Why Are Rubber Soles So Good?
Here at Beckett Simonon, we use rubber a lot.
You could say that our products have three main ingredients - leather, cotton, and rubber.
Our artisans use full-grain leather for the shoe uppers, the soles, and all our bags. The bag linings and shoelaces are cotton.
Rubber is used to create many of our soles - both the rubber sneaker soles and (in combination with leather layers) for several shoes and boots.
But what is rubber? And what makes rubber great for soles?
What is rubber?
Rubber comes from the rubber tree, which is native to South and Central America.
The peoples of this continent were creating rubber balls for games 3,600 years ago. When the Spaniards arrived in the Americas, they wrote about how the native people were crafting footwear by coating earthenware molds in the sap from the trees.
Through the years, rubber has been used for many purposes - Mackintosh raincoats and pneumatic tires were amongst the earliest modern uses, back in the 19th Century (both inventors came from my native Scotland, coincidentally!). American Charles Goodyear discovered the process of Vulcanization in 1844, which made rubber even more versatile.
Rubber trees are now found across the World. At the beginning of the 20th Century, 99% of rubber came from Brazil - but this mega-country now finds itself down in 11th spot. Asian countries, Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam, now occupy the top three places.
The production process has changed surprisingly little. Once the tree grows to a sustainable height (at around five or six years old), a tap can be placed on the trunk that drains out the rubber, similar to how one might drain the syrup from a Maple tree. The tree leaks a milky material, called latex, that, once dry, becomes stretchy.
Some studies have found carbon sequestration in rubber plantations to outweigh the carbon emissions in processing the material. At the same time, however, that depends on the farming methods and the processing plant.
The rubber for Beckett Simonon sneaker soles comes from Malaysia and Thailand. The rubber for shoe and boots soles is harvested in Brazil.
We are working toward a transparent supply chain for all our products, but, as a small company, tracing the story of our materials isn’t always straightforward - as our Responsibility Coordinator, Adela, explained to me recently. Watch this space as we advance on this.
The alternatives of synthetic rubbers or plastic-based materials are generally derived from the destructive extraction of petrochemicals from below the ground - so rubber offers a much cleaner alternative.
As I mentioned, we can’t greenwash the process, though - most rubber nowadays (in fact, since the end of the 19th Century) goes through a number of processes to make it hardier and longer-lasting.
What is vulcanized rubber?
We use vulcanized rubber in all our products. The rubber sap is heated with sulfur (along with accelerator and activator chemicals) at 140–160°C. The chemical make-up of the rubber changes - forming links between long rubber molecules.
Through this industrial process, the rubber becomes more pliable, waterproof, and malleable. This makes it perfect for pouring into molds to create soles, such as the ones on our sneakers.
Also, it becomes hardier and more weather-resistant, which is essential for footwear.
What about Beckett Simonon rubber?
The rubber for our shoes and sneakers is made from natural rubber, with a mix of other materials to make it more sturdy, durable, and flexible. Mixing the natural rubber with secondary materials makes it more appropriate for modern uses and surfaces.
These additional ingredients are synthetic rubbers (which improve toughness) and white carbon black (which increases the lifespan of rubber).
For our sneakers’ soles, we also mix in 20% recycled rubber. This contributes to reducing waste and contamination.
All our soles are produced following REACH specifications. REACH regulations address the production and use of chemical substances, and aim “to ensure a high level of protection of human health and the environment from the risks that can be posed by chemicals” (European Chemicals Agency).
Our material supplier is REACH certified, and our soles manufacturer conducted lab tests on our completed soles to confirm that they attain the same standards.
Furthermore, they tested the base colors used in our sole production, and all lab reports confirmed that they pass the REACH specifications.
Beckett Simonon would clearly prefer to use 100% natural ingredients - but there is also an important offset to take into account. Stronger, longer-lasting products need to be replaced less often, so the environmental balance is difficult to measure.
Why use rubber soles on sneakers?
Rubber is most associated with sneakers or sports shoes. It is the perfect material for this, given its flexibility yet hardy and waterproof qualities.
Rubber can also be molded to any design - for example, the classic GAT sole you will see on our Morgen Trainers. This revolutionized sole designs, as it meant you could create soles that grip well without needing to add studs.
On the majority of sneakers in the modern world, however, natural rubber has been replaced entirely by plastics and synthetic materials. This is primarily because these materials are cheaper and easier to source, but also since they are often lighter than rubber or to create soles for specific uses (such as for super-hardy soles on mountaineering or safety boots).
Rubber often has an attractive neutral tan hue. This is sometimes called ‘gum’ color, or ‘gum soles’ because this is the color you will see on many of the most classic looking designs, made from rubber (which is, of course, a gum!). You can see this on the Morgens that I mentioned above or the Rivera Trainer design.
Since rubber comes out of the tree white, it can easily have pigment added to make it fit the style of the shoe. This can be seen in the white soles on the Suede Reid Sneakers, for example, and the Geller Trainers in the photo below, or the black rubber soles on the all-black Garcia High Tops.
The other great thing about rubber is that it can easily be made into a glue - and our artisans use this natural rubber glue to attach the soles. They gently heat up the glue before placing the soles onto the lasted uppers, and this gives a solid bind that should last many years.
Rubber is the best fit with the Beckett Simonon ethos because the company believes in always making an effort to reduce any impact on the environment. Not only is that because of the production of the rubber, but also because the sneakers are made in classic styles that stand the test of time. Rubber soles are often hardier than the alternative and, along with the full-grain leather uppers, will endure all kinds of use.
Why use rubber soles on shoes and boots?
Several of Beckett Simonon designs have a layer of rubber on the sole, and all have a rubber cap on the heel stack. Why?
First of all, let’s talk about the leather cap on the heel stack. This is a common feature that you will find on almost all leather shoes. There are several reasons for it:
- The natural bounce reduces the impact on your feet and knee joints
- Vulcanized rubber wears a little slower than leather
- It is easier to replace at a cobbler’s
- It makes less noise as you walk
You are best advised to replace this part of your shoes before it wears down to the leather layers. I walk in such a way that I need to do this fairly regularly - although I have noticed that rubber does seem to last longer than other materials. You can add a metal plate in the corner that you wear down quickest, if you want to prolong the life of your shoes even further.
In terms of the soles themselves, Beckett Simonon has three basic designs in our shoes and boots.
Shoes such as Dean Oxfords only have one piece of leather. This creates an elegant profile for the shoe. Leather takes the shape of your foot very quickly and makes the shoe feel like a glove.
Disadvantages are that leather can be slippery - so you better scuff the soles before walking on a marble floor - and that it absorbs water - so you will need to dry them thoroughly out if they get wet. Even if you don’t mind that, you might just prefer something more weighty for outdoor use.
This is why Beckett Simonon also gives the option of rubber soles.
For several of our boots and more sturdy-type shoes, our designers opted for a layer of leather and a layer of rubber. This gives the balance of the flexibility of rubber, while adding the sturdiness of the leather.
Depending on the design, the leather layer might be the midsole or the outsole. Why?
Leather on the outsole looks elegant and gives you a natural feel as you walk, but the layer of rubber provides a little more bulk and shock absorption. You can see this on our Preston Chelsea Boots and our Dowler Boots.
A rubber outsole gives even more shock absorption and gives added protection against the elements. They will give more grip but retain the ankle support of the leather. These soles can be found on some of our open-laced shoes, such as Dunham Derbies, and the many of the boot designs, like the Nolan Brogue Boots or the Laval Chukka Boots, below.
We also have one shoe design that has a completely rubber sole, with a leather welt and heel stack - the Roy Loafers in Pull-up Leather. The idea of this is to give the option of a flexible loafer for everyday use and makes them very comfy.
What about a rubber sole on your smart dress shoes?
This might be a ‘no no’ to many in the fashion world, but if you are wearing smart shoes a lot, then maybe you want this.
I know some of our customers ask a cobbler to replace the front part of our leather soles with a rubber sole. This is easy enough to do because we use a Blake-stitching method. This mainly comes down to orthopedic reasons - we all get to know what makes our feet comfortable, and no two feet are the same!
All our shoes and boots have their soles stitched on using the Blake method - so once the outer layer of the sole wears down, make sure to take it to a good cobbler and get it replaced. This way, your footwear will last for many years.
A green alternative for our soles?
Rubber and leather are natural materials that are biodegradable and part of the natural circle of nature. The leather in our shoe soles is made using vegetable-tanned leather, which means there are no toxic chemicals involved.
However, Beckett Simonon is always striving to improve its impact on the World.
Experiments are underway to see if it is viable to use a type of plastic made not from petroleum - but rather from sugarcane fibers!
This is a new material that has been developed to produce rubber-like qualities that should be perfect for shoe soles.
The design and development of these new ‘eco-shoes’ is in the early stages. We are finishing the production of the molds and hope to start manufacturing the sugarcane soles over the coming months.
All going to plan, the shoemakers hope to begin crafting them in a new ecologically-focused product very soon.
It’s sole good!
Rubber is an amazing material, which is natural and versatile. You can see why we are so keen on it for Beckett Simonon products.
This bouncy gum is a beautiful part of much of our footwear - and has had a central role in footwear through the centuries.
As I mentioned, we are working hard to increase transparency and look for even more green alternatives, so keep your eyes peeled for future blogs and announcements.
If you want to learn more about leather soles - check out my other blog: What’s So Special About Leather Soles?
And please leave a comment below to tell me what kind of soles you prefer and why!
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for upcoming posts.
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