Most of us can likely say that we put on a pair of shoes at least one time a day, whether it’s to go for a morning job, leave for the office, or go out to dinner. Typically, if you’re leaving the house, you’re putting on a pair of shoes.
Unless you live at the beach, in which case, consider yourself extremely lucky.
All this to say, we are all very familiar with shoes, and we all use them consistently.. But do any of us even know how shoes are made? If you’re anything like me, the anatomy of a shoe is probably a complete mystery to you.
How can something that’s so universal force us to draw a blank like this?
Today we’re going to take some time to dig into the shoe anatomy and how shoes are made. If you’re a lover of shoes, then perhaps it’s time to learn a little more about them!
A Little Bit of History
As we all know, shoes are those things that we wear on our feet. Although the original purpose of shoes was the protect and provide support for our feet, footwear has taken a dramatic turn towards the fashion industry. Shoes have become a platform for style, personal taste, and statements.
The earliest shoes were thought to show up around 7000 to 8000 B.C. They were found in the Fort Rock Cave in Oregon in the early 1900s and were made of sagebrush bark. A later pair of shoes believed to be from about 3500 B.C. was said to be the first pair of leather shoes, made crudely from a piece of cowhide.
Those dates alone are enough to tell us that shoes are not new to the human race. Manufacturers and designers have, however, significantly developed the materials used, the shoemaking process, and the full range of styles that you can find today.
The style of the shoe has evolved from a single piece of tied up leather to the Native American moccasins, the ancient Egyptian thong sandals, the Roman chiral, and the early European pattens. Eventually, high-heeled shoes came about as a sign of status and were popularized by 16th-century European royalty.
Thus shoes transformed across the industrial era as large warehouses popped up all over Europe. Various forms of mass production and machinery made it possible to create, develop, and design new types of footwear.
And so, the fashion industry took off with the idea that shoes could be more than just functional – they could be stylish and a form of expression. Today, there are hundreds of styles with thousands of designs ranging from practical to fanciful.
The Basic Anatomy
The basic anatomy of a shoe includes nine specific pieces:
- Toe Box
Most shoes include some form of each of these components to create the product as a whole.
The sole of a shoe is the very bottom of the shoe that comes in direct contact with the ground. The sole of the shoe can vary depending on the type of shoe. For instance, a ballet flat will have a very minimal sole, while a high-impact training sneaker will include several complex layers.
The sole of your shoe is generally made up of three distinct layers: the insole, the outsole, and the midsole.
When a sole has been made using several layers, it will include an insole. The insole of a shoe is the interior bottom that sits right beneath your foot. Typically, there is a footbed, or a sock liner, placed on top of the insole. These liners are often removable and replaceable, depending on an individual’s support needs.
The outsole is the bottom layer of the sole of your shoe that touches the ground. The very bottom layer of the sole, the outsole is made to be reliable, durable, and resilient, as it comes into contact with a variety of surfaces and weather conditions.
The shape of the outsole can vary from shoe to shoe. Some shoes feature a distinct heel, while others remain flat. Specialized athletic shoes can have specific materials or even display spikes protruding from the bottom.
The outsole’s design depends heavily on the type of shoe and the activities for which it was made.
Between the insole and the outsole lies the midsole. This part of the sole exists to act as a shock absorber and is most often found in athletic shoes. For instance, a runner who is continuously engaging in high-impact exercises could benefit from a robust and thick midsole to help ease the shock on foot.
Some shoes have additional material in the midsole around the heel of the foot because it takes on the most pressure. Still, others are made with extra comfort around the arch to support under or overpronation.
The heel of the shoe is the rear part that sits beneath the heel of your foot. It lends quality support to your heel.
Some shoes make practical use of the heel, giving it some extra comfort details to make it functional and safe. Other shoes, such as stilettos or wedges, take the heel and elongate it to add height and a level of flashiness for fashion purposes.
The purpose of the heel can jump among improving balance and comfort, increasing a wearer’s height, altering posture, or adding a decorative or fashionable effect. While men’s shoes can feature heels, high heeled shoes are typically dominated by women in today’s society.
The upper part of a shoe is, most simply put, the part of the shoe that keeps it attached to your foot. The entire sole and heel of a shoe are connected to the upper. The upper goes over the top of the foot in some way to keep hold.
The purest form of an upper is perhaps the Y-straps on a flip flop. The primary rubber sole stays on the bottom of your foot due to its upper, the small, thin straps that go over the front of your foot and between two toes.
Other shoes such as sneakers, dress shoes, and boots have uppers that completely cover the foot.
Many uppers use some kinds of closure to keep them in place, like laces, a buckle, zippers, elastic, buttons, or Velcro. The upper can also include a tongue, which is a piece of material that helps seal the opening and protect the foot.
The vamp of your shoe is determined by where the top of the shoe ends on your foot. The vamp starts behind your toes and extends upward, stopping in different places for different styles.
For example, the vamp of a close-toed pump is usually low, ending just after the toes and exposing the skin of the top of your foot. The vamp on a sneaker, however, doesn’t end until about the ankle.
A vamp ranges from low to high, but it can sometimes be a little tricky to determine where it stops for individual styles. Some shoes may only cover from the back of the toes to where your toes end, continuing with straps around your ankle. This is considered a high vamp.
The medial of your shoe is the part of the shoe closest to the center of symmetry.
The best way to understand the medial is to think of a shoe with laces. The laces connect the medial and the lateral part of the shoe to help keep it in place on a person’s foot. Buckles, Velcro, or zippers can also join them.
The Toe Box
Finally, the toe box is the part of your shoe that covers your toes. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily apply for open-toed shoes like peep toes, sandals, or sliders, but in most cases, the toe box protects the toes. The size of the toe box depends on the size and shape of an individual’s toes.
From athletic shoes to dress shoes, there is a wide range of materials used to create the supportive frames and aesthetically pleasing design of every piece of footwear. These are the most common materials used to complete the shoe manufacturing process:
Other materials are implemented into the process as well as the design aspect, such as sequins, buttons, feathers, jewels, and more.
The Process: How Shoes Are Made
The process of manufacturing a shoe requires more than 200 operations. Shoemaking has been and, in some cases, still is a traditional handicraft profession. But, the invention and development of modern machinery have made the process much quicker and less expensive.
The shoemaking process is typically divided into departments.
The first step in making a shoe is creating what is called the last. A shoe last is a wooden, plastic, or metal figure that portrays the shape of the shoe. It resembles the form of a human foot but more closely showcases the shape of the outside of the shoe.
Every shoe made requires both a left and a right last.
After you have come up with the shoe last, you have to make the shell pattern. The shell pattern consists of a flat shape that manufacturers can stretch over the last to form a 3D shape. Once you have the shell pattern, you can send the shape over to the design department, where they will make up the design of the shoe.
A manufacturer will have the click or cutting department that focuses on the top part of the shoe. During this part of the process, professionals cut out the various shapes of materials needed to craft the top portion of the shoe. Experts use a variety of tools and machinery for this process, including cookie cutters, computerized knives, lasers, water, and hand-cutting tools.
This department focuses on cutting out every component of the shoe, including outer materials, inner padding, reinforcements, and more.
Once the materials have been cut precisely – many times by hand – they go to the closing or machining department. This area, also known as the stitching department, takes care of stitching all of the components of the shoe together. During this stage, the eyelets for shoelaces are also added.
The stitching department can be as large as 50 to 100 workers. Generally speaking, two stitching lines make up one assembly line. The professionals will stitch the outer shell, the inside lining, and the tongue components, additionally adding reinforcements, hardware, lace loops, heel counters, and more.
The last piece to be stitched into place will be the pattern piece that closes the bottom of the upper.
Once all of the stitching is complete, the final assembly line will connect the shoe upper with the outsole.
The lasting and making department then handles the molding operations, finishing the uppers into the shape of a foot using plastic shapes to simulate a human foot form. Before the lasting step, the shoe has no solid shape.
Remember the last from the first step? In the lasting department, they take the completely stitched shoe and pull it over the last, allowing the shoe to stretch and take the form of the last. In some cases, the shoe will be steam heated to speed up the lasting process.
Finally, the finishing department trims the heels into the specified height and shape. They also polish and buff shoes, wax the edges, add any waterproofing, and stain and polish the finished product. All of the finishing touches and inspections happen during this phase as well to identify any errors or imperfections.
The Component of the Last
We already mentioned that the last – or the initial shape of the shoe – could be made from various materials, including wood, metal, or plastic. But other precise measurements go into making the last.
To make the last, experts determine the toe spring or the height of the toe from the ground. They also make the stick length, which is the total length of the last from toe to heel. From there, they will make the heel lift, also known as the distance between the heel and the ground.
The rest of the last has everything to do with various levels of girth. A professional will measure and specify the ball girth, which is the space around the toes. The waist circumference is next, and that details the measurement around the mid-top of the foot.
The instep girth comes just above the waist girth, while the long heel girth and short heel girth are two different measurements from the top of the foot just below the ankle to the heel. All of these are measured with a flexible tape and determine the shape and size of the last.
Aside from orthopedics, there are very few shoes that are specifically designed to improve upon posture, performance, and alleviate pain. Most shoes today are made from comfort and style, not for upping your walking game.
However, running shoes are one of the few types of shoes that have a specialized design and manufacturing process. Running shoes are made for a genuine purpose: to enhance a runner’s posture, performance, and comfort.
Most running shoes are made from a combination of materials like ethylene vinyl acetate, polyurethane, gel or liquid silicone, foam, and rubber. These materials can all be found in the sole of a running shoe, which consists of the three layers we discussed earlier: the insole, the midsole, and the outsole.
The rest of a running shoe is usually made from a synthetic material like suede or nylon weaves. It may also include leather overlays, plastic blabs, or other harder features to support the shape.
Because of advanced technologies, shoe designers can now not only focus on the general shape and movement of a human foot but on specific ways that individual feet function. For example, every person has a different arch. For years and years, standard running shoes did not address this issue.
Individuals with higher or lower arches suffered great pain and discomfort over time due to under or overpronation, which refers to the foot position upon impact. Using more focused technology, experts can now create running shoes based on the arch shape as well as friction patterns, pressure points, and force of impact.
Running shoes can have as many as 20 parts to them that all come together to form a specialized type of footwear for athletes always on the go. The sole usually houses the most important components because of the support and comfort it can deliver to a runner.
The detail and expert knowledge that goes into constructing the anatomy of a shoe is probably far more than any of us have taken the time to realize. While technology and machinery development have certainly helped to increase the mass production of footwear, there is still a lot that goes into it.
Next time you pull on your favorite pair of shoes, take a quick second to recognize and appreciate the hard work and craftsmanship that went into those heels.