The First Step in Making a Shoe? The Last

LONDON — Before leather can be tooled for a custom-made shoe, someone has to make a last, the foot-shaped piece of wood carved to precise measurements, around which the skins will take shape. And the Heritage Crafts Association based in Wellington, England, considers last-making an endangered activity, with skills being lost as time passes.

Michael James, 54, is one of the few remaining British makers, shaping kiln-dried beechwood into lasts for clients who may be paying thousands of dollars for a pair of bespoke shoes. He is a part-owner of what he describes as the only last manufacturer still producing bulk orders in Britain: Springline, founded in 1982 in Northampton, England, an area so famed for custom shoemaking that the local soccer team is nicknamed the Cobblers. (And, of course, it was the setting for “Kinky Boots.”)

His comments by telephone and email have been edited and condensed.

How do you make a last?

The last is the internal shape of a shoe, and the first step in the process of hand-making a shoe. We like to say: “The last is first.”

For bespoke there isn’t a size, exactly. You are working to the client’s feet — the toe shape, heel height, style of the shoe. Of course you need a left and a right, as most people’s feet are slightly different. You start by making a foot draft, which is a drawing that includes all the measurements. Sometimes people visit us, then take their finished lasts to independent shoemakers. Companies also send foot drafts to us, or we can go out to measure clients ourselves.

To shape the last, we stand at a workbench, using hand tools and holding the piece of wood steady with a jack that’s covered with a protective piece of piano felt. The last sits on that and you use a leather strap to hold it tight with your foot. We use tools like rasps, files and sandpapers. Once it’s finished, we send it off to the shoemaker. We work with companies like Church’s, Crockett & Jones, John Lobb, Tricker’s, Edward Green, Vivienne Westwood, Paul Smith and Dr. Martens.

What changes have you seen in your 38 years as a last maker?

I joined Springline on a youth training program. Not really knowing what a last was, I picked it because I wanted to go on a nine-man yacht to France, which was part of the program. Over my time, I have seen digitizing, foot scanning, computer-aided design and 3-D printing enter the business.

Are you optimistic about the future of last making?

Only two of our 20 staff members are bespoke last makers: myself and my elder son, who is 28. To be training up younger people is essential, really; I am determined to train four bespoke modelists before I retire. It is a craft and you need to be able to see lines and curves as well as learn the technology. You need to be calm of character with an artistic flair.

How has your business weathered the pandemic?

We are only just getting back to prepandemic levels. The high-end sector needs people traveling, tourists, business people visiting the major cities, shoemakers traveling with their trunk shows. We would normally probably do 80 to 100 pairs of bespoke lasts per year.

Does it ever feel like a dying art?

I think bespoke is increasing, as people want to buy less, and buy better.

You’ve worked with some famous feet.

For me, measuring Prince Charles and making his lasts and shoe trees was the highest honor, to meet him three times. Some of the movie stars and footballers we are not allowed to mention, but we’ve worked on lasts for Paul McCartney. The most distinctive was for the goblins in the “Harry Potter” movies who worked at Gringotts Bank, which required really long, straight lasts.

Have you ever owned a pair of custom-made shoes?

I had a pair in the 1990s by the maker David Ludlow. They are beautiful, but I chose a wider, extreme-squarish toe and it went out of fashion, so they just sit on a shelf now. A lesson to be learned.