SEWING MACHINES FOR SHOEMAKING

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Since we launched our online courses on home shoemaking we have received lots of great questions about sewing machines. In this post we hope to put to rest some of your questions and point you in the right direction so that you can start your shoemaking journey from home.

DO YOU NEED A SEWING MACHINE TO MAKE SHOES?

Mostly yes, but sometimes no. 

Most of the stitching on shoe uppers is serving one or some of the following purposes: 
-Attaching the lining to the upper material
-Attaching 1 panel to another
-Attaching a decorative trimming/embellishment
-Adding strength to certain areas

All of this stitching could technically be done by hand but you’ll find that it will be tricky to stitch through such thick materials and make it look neat…not to mention it would take a verrrrrry very long time. For these reasons using a sewing machine is going to make things much easier. 

You can get away with not using a sewing machine if you plan to make a simple pair of sandals. We often use a thick unlined leather for some of our sandal straps, and occasionally will use a rivet to attach a buckle – all without the use of a sewing machine. 

(No sewing here! That stitched edge is actually a pre-stitched trimming called ‘randing’ – read on to find out more…)

ARE SEWING MACHINES DIFFICULT TO USE?

Sewing machines do not need to be scary! Most sewing machines will come with a user friendly manual or DVD to help teach you from scratch (if you buy one secondhand you should be able to find a free manual for your model by searching online). A lot of the conventional sewing machines will also come with lots of user friendly features such as a needle threader, speed adjustment etc. 

We only use straight stitch with the I Can Make Shoes techniques so there is no need to master all of the other stitch features to make shoes from home. 

The trickiest part of sewing shoe uppers is sewing tight curves but remember that practise makes perfect. We suggest drawing some curved lines on some scrap materials to stitch over, so that you can build up your confidence first.

*Top tip: If you are struggling to remember what all the knobs and dials on your machine do, attach some sticky notes to your sewing machine for guidance. Your sewing machine manual will tell you how everything works and there should be a troubleshooting section for any issues you might come across. For example: Tension dial – Bobbin thread coming through to the right side, loosen tension (lower number) etc. 

WHAT IS A POST BED SEWING MACHINE?

Traditionally many shoe uppers are stitched on what is called a ‘post bed sewing machine’. As the name suggests this is where you stitch on top of a post as opposed to a flat surface (search ‘post bed sewing machine’ on google images to get a better idea). As you start stitching together a shoe upper it will take on the shape of a shoe, and this can make it tricky to access/stitch certain areas of the upper on a flat bed machine (particularly with boots). However, post bed sewing machines are normally very expensive (£1500+ new), take up a lot of room and are tricky to get hold of so we teach all of our techniques on a standard flat bed sewing machine – boots included! 

*If you plan to make a career of repairing shoes you will need a post bed sewing machine so that you can access certain areas of the shoe once their soles/heels are attached.

SO, WHAT SEWING MACHINE DO I NEED TO MAKE SHOES?

Most domestic sewing machines will have no issue stitching through the thicker materials/leather required for making shoe uppers, you do not need a shoe/leather specific sewing machine. We recommend choosing a machine that can stitch through thick denim or upholstery fabric as normally these machines have a bit more power to get through thicker materials. You are also less likely to have tension issues and skipped stitches. You do not need a heavy duty machine but a sewing machine with a heavy body or metal casing often means it will be stronger.

If you already own a sewing machine, test out its capabilities by stitching through some thick scrap materials/leathers. Judge the thickness of some of the shoes you have at home to give you an idea of the thickness you’ll need to stitch through. Read on to see our top tips for sewing leather.

In our shoemaking workshops we use a ‘Janome HD9 Professional’ sewing machine. This is a heavy duty machine and at £1000 is not cheap, but as we use it nearly every day it is a great investment for us. If you plan to make a career of shoemaking this is a great machine to have. Our previous model was the ‘Janome 1600P’ which again had no problem stitching through thick materials and leather.

Another great sewing machine is the ‘Singer 4423 Heavy Duty Sewing Machine’. Priced at around £350 this is a touch more affordable and also has a range of different stitches that can be used for other craft/sewing projects.

Try out www.tysew.co.uk and John Lewis for more sewing machines. Both companies have extensive ranges of sewing machines available and viewable reviews to compare models.

Sewing only makes up around 10% of the shoemaking process so it may be worth asking to borrow a sewing machine from a friend if you are looking to keep costs down or want to try it out before investing.

WHAT ABOUT STITCHING ON THE SOLES?

Most soles are glued on so you wont need a machine for this. We sometimes glue on a pre-stitched decorative trimming on the edge of soles called ‘randing’ (shown in the sandal image above). Randing gives the illusion of what is called a welted construction but most shoes with sole stitching will be made using randing instead.

We attach sneaker/trainer soles with a ‘speedy stitcher’ hand tool and have a full tutorial on how this is done within our online course.

ANY OTHER TIPS / WHAT ELSE DO I NEED WITH A SEWING MACHINE?

We use denim/jeans needles with our sewing machines as they are strong and sharp and don’t leave large holes in the leather like some leather needles do.

You will need polyester/nylon thread for stitching shoe uppers as it is strong and unlikely to break. We like to use ‘Gutterman Mara’ sewing thread (in thickness 50 or 70). If you are not sure if your thread is strong enough, see if you can break a strand between your hands – if it breaks it’s not strong enough.

We use a standard sewing machine foot for most of the stitching but having a zipper foot on hand is great for adding zips or decorative piping, so that you can get a close and neat finish. A zipper foot is also great if you are stitching tight curves and are struggling to see how close you are to your reference point. Some machines have what is called a ‘walking foot’ and this also works great.

If you plan to stitch with patent leather/vinyl or any other materials that have a tendency to get sticky: smearing a little bit of moisturiser along the area you’ll be stitching will help the sewing machine feed through the material and not get stuck.

If you have any other questions or queries regarding sewing footwear, any of our courses, or have any great tips or machine recommendations to share then please get in touch at info@icanmakeshoes.com