The Hand Welted Sole Construction

You hardly find better hidden values on a shoe than the hand welting. Even specialists of the trade cannot easily see whether a shoe is hand or machine welted. The piece of material involved in both cases is almost the same for hand and machine welts: a strap of raw leather, about 2.5 mm thick and 60 cm long and a few meters of thick, waxed nylon thread.

The strap or welt is sewn at the edge of the running surface of the lasted shoe and its technical purpose is to bond the upper and the insole and at the same time to provide a flat band around the shoe for the actual sole to be stitched on. So upper, insole and welt are stitched together with one seam.

To get the thread through one stitching hole the needle has to pass through a 2.5 mm of welt leather, 5 mm of insole leather, 2 mm of upper leather, 1 mm of lining leather and at the tips and heel part through an additional 2.5 mm stiffener leather. In the worst case, at tips and heels, the leather thickness for the needle to pass through becomes then 13 mm.

Obviously, you need a strong and therefore thick needle for this job or it would be easier when the hole would be already there, let’s say pre-pierced with a kind of ale. And that’s how it is actually done. The entire upper, including lining and stiffeners is wrapped tightly around the last and a margin of about 1 cm of the upper is folded under the last and glued to the insole. To this solid entity the loose welt band is to be stitched.

The difficulty is to pierce through 1 cm of leather in a precise angle and the tip of the ale exiting where it should, then placing the loose welt near the tip of the ale – also in a certain angle and go further to pierce the welt. Now the ale is pulled back – everything kept with one hand in place and with the other hand the needle with the thread is inserted and pulled trough. The next stitch is placed about 6 mm in front of the first one and so on.

Sewing loose pieces together and piercing a stitching channel upfront is amongst the most difficult hand sewing techniques and even experienced welt stitchers have to watch their hands. One can never do it with closed eyes.

Besides its trickiness the process is time consuming. There are about 80 stitches to be made on a shoe. Not taking any preparatory works in consideration the sewing takes about 20 minutes, so for a pair are necessary 40 minutes. The same operation done with a welt-stitching machine takes rather less than a minute for a pair!! While the hand sewer stitches one pair, the machine worker makes 40 pairs.

That is why, at the turn of the 19th century shoe factories all over the world were stormed by the upcoming unions and welt-stitching machines were demolished by the workers. Invented by Charles Goodyear, the welting machine, which carries his name, enabled the mass-production of welted shoes and changed the face of the industry.

From the 1900s on, hand welting slowly faded away from industrialised shoe production and became rather a difficult key operation for high-end bespoke shoemaking. But, as it happens to many outdated processing technologies, they somehow didn’t disappear completely and found their niche.

Still nowadays there are some small factories making skiing and mountain boots stitching the welt by hand. One of the last areas where such kind of footwear was manufactured in small bulk production is the Veneto, an area near the Alps in Northern Italy, where Zonkey Boot are produced.

Another field where hand welting survived was the small scale production of men’s luxury footwear in the area of Bologna. Such workshops have stumbled for decades between bespoke and serial production but kept their skills in hand welting because the investment in a Goodyear machine didn’t make much economic sense. Another reason for the survival of this ancient technique was its suitability for outsourcing. The lasted shoe was picked up by the outworker and brought back the next day with its welt sewn on. The job could have been easily done in a small space in the kitchen or garage, it didn’t create noise or dust and it was always well paid.

In the late 80’ when Goodyear welted shoes started their revival as luxury shoes, also the hand welting picked up and the demand for skilled hand stitchers has slowly increased. Therefore, the number of hand stitchers in Italy has risen. In the last 10 years the relatively low costs, high speed and advanced logistics of small goods transportation enable manufacturers to send the shoes for welting to the stitcher. Our manufacturer sends the lasted Zonkey Boots to welt stitchers all over the country, as far as Sicily. Some of them work in groups and can do, together, up to a hundred pairs a day. Others are highly specialised loners, doing only certain stitches like braided Norwegians or Welt Shoen.

The tremendous growth of the luxury segment has caused a wild inflation of the word ‘handmade’ and its siblings: hand grade, hand crafted, bench made and so on. Specifically in the men’s shoe field the confusion has reached its peak and is fuelled by brands which offer sub brands at much higher price levels, claiming that these shoes are made by hand, whatever that means. In the best cases, it means that the shoes are at least welted by hand, like Lattanzi, Kiton and some others do. In the worst cases the shoes receive a bit of a higher gloss and an expensive box. But as grown up luxury goods consumers we know to read between the lines of sub brands and special labels.

When it comes to Zonkey Boot, we like to have our welts hand stitched.

All this being said, the natural question would be now: is the hand-welted shoe forty times better than the machine welted one? No! Is it at least two times better, which would justify the double price in the shop? No. Can you quantify the quality advantage of hand welting? Yes, you could, but it’s not easy to measure. You would have to measure and quantify the flexibility or a probably better technical term, the ‘patterning ability’ of the shoe and compare it. The result would be significantly better than that of a machine-welted shoe. So, is it worth the effort? Yes, because you can clearly feel the difference. Is it worth the price? It depends on what price you put on inner value and true craftsmanship.

Michael Rollig

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