The anarchist’s shoes

February 13, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.
In which I learn why manufactured shoes are bad for you and how to make your own.
At Thanksgiving dinner the Anarchist was admiring the black ankle boot moccasins I was wearing with my sarong pants and I announced that I was going to make my own shoes. 
"I’d be very interested in how that goes", said the Anarchist who was a self designated non-conformist who had, during a discussion at one of our parties, announced that she was an anarchist. A term that fits well for this story. 
Her desire to join me in my shoe odyssey further intrigued me and she told me of her feet woes. How the combination of bunions and toes now curling up over her feet made it increasingly difficult to find footwear to fit. She didn’t have good feet to begin with, she explained, but years of forcing them into heels and of being on her feet all day while working at a Hallmark store did them in. Only then did I realize that she always wore Ugg boots even in summer and now she could only wear the right boot of two pairs of Uggs. I showed her the work of a shoemaker who had blogged about making a pair of shoes for a woman with severely swollen feet. This gave us the confidence that we too could solve our shoe problems in the same manner.
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I had my own reasons for wanting to make my own shoes. My daily dog walking was wearing out my shoes faster than at any time in my life. The soles of walking shoes did not seem to wear as well as they once did. I was shoe goo-ing them repeatedly (glue used to fix holes in tennis shoes). Then I read an article brought to my attention by a newsfeed I subscribe to called the Village Green Network which usually concerned itself with food and recipes for making something simple like laundry soap. 

The article was by a woman who had decided to make her own shoes because most shoes caused her pain on the long hikes she liked to take. She referenced another article that described how shoes compromise the natural gait of the foot. I was shocked and then not at all surprised. So often did a single assumption lead to misinformation never investigated. Shoes were still built on the same too narrow lasts as they had been for centuries under the belief that feet had to be supported. They were also too heavy, inflexible, reduced surface area of the foot and since they were drawn with a curve rather than on a straight axis forced the foot to an incorrect orientation.
The referenced article described how the footbed of shoes have an indentation under the ball of the foot designed into the shoe to make the foot look smaller. Sure enough I checked all my shoes and every one of them had that indentation built into the footbed. This slight dip compromised the natural arch of the foot especially when other areas of the footbed were compressed with wear. This combination put three important bones out of alignment. The reason arch support was needed turned out to be to raise these bones back into place. The turned up toes of shoes, the lack of flexibility in the sole, the stiffness of the uppers all interfered with the natural ability of the foot to grasp surface area, expand and move the body. 
The article also pointed out that you can tell by the wear pattern of your shoes that the natural gait was being compromised. I looked on the bottom of my shoes and sure enough all of them were worn down on the outside edge of the heels and on a spot in the middle of the ball of the foot as described. I thought it was because of my bowed legs causing my shoes not to land properly. I read the article several times before I could believe that shoes were not helping at all (apart from protecting the foot from pointed rocks) and were more likely reducing the foots flexibility and strength. Feet would be better off in a pair of moccasins the article concluded. 
Earlier in the year I had been similarly astounded by an article claiming that the brassiere seriously compromised the ability of the breasts to get rid of toxins and did not in fact keep a woman’s breasts from sagging over time, but had compromised the muscle structure of the breasts to take care of this themselves. Given my personal minimalist topography I could happily give up the brassiere, but I could not do without shoes. Thus I embarked on my shoemaking education and found a book at the library with full color pictures that convinced me of what wonderfully colorful and interesting footwear I could make for myself. This led me to find the author online where I found the aforementioned blog about making shoes for swollen feet. She had also posted an article from the New York Times a bit more readable and less technical that said the same thing—shoes were bad for you.
I consulted my chiropractor and he told me about the body’s remarkable ability to adapt. How bones that had been badly set would over time correct themselves. So feet would also adapt to shoes. And he himself would not be giving up the support of his hiking boots no matter what the claims of the new minimalist trends in sport shoes. One could simply train oneself to walk properly he claimed. I in turn told him how I had learned from a masseuse that the Asian squat was not a body position that one could learn in adulthood. That this act of folding the body up and squatting on the heels actually changed the angle of the hip sockets so only those who had practiced this sitting position from childhood could accomplish it so easily in adulthood. So wouldn’t a person who had spent most of their time walking barefoot be similarly suited to unconstructed shoes? He agreed that I had made a convincing hypotheses for my new shoe wearing preferences. And given his theory of adaptation it is likely that others who adopted a barefoot lifestyle could over time strengthen their feet too. My karate class was, after all, filled with newcomers learning to exert their body for peak fighting performance while barefoot.
I had been a seamstress all my life and I once made jester slippers from wool felting, but I hadn’t a clue how to choose leather or what a millimeter in thickness felt like. In order to become acquainted with the medium I ordered a three pound box of leather scraps from e-bay for $30. And what an assortment of cowhide did I receive. I picked over the fake crocodile in unnatural colors, the fake pink ostrich that came in lime green, red and turquoise, some shiny red metallic gold and copper pieces, floral embossed ones and weird ones that looked like flocked wall paper. I was both repulsed and intrigued and spent an afternoon art date putting together combinations of blue crocodile and lime green ostrich. Most of the scraps came in pieces too small to use so I would have to make a crazy quilt shoe.

I felt more compelled to meet the needs of my Anarchist friend for her need was greater and I still had shoes a plenty. Plus the caveat of making shoes for a "customer" excited me with visions of a new shoe making add-on to my services. Who could resist custom made shoes? Another of my clients also had problems with bunions gradually eliminating all but men’s running shoes for her. She said she could have had an operation to correct her feet, but there was no way she would have been able to be off her feet for six weeks. (My Anarchist friend had said the same thing. It occurred to me that the abuse of women’s feet in heels and the failure to correct them surgically was probably quite common among women, especially those that took care of others as women so often did.)
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I watched a video on my shoemakers blog on how to make a last upon which to build a shoe and went to visit the Anarchist with duct tape and homemade play dough in hand. The play dough was for filling the spaces over the toes to make a shoe like shape. I had her slip on a pair of knee high nylons I had brought with me and she stood on the cardboard soles I had made with a little wall of duct tape around the perimeter. I went to town ripping off pieces of duct tape and wrapping them across her feet attaching them to the side wall.  After I was done I carefully cut the duct tape boots off down the top of the foot. The results looked like a pair of boots left behind by the Tin Man after a thorough beating.

Instead of flattening out my duct tape pieces to make patterns for a last as instructed, I decided to skip that step and just drape the leather over the duct tape forms themselves. I cut up an old black t-shirt to make a prototype. The Anarchist loved the pixie shape I had devised to accommodate the unusual shape of her feet. My challenge was to make the shoe for the more normal foot look the same as this high profile one. It would not be possible to make them identical, but I could mimic the same shape and hold the foot with a hidden piece inside the shoe. I had brought my bag of leather scraps so she could choose what kind of leather she wanted her shoes made from. She admired how soft and flexible some of the pieces. As they were to be her first pair,  were and chose black which would go with most of her outfits and hats for she was a snappy dresser.
She then showed me the pair of shoes she had had custom made by a professional shoemaker. They hurt her feet she said and cost $500. They were so stiff and ugly they made me angry. There was no flex to the sole at all. Whoever constructed these shoes had decided that her feet were too crippled to be of any use and had made what was essentially the foot part of a wooden leg.

I ordered more leather from e-bay—remnants from upholstered leather sofa making. And I made adjustments to my t-shirt mock up until we were satisfied with the fit. Then I took apart my model and used the pieces as a pattern to cut the shoe parts out of the black leather. Next I had to learn how to sew leather together with the prescribed synthetic sinew. I bought myself the proper needles, a stitching awl, sinew and some non toxic cement. I could use my sewing machine to make holes in the leather that could then be enlarged by the stitching awl; the hand sewing went much easier once I made the holes large enough.
Hunting down material for the soles would be a challenge since this was a material only available to professional shoe makers in bulk rolls. My shoemaker blogger suggested going to Home Depot to look for rubber floor tiles used in workout rooms and garages; they were made from recycled automobile tires. The pack of 6 tiles I found would be enough for 12 pairs of shoes, but they were the right thickness. I was very pleased that they were a recycled product. 
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The insoles were also challenging because my customer’s feet were of such a shape that no conventional insole from the drug store would work. So in the end I used some square sheets of rubber I had on hand that came as knee pads inside gardening pants. I covered these thick pieces with scrap upholstery material I had gotten from FabMo a non profit that collected samples discarded by interior design stores. For shoe laces I decided to use gross grain ribbon from the fabric store was in order. These ribbon ties along with the pointed pixie toes made the shoes look magical. 

I had the Anarchist try them on. The problematic right foot was a bit loose in the toe. She got her canes out and took a test drive walking fast into her room and back. The pointed soles on one foot would catch a little as she picked up her feet so I took them home and cut and sewed the toes into a rounded shape. Now they fit better and were easier to walk in. She also commented that they were very comfortable and the soles offered plenty of arch support. That’s funny I thought, I didn’t build any arch support into the footbed. But the thickness of the insoles afforded enough cushion to feel like it and protected her protruding bones from the hard floor. She was pleased with the that they looked dressy too. 
Stepping off the Grid
Such off the grid journeys, I realized, usually started with a revealing piece of information. Shampoo I found out made your hair grease up which led to hair washing every other day when I really didn’t need to wash my hair more than once a week if I used baking soda and an apple cider rinse as was done a century ago. Not to mention that some of the ingredients in shampoo were toxic. 
When I started reading up on what caused my blood sugar to spike I learned that our food supply was compromised by the misinformation of the medical institution creating a world wide aversion to saturated fat. The processed food industry then capitalized on cheap ingredients some of which the body was unable to digest. But as long as a package said low-fat or vegetarian any frankenfood would sell as a health food. 
My interest in electric cars taught me that automobiles could be built much simpler and lighter if it weren’t for the demands of long distance travel and the crash test at freeway speeds. Crash test regulations kept other alternatives off the market even if you never intended to drive on the freeway, but at a much slower speed appropriate to neighborhoods. Housing was also controlled by regulations not necessarily for safety but to keep keeping them large. Too large to afford. I had believed that these first world regulations created a superior society, but I now see that it is more about upholding a standard of living. One that would continue to feed the profit margins of industrialized products made with machinery so large it required huge amounts of capital so only mega corporations could compete. Not to mention creating a society where shoes, cars and houses had become status items under designer label brands. These designs were so conventionally limited that there were only minute differences between brands and models creating a sea of choices that really offered no choice at all. Anyone wanting a different concept altogether was out of luck. Likewise anyone with abnormally wide feet or feet already ruined by fashion trends had no shoes at all. 
I too had been taken. Years of reading advertisements specifying the technical improvements of shoes in the sports industry had convinced me that a highly "technical" shoe corrected or at least enhanced the performance of feet. Now I saw that industrially made shoes were coddling feet with padding while undermining their natural ability to function. (Plus the overseas sweatshops with their underpaid labor and toxic work environments to produce these shoes always irked me.)
Others had also realized how the emperor had no clothes given all of the above revelations being passed around and I was aware that a movement was afoot. More and more people were interested in old ways of doing things—cooking from scratch, finding ways to live in tiny homes, getting kids to school in Dutch cargo bicycles, investigating ayervedic medicine, massage, yoga and other ancient techniques of living healthily. But despite all this re-skilling as it has come to be known, not too many people had taken up shoemaking. In fact leather work as a hobby seemed to have fallen out of favor along with macrame plant hangers. I had found only the one out of print book in my library system. Even on the internet very little information was being offered. Those who had had taken up shoemaking were mostly moms and grandmothers looking for healthy shoes for children that would allow the foot to develop naturally. Shoes for adults were likely more subject to fashion demands and fitting into conventional work settings.
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It was also a skill that pushed beyond most people’s ability requiring sharp tools, a bit of strength to push needles through leather and thick rubber and an imaginative design sense plus an ability to visualize three dimensionally. Just the sort of skill set I had been cultivating since childhood. And the potential for recycling and making unique fashionitems would entertain me for some time. What better way to upset the paradigm than to make one’s own shoes? A village cobbler could help turn a community away from exclusive designer brands to unique one-of-kind efforts in a locally made product. 

It is the Year of the Horse an kick ass time to manifest new ideas. And the horse is the only animal on the horoscope to wear shoes!

May ye all be well shod.

Amanda Kovattana

Amanda Kovattana's book, The Girls Guide To Off-Grid Living, is available from Amazon in both hard copy and as an ebook. As might be expected, the book is self-published - yet another off-grid adventure as she learned to format and work with this new publishing technology. In her previous book, Diamonds In My Pocket, Kovattana came to terms with her mixed race heritage and  the three cultures that formed her: England, the country of  her birth; Thailand, the country of her childhood; and finally the U.S., the country of her coming of age and journey to resilience. (Reviewed at Resilience.)