Cordwhatnow? A layman’s guide to shoemaking tools and terms

Much to The Engineer’s chagrin, my shoemaking project has quite overtaken the library. Thankfully, I’ve recently obtained a toolbox capable of organizing it all, so at least it’s contained.

My leatherworking kit has been taken over by shoemaking. (Giant robot panda bear is optional equipment. Coffee is not.)

For whatever reason, shoemaking more than any other craft I’ve yet assayed has a language all its own. You don’t have to speak the language in order to do this thing — you never really do to be honest — but you should know at least the basics if you want to communicate with other shoemakers out in the world or on the interwebs.

In the course of my research, I have assembled a short (and woefully incomplete) glossary in my notebooks of just the terms that pertain to what I plan to do. For an exhaustive list of shoemaking terms, I recommend this excellent one compiled by Marc Carlson: Glossary of Footwear Terminology.

For us, the following shall suffice:

Awl: For shoemakers, this is a dedicated metal bodkin with a handle, designed to poke holes in leather. They are very fine and very sharp and shaped specific to a task. Not to be confused with woodworking “scratch” awls or bookbinding awls, which are not suitable for most shoemaking tasks.

The wrong tools: From the top, A large scratch awl, a small scratch awl, and a 
bookbinding awl. These are not appropriate tools for sewing leather and will 
do more harm than good.

The correct tools: (from the top), an 1800’s inseaming awl, a modern sewing awl with 
interchangeable blades, and another 1800’s fine closing awl. Note their shape and how 
fine/sharp they are. These will not mangle your leather. Find them and use them.

Boot: A shoe with a cuff that extends up the leg as low as the ankle or as high as the upper thigh. The most common argument about footwear is how common were boots, how high, and under what circumstances were they worn and by whom.

Channel: A groove cut in the leather to protect a row of stitches that are laid at the bottom of the groove.

Clicking: Cutting out a pattern.

Clogs: Not just for Dutchmen any more. They never were, really; wooden shoes 
showed up anywhere there was mud or the potential for stuff falling on your toes.

Clog: A wooden-soled shoe with a leather upper, commonly worn as work boots are now, also worn over a lighter shoe as a type of patten. In particularly muddy or dangerous places, they could be made entirely out of wood with a carved-out inside for the foot.

Closing: A general term for sewing the leather pieces of the shoe together, usually edge-to-edge (a butted seam)

Closing Block: A half-round piece of wood used as a sort of sewing anvil, used to maintain the tension of leather that will be sewn on a curve. Usually held strapped to the showmaker’s knee with a leather strap while sewing.

Cobbler: A shoe repairer, forbidden by English law from working with new leather, enforced by the guilds. (Do not call a shoemaker a cobbler.)

Cordwainer: A shoemaker, derived from ‘Cordovan/Cordoban’ leather, a specific durable leather named after a city in Spain from whence it was exported. Commonly a deep reddish color and used today to describe that color.

Counter: A reinforcing layer of leather sewn inside the shoe as a stiffener to prevent additional stretching or wear in a zone that would prone to that, such as the heel or instep.

Cowmouth: A broad-toed shoe that was common in the early-Tudor period (peaked during the reign of Henry VIII) commonly thought to have been brought to England, as so many early fashions were, from Germany.

Flesh-side: the side of the leather that was facing the animal.

Foot: A place to keep your shoes. A thing that usually hurts at the end of the day, often an indicator that your shoemaker doesn’t know what he’s doing.

Gouge/Plow: A tool used to cut away a broad channel of leather, sort of a combination of a skivving knife, a chisel, and a shovel.

Grain-side: The side of the leather that was facing the world when it was still attached to the critter that made it.

Tools for dealing with tacks: (from the back, left) Two english style shoemaker’s 
hammers, a French shoemaker’s hammer, a tack hammer made by a local 
blacksmith, pincers, and a tack-puller.

Hammer: Shoemaker’s hammers are broadly split into English and French styles. They are used for a variety of purposes from forming/compressing leather to driving tacks (though I don’t advise using one hammer for both)

Heel: Made of wood or stacked leather, shoe heels did not commonly appear until the very end of the Tudor era. It’s believed that the advent of heeled designs was the complcating factor that lead to the abandonment of right/left (see: Crooked lasts) designs.

Sewing: From the top, anti-clockwise: Sticky wax for binding thread to bristle,
long-fiber hemp thread.

Hemp: Alongside linen, hemp was probably the most common plant fiber in all of history. Spun from strands of the cannabis sativa plant it is strong and rot-resistant and historically widely used to sew all manner of leather goods as well as weaving durable cloth and spinning rope. These days a fiber most commonly used to make beaded jewelry by and for those who want to ‘stick it to the man’ in defiance of laws designed to curtail the plant’s use as a psychotropic drug. Cultivars used for fiber production are absent or extremely low on the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that makes carbon-based life forms crave Twinkies when ingested.

Last: The foot-surrogate over which the shoe is formed.

Lasting: Stretching the leather over the wooden (usually) last and nailing it in place. Commonly divided (at least for our purposes) into crooked or straight lasts. Crooked lasts have a defined instep, dictating the right/life nature of the final shoe. A straight lasted shoe can be worn on either foot, but requires months of tortuous breaking in.

Latchet: A strap that holds the shoe in place, commonly with a button or tie. Latchets are the defining characteristic of a shoe by the same name, that became more common in the later Tudor period.

Mule: A backless slip-on shoe, worn in our period by all genders, but still common today in the women’s section of the shoe store.

From the top: a gouge, a paring knife, an edger, a plow/plough, another paring knife.
Not Shown: Sharpening stones. All tools used in leatherworking should be razor-sharp

Paring knife: Before it was a common kitchen implement, the paring knife was used to clean up the edges by trimming away excess leather away from the shoe after the sole and upper were joined.

Patten: A protective wooden platform strapped to the foot to raise a walker out of the mud or at least to provide traction.

Peg: A wooden stake driven into a heel to bind and stabilize the stacked/laminated leather.

Pinking: Decorative cuts and holes sometimes cut into shoes and clothing in the Tudor period. It survives today as broguing.

Pump: A light turnshoe with a thin sole meant for wearing mostly indoors. Worn by all genders, but survives today in the women’s section of the shoe store.

Quarter: The sides of the shoe extending around the back.

My favorite skivving knife was made by sharpening a butter knife I picked up at a 
thrift shop. Probably the sharpest knife in the drawer.

Skivving: Using a sharp blade on the flesh-side of the leather to thin the leather, especially in areas you want to sew through.

Sock: Not a sweatsock you wear on your foot, but a cloth liner sometimes sewn into a shoe which serves a similar purpose.

Sole: The bottom layers of the shoe, usually broken down by layer: insole, midsole, outsole, etcetera.

Stirrup: A leather strap that goes under the shoemaker’s foot and up over the knee to hold secure a shoe and/or closing block while working with it.

Many skivving tools of modern design: From the back: A round knife, a ‘potato 
peeler’ skivving ‘knife’, and a modern razor skivving tool. The benefit of the
top two is you can change blades if they get dull. 

Trenchet: A multi-use shoemaker’s knife and the symbol of the cordwainer’s trade. They were often given elaborate blades and pokey bits until it seems like something stolen from a Klingon in the Star Trek universe, but quite real and very difficult to find these days. Survives today as the round knife, which is little better than half a trenchet.

Turning: When a shoe is sewn inside out so that the seaming is all on the inside and thus protected from wear.

Vamp: The part of the shoe that covers the toe, upper foot, and extends around the instep to meet the quarters on either side.

Welt: A strip of leather used to join the upper to the sole of the shoe.

If you’re lucky, your shoemaking will also include one or both of the following:

Read whatever you want, but did I mention that coffee is not optional?

Coffee: In order to make shoes, the shoemaker must be awake and preferably alert.  The Elizabethan tradesman was woefully deficient in caffeine, but he had pretty much all the beer he cared to drink, so alertness while working might be my biggest anachronism.

Why do fools fall in love?

An Engineer: Actually, a mate who finds your tomfoolery charming rather than annoying, who is willing to put up with odd tools and odd looks from TSA agents. They don’t have to be an engineer, but it helps. It’s high time I acknowledge that this silliness would not be possibly without my lovely, talented, and above all patient mate, Kristin.


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