How leather shoes are made in the old country

Our world today may be faster and more efficient, but we can learn a lot from the older generations. How to cook, how to live and even how to make everyday objects designed to last. I traveled to Guatemala, to a place about an hour and a half from the country’s capital to find out how Adelante Shoe Co. make a pair of shoes from scratch. For two days, its second generation artisans walked me through the simple but painstaking process of making a men’s round toe leather shoe.

The craftsman I worked with, Adrian Gomez, works in a small workshop on a hill with nothing but a plastic chair and a small wooden workbench covered in nails, glue, a worn knife and its 25-year-old hammer – the same one his father used. He can produce around 10 pairs of shoes a week, but it takes more than his work to deliver Adelante’s shoes. They work as a team to divide the work, while delivering bespoke shoes in just 10 days.

Best of all, artisans give customers periodic updates on the evolution of their shoes, with pictures, notes and even videos. When the shoes are finished, a QR code is etched into the sole that connects customers to a video of their shoe creation. It all goes back to the company’s desire to make high quality items that last. Here’s a look at the work that goes into Adelante shoes.

Cut and sew

First, workers trace patterns on pieces of brown tanned leather to form the upper of the shoe. They slice and trim them by hand, sharpening their knives after each slice. On the two larger pieces, they create holes for the laces.

Joseph Nance Photography / Adelante Shoe Co.

The next group of workers sews the pieces together and gives the shoes replacement laces to keep their shape. They will be replaced with real laces at the very end. Craftsmen sew the design of the style iconic cap near the toe of the shoe and pass it on to the more experienced craftsman for the next steps.

On the last

Then the rods are stretched out into shapes – plastic and wooden shoe molds that Adelante has in each size. Workers use pliers to stretch the leather over the shoe and use small nails to hold it in place, constantly checking that the leather upper is secured in the correct position. Adelante has its specially designed shapes as they can accommodate up to size 17 and width EEEE. And because they’re custom made, you can even order a different size for each shoe for free.

Joseph Nance Photography / Adelante Shoe Co.

Gomez gently taps the shoe all over to make sure it fits the shape perfectly. This part is one of the most important because the rod must be well positioned. Otherwise, the position of the laces would be out of balance and he would have to start over. Gomez can spend over 30-40 minutes adjusting and stretching until he feels the shoes are perfect.

The Goodyear welt

A sign of quality in footwear is a Goodyear welt. All Adelante shoes have them. Gomez wets the thick leather band with water to make it pliable. He removes some of the excess so that it goes over the seamless shoe and hammers it into place. It also cuts the corners of the band to accommodate the heel and toe.

Joseph Nance Photography / Adelante Shoe Co.

The shoe then passes through an industrial sewing machine, which uses a very thick thread to permanently attach the welt. This welt not only connects the upper to the outsole, but it also means that the shoes can be resole. So when the bottoms are thin and need to be replaced, they will simply replace that strip and the sole that goes with it. Once the welt is fixed, all the nails that held the rod on the last one are removed.

Making the sole

Gomez places the shoes on a support so that the leather can stretch properly over the last. In the meantime, he begins to build the sole, which is simply pieces of hardened leather glued together. He applies the glue with his fingers, wiping off the excess on the lid of the glue pot. It begins with long pieces, which form the top of the sole. Between the layers, he places a small metal rod with a 90 degree curve. This prevents the shoes from bending and breaking at the heel. Then it moves on to much smaller curved pieces which will become the heel.

Joseph Nance Photography / Adelante Shoe Co.

Once the soles are dry, Gomez cuts them with his knife and machine sands them. He applies a rubber grip with industrial glue to the bottom of the shoe, then cuts the sole again for a seamless look. He uses another industrial sewing machine to attach the outsole to the welt so that the shoe is now all in one piece.

The final touch

As part of his final exam, Gomez taps the shoes with his hammer to make sure everything is symmetrical and aligned. He makes sure they are balanced on all sides and starts cleaning and preparing the leather for shipping.

Joseph Nance Photography / Adelante Shoe Co.

It uses a long metal rod to lock the shape and remove it from the finished shoe. He also replaces the production laces with new ones and leaves them on a rack where they will be scanned and shipped. Gomez then writes personal notes to the customer to let them know their shoes are ready.

It’s a simple but painstaking process to create these shoes, but Gomez says it’s very satisfying to send the final product to their customers. It might be using some old-fashioned techniques, but it takes a lot of modern technology for Adelante to deliver shoes in just 10 days. It is in large part thanks to these skilled workers who make their trade live.

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