Art & Mysteries of the Woman's Covered Heel (18thc)--
Well DW, what a can of worms... boy can you pick 'em!
When elevated heels were first adopted across Western Europe,c.1590-1610ish, how they were made initially was utter chaos, as each region
had to figure out pretty much on its own how to fabricate this, the latest fad, in the
cloistered world of the post-Medieval workshop--no HCC Forum back then. "Slack Heels" (i.e.,
un-sewn around the seat); heel-covers with darts and seams down the back to
bring them in tight to the wood; all were early attempts to make the latest
17thc. fashion craze. Out of this chaos slowly emerged the basic covered heel
construction we see from the 18thc-20th., until, by the late 19thc, when they were inside-nailed, just like they are mostly made today. So, the covered wool heel in it's mid-18thc., "high" orthodox construction, is what I'll write about here.
First, wooden heels were indeed purchased pre-made, rough-cut, bought from
the last- and heel-makers in sizes, and more or less carved to their final
shape from the 18thc. onward--shoemakers did not have to carve them from logs, from scratch
*sigh*, the last- and heel-makers did all that bit. There were a variety of women's covered heel styles:"English" heels, "French" heels, "Italian" heels, and other names as well,
that we can't figure out what, precisely, they were (e.g., "Polony"=Polish heels, etc.). Each pre-made, "rough", wooden heel had a hole drilled
through the middle top to bottom, and they were sold in bulk in strings,like garlics, or by the single pair, like women's heels and pre-cut soles
were/still are. The shoemaker bought these, and merely trimmed them exactly to suit the last at hand [Garsault:1767].
The heel-cover was all that held the wood heel onto the shoe, and it was secure enough when well-made. The heel-cover pattern begins as an
enlarged "D" shape, usually (18thc.) cloth (sometimes backed with whittawed
leather for strength) to match the uppers, or occasionally a contrasting color (or
colored leather, dyed by short-lived specialists, on account of the poisons
used), made large enough to envelop the heel tightly, over-lap the heel-breast and top (where the top-piece goes).
The rest of the shoe's construction aside, this heel-cover was sewn around the heel-seat, to the insole (uppers in between) just like a welt (or rand) from one heel-breast to almost the center of the back-curve while the cover was
folded up, good side against the good side of the uppers. Because of its awkward "D" shape, the cover cannot be sewn in place all the way around the seat in one go, so once
you reach the apex of the heel-seat's curve, the heel-cover is then folded down
more or less into its final position, and the last half is sewn by piercing each hole as you
sew the cover to line up with the hole, "holed" before-hand in the insole; the awl
wiggled through to re-open it, and the stitches made as best as you can. This takes you to the
opposite heel-breast. If you look closely at 18thc. women's covered heeled shoes in museums, you can usually detect this transition from regular sewing to this awkward method--the French called this "The English Stitch" [Garsault:1767]--the English just didn't discuss it
Garsault adds that some shoemakers managed to sew heel-covers without changing to this so-called "English Stitch", but he gives no further clues as to how to proceed. I've never been able to sew women's heel-covers without the "English Stitch" myself, but then I can count the women's covered heels I've made/tried on ten fingers, none of them terribly satisfactory. This is another practical reason why men's and women's shoemakers have been separate specialist branches of the trade time out of mind.
With the heel-cover now sewn in place all around the seat, the wooden heel(fine-trimmed and carefully fitted before-hand) was smeared with paste and slid into place inside the heel-cover. Any voids between the base of the
heel and the insole were filled with slivers of wood.* A very long(temporary) nail (reusable) was driven down through the hole in the middle
of the heel, into the last to pin it, with a washer under its head to protect the heel and facilitate its later removal--"The Heel Nail"
The two side portions of the heel-cover that over-lapped the heel-breast were eased and fitted to lay flat without wrinkles by cutting "V" shaped notches so they would follow the "U" shaped curve of the breast, pulled
tight and braced (a tight zig-zag stitch with a single waxed-end) as tight as possible across the breast. The portion of the heel-cover on top was likewise pulled tight, folded over, skived, and tacked(temporarily) with tiny pin-tacks (to avoid splitting the wood). The
heel-cover was then well-burnished (if leather), or gently smoothed down tight (if cloth) to the wood, with a special burnishing-stick called a
"Guinche" (no exact Eng. equivalent=heel-cover-burnisher?).** Then, to hold the heel in place inside the heel-cover until the paste dried, a "Heel Bridle" (a narrow strip of scrap leather) was used to strap the heel down
tightly inside the cover, secured with tiny pin-tacks (temporary) on either side of the shoe, driven right into the last through the upper of the shoe [Garsault:1767].
After the paste dried, this bridle was removed. The outsole was put on. The forepart stitched/sewed/made (ignoring details of the forepart construction here), and the portion of the sole that extended through the waist and followed up the heel-beast (to exceed
the top of the heel by 1/2" or so) was skived thin (like so-called "Louis heels" today),
pasted and tacked (temporarily) in place. Two "White Seams" *** were made, one along each corner of the heel-breast, piercing from the heel-cover with a fine curved awl, exiting in a shallow channel traced into the sole. The
end of the sole, cut to exceed the top of the heel by 1/2" or so, was then folded down
flat on top of the heel, skived and pasted.
The top-piece closed the box, so to say, containing the wooden heel. The top-piece was pasted on top, and pegged with only 1, 2, or 3 pegs, taking care not to split the wood heel (a finer, round-section pegging awl was used for
pegging wood heels, and very slim pegs). After pegging, another "White Seam" was made to blend continuously with the ones at either side of the
heel-breast, again piercing from the heel-cover, exiting through a channel in the
The top-piece was then finished plain (no ink, just burnished). It should be pointed-out that the finest stitching in these shoes was commonly all of this heel-cover "White" stitching, and if you can get it up into the 20 per inch range (never mind 64!) you'll be doing pretty "typical" work here.
If you browse any number of on-line picture galleries from the better shoe museums linked off our home page, you can see many examples of this heel-construction, from its 17thc. chaos, to its relative Rococo clumsiness,up through the beautifully refined examples made by makers such as Pinet, et al, in the late 19th and early 20thc. This was the way all the best ladies' shoes have been made, by-hand, for centuries. Pre-covered wooden (or today plastic) heels,
inside-heel-nailed, or "knocked-on" , began as a cheap, fast, low-end factory method trying to imitate this. Making a proper hand-sewn,
covered-heel, lady's shoe was/is a high art form, and not a technique that is easily mastered by anyone raised on making stacked leather men's heels--take my word for that.
*--18thc. women's heels had a very long heel breast that extended well into the waist, to support it, commonly negating the need for any separate shank-piece.
**--It was usual practice, too, to cover the uppers (cloth), as well as heel-cover (cloth) with a layer of paper, sewed right into the inseam of the shoe to keep the fabric clean while making the shoe. After the shoe was
completed, this paper was carefully cut or merely torn off. Plenty of antique shoes retain remnants of this paper buried down in the seams, if you know to look for it. If you cover your cloth heel-cover with paper, you can
burnish it a bit as well.
***--Garsault calls "White Seams/White Stitches" those made with bleached flax thread, waxed with "masheen" (i.e., pounded beeswax, rosin, and white-lead oxide for color--not heated/melted together).
Before I get deluged with follow-up questions, let me just say that this synopsis of M. de Garsault's 1767 instructions, with copious illustrations,is in my forth-coming book 'Art of the Shoemaker', due out in 2008 by The
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. I have no facilities to draw sketches, post pictures here, or other high-tech stuff either, so please be patient, and even better, buy the book