How Long Does It Take To Make A Pair Of Shoes?Written by Gavin Humphreys
Let me be honest from the start. There’s no one answer to that question.
It’s the old, how long is a piece of string?
But I’m going to give you an answer anyway!
To understand the length of time it takes to make shoes, it’s all about understanding the process, and what is involved in making the shoe that you are referring to.
Once you start putting in some parenthesis, it becomes easier to discuss. How long does it take to make a pair of (mass-produced, faux-leather) shoes? Or… How long does it take to make a pair of (hand-crafted, full-grain leather, brogue) shoes?
Here at Beckett Simonon, we have a small team of passionate artisans who produce hand-crafted products. Between artisanal shoemaking and mass-produced factory shoes, there lies a great spectrum.
How is traditional shoemaking different from factory shoemaking?
Shoemaking is an art that has been around for many centuries. Some purists still maintain the tradition, as it was in the past. This is labor-intensive but creates an entirely unique piece, never to be replicated. There are modern factories that use computers and synthetic materials to create identical footwear every time, and quickly.
At Beckett Simonon, we use traditional methods (with some modern twists) to create high-quality men’s shoes that are classic, long-lasting, and consistently beautiful. Our artisans are great at what they do, and work with impressive agility - but would never sacrifice quality for speed.
To summarize the process: our artisans cut the leather by hand, stitch and prepare the uppers, create gorgeous soles, mount the whole thing on a last where they leave it for a number of days to take shape, then the footwear continues to the finishing and boxing process.
In a factory process, the leather shapes are cut by machine - to use one difference as an example. In turn, this is likely to mean that they don’t use full-grain leather (you need the human eye to select the part of the hide to use), rather they would either use faux-leather or corrected-grain leather (which is smoothed down and a false grain added).
The parts might still be sewn together by humans - but not skilled artisans; it is more of a production chain. The stitches are done faster, so have a lower stitch-per-inch rate, and therefore they are less weather-proof, and will need to be replaced sooner.
We last our shoes - which is an essential step if you use good leather. This involves leaving the shoes on a foot-shaped mold (called a last) so that the leather adheres to the shape. In factories, they won’t use a last, instead they use the Strobel method.
In the Strobel method, the upper is essentially a ‘sock’ or a ‘glove,’ and the insole is a thin fabric. There’s still something that resembles a foot-shaped mold that holds everything together. The ‘glove’ is passed through a tunnel that has an oven and a chiller. The thermic reaction makes the fibers to first expand (with heat) and then to contract (with cold), adhering to the shape of the mold. This process takes less than a minute so you can imagine how poor the ‘lasting’ is.
Another huge difference is whether the sole is stitched on, as we do, or cemented on (glued) as you would find in the average mall store.
Then the time spent adding final touches and creams and polishes also distinguishes a factory shoe from a quality, hand-crafted shoe.
So let’s focus on quality shoes, and leave mass-produced shoes out of the equation.
How many steps are involved in making shoes?
Walking around the shoe workshop here at Beckett Simonon, I would say there are around 150 steps (plus) in each shoe. That is hazarding a guess - firstly, because there are so many steps, but also because every design is different.
Let’s start with a sole, as an example. The leather is cut from the bend (the thick part of the hide), then cut to size and trimmed, the top and bottom is smoothed off so that it is the correct width, it’s flattened, buffed, the part where the heel will attach is roughened up, the edges are smoothened and shaped, the leather is stamped with the size and the brand, the rut for the stitching is carved out, polished again, the heels are cut, prepared and attached, if there’s a midsole, that’s attached, the welts are prepared and added, tint is applied around the edges, more polishing, more tint, a final polish… and that’s all just to prepare the leather soles!
From cutting the leather, to assembly, to lasting, to finishing and quality control - each takes time and gets the full attention of the artisan.
But there’s more.
You must also remember that making a shoe begins at design. Our designer, Giovanni, sketches a design onto a last, transfers them to 2D cardboard, and then creates the templates for the leather cutters.
It also involves several processes that one might not see while walking around the studio - for example, the waxed cotton laces, and all the brass pieces such as the for our horse-bit loafers (which are created from scratch in our metal workshop). Our leather is tanned using traditional methods, which takes several days and is a fascinating process in itself. Even the shoe boxes and dust bags are made here in Bogotá.
So, every shoe is different, and given the sheer number of processes in traditional shoemaking, how could you possibly give an exact length of time?
So how long does it take to make some shoes?
Ok, let’s assume we have a dream situation. We have all the artisans lined up to do their part, one after the other.
(In reality, when you work with several orders at once it has to be organized in batches - it’s much quicker that way, although it does involve a huge amount of planning and coordination).
We’re going to make a Dean Oxford. The leather cutter selects and cuts the pieces (1 hour), the assemblers prepare and put together the parts (1 hour), and stitch the pieces together (1 hour). The solemakers go through all the processes I mentioned above (2 hours). They then prepare and mount the upper and innersole onto the last (3 hours). They take shape on the last (3 days). Then the artisans attach the soles with glue, and stitch them on (2 hours). Another small team creates the insoles and inserts them (1 hour). Then there is the finishing process where the artisans add creams, lace up and make the shoes shine (1 hour).
In this super-duper, perfect, everybody-revolves-around-one-pair-of-shoes world - that adds up to 3 days on the last, over 12 hours of skilled labor, and involves at least 9 different artisans. But we all know that that world doesn’t exist, so let’s get real.
It’s impossible to put an exact time on shoemaking.
The time it takes to assemble an upper, for example, will vary - not only from shoe to shoe, but also from shoemaker to shoemaker. Moreover, the time it takes us humans to do a task will vary from day to day, from morning to afternoon, on how happy we are, what we’ve eaten, and a thousand other variables.
As one of our upper assemblers, Ernesto, said to me, “I can’t say exactly how many uppers I can create in one day, even if I am working on the same design of shoe. It can depend a lot on the assistant you’re working with, and on your own hands. Every day it’s a little different - some days you are more alert, other days a little slower!”
And let’s be honest, there are always hold-ups when you are making things. The leather might not arrive on the scheduled day, the needle in the sewing machine could break, somebody might fall ill.
A creative process is never smooth, but always interesting.
How long will it take if I order from Beckett Simonon today?
At Beckett Simonon, we use a made to order process. In other words, you buy the shoes and then our artisans create them.
This is better for the environment, because there’s no stock and thus less waste. This means we have a positive impact on climate change, because the traditional retail model results in unsold surplus that ends up in landfills or incineration, which in turn produces greenhouse gasses, CO2 and Methane.
Not only that, it’s also good financial sense: there is no third party involved, which means that the artisans can receive a fair wage, and the buyer doesn’t get a hiked-up price.
Given all that information about the process, it’s obvious why we never give an exact time scale when you order shoes from us.
Our shoemakers are passionate about shoemaking, and they create works of art. We do not believe in ever rushing them.
Making a shoe takes time, and is all the better for it.
That said - we do give a ballpark figure and keep you informed every step of the way!
Our best estimate for every batch is that they will take roughly eight to ten weeks to complete. During this time, we write to you about all the steps the order is going through. That way, you will gain a little insight into the behind the scenes, and understand a little more about the process.
As the shoes progress, our delivery estimate in the updates can become more and more accurate.
They are then shipped from our artisans’ studio, here in Bogotá, to Miami, Florida - and from there dispatched to your doorstep.
The shoe must go on
So, how long does it take to make a pair of shoes? No straight answer - however, it does lead on to a hundred other questions, and a path of discovery.
In the Craftsmanship section on this website, we have more information about our process and the people involved.
We also have a handful of other blogs that might be of interest, about shoes and how they are made.
If you have any further questions on the process, or something specific about production of our amazing shoe collection, drop me a comment below, and I’ll get back to you. Otherwise, you can talk to our friendly team here in the office through the Contact Us function, above.
Thanks for the question, Brian.
Each pair of Beckett Simonon shoes comes with a set of insoles, which some people say improves their comfort.
I actually experimented with using removable insoles in my Beckett shoes last year and wrote a blog about it – you can check it out here:
Do you use removable insoles in your shoes to accommodate orthotics?