather based on general specifications for an attractive yet one-of-a-kind look.

Many handmade shoemakers offer the opportunity for buyers to put their own spin on shoes with engraving, shoe tattoos and hand-painted details. Made-to-order shoe brand Margaux welcomes its clients to design its Demi style with hand-painted details, and it offers five monogram styles and a daisy floral for that model as well. Meanwhile, cult sneaker brand Golden Goose, which bills traditional shoe-making techniques as the means behind its unique aesthetic, encourages clients to customize their footwear using charms, crystals, studs and handwritten messages. (Speaking of Golden Goose, if you’ve been researching the best handmade sneakers but can’t yet decide which is right for you, check out this buying guide on the ultra-popular brand and one of its main competitors.)

Employing such intricate steps comes at a greater cost to the brand, but many makers accept this because of the value provides to their clients. It’s far more expensive to employ a craftsman than it is to buy and utilize a machine for production.) But when products are made by skilled shoemakers from start to finish there is an assurance of exceptional quality and unique details.


Ready to purchase a pair of handmade kicks?

Makers employ traditional shoe-making techniques because they’re known to ensure longevity—that’s the true value proposition of a handmade pair of shoes. And this article serves as a window into the handmade process.
With over 20 years in the fashion industry, Esquivel Shoes takes pride in being a valuable resource for shoppers. To learn more about our own handmade shoe collection or any other products we offer, send us a message through this link. We’re here to give you peace of mind and help you find the best handcrafted shoes for you.

George Esquivel

George Esquivel

George is a Southern California-based designer and craftsman who designed his first pair of shoes in 1994 and began honing his craft thereafter. For over 20 years, he’s operated his namesake brand, Esquivel, which specializes in handmade shoes and accessories. In the last decade, George served as Creative Director of renowned luxury bag and luggage brand Tumi Inc. and as Creative Consultant for Italian heritage brand Fratelli Rossetti, and has collaborated with many others for his own brand. George was a 2009 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalist, and has been a CFDA member since 2010. When he’s not working alongside his team of artisans at his atelier, Esquivel House, in Downtown Los Angeles, George is enjoying time with his wife and high school sweetheart, Shelley, and their three grown children. He also loves mountain biking and hosting good friends for dinners and fêtes.