Adventures in Shoemaking: SneakerKit Review

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Lately I’ve been really into the idea of making my own shoes. When I looked up at-home shoemaking, I had a lot of trouble finding any resources. I found a few other bloggers who make their own shoes and have shared their experiences, but I’ve learned that shoemaking is generally a pretty guarded secret. What I did manage to find was a small brand called SneakerKit, which began on Kickstarter just a few years ago. They sell at-home sneaker-making kits, which include a sole, insole, thread, needle, and pattern. The shoes don’t need lasts or glue – they’re entirely stitched together. Their website is not terribly informative, and I found it hard to navigate. I also couldn’t find any reviews on the product (I love reviews) – but I convinced Eitan to just jump into it with me.

We each ordered a kit, but found it a bit stressful to choose a size – the website has no sizing guide and every European conversion guide we found online was different. We couldn’t find any information anywhere on the website on how to choose a size right for you, or what the difference is between their “slim” soles and their “regular” (or “Publico” soles). I managed to find this Kickstarter page (scroll far down), which had a conversion chart – we went with our Japanese size, which is really just based on the cm length of your foot from toe to heel (so straightforward!). In US sizes I’m generally a 9.5-10, and I ordered a 41.5. Eitan is a US 11, and he got the 44.5. I’d say both of our soles were the right size for us in the end.

Shopping for leather was a more frustrating endeavour than I had anticipated. SneakerKit does give you the option to order from their selection of leather, but I wanted to shop for it in person and know the feel of what I was getting. I had never shopped for leather before, and headed downtown to Perfect Leather on King St W. I don’t know if this is the case at all leather stores, but at Perfect Leather they only sell by the piece. I needed cowhide, which I thought would be the sturdiest and most flexible option for making sneakers – but that would mean I had to buy an entire cow’s worth – about 20 sq ft (leather is often sold by the square foot – Sneakerkit only requires 2 sq ft). A man working there showed me a selection of goat skins (which are smaller as the animal is smaller), and insisted it was perfect for shoe making. It wasn’t – it was much too thin and would’ve had my toes poking through the top of the shoe. He said they will not cut leather, so I could choose between the small goat skins and the gigantic rolls of cowhide.

Well.

Being the fabric hunting madwoman that I can be, I rummaged through the shelves of goat skin and found a few smaller pieces of cowhide (when I pulled them out and placed them on the table to measure them, the man would scratch his head and tell me “This is cowhide”. Duh.) I found a textured piece of seafoam blue leather that was absolutely what I was looking for, and I also managed to find gray leather for Eitan. While I was frustrated that I didn’t have the rest of the store available to me as an option, I was pretty pleased that I didn’t have to settle.

While I was on the streetcar I had a grand, ambitious idea to cross stitch my shoes. I knew it was too ambitious, but that didn’t stop me. I thought that if I pre-poked a grid of holes in the leather, it would be a cinch. It was NOT a cinch.

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Leather is, well, skin. It kind of has this self-healing quality, and shortly after I hammered all the holes in with my awl, the holes slowly closed up. This made it incredibly difficult to get a needle through. Also leather is “sticky” (which is why you need a specialty leather needle for a sewing machine), and the needle often got stuck going through (granted, I was using a regular sewing needle. There may exist needles intended for this specific task). Many times I questioned if I should stop and start over with the leftover leather I had. Many. Many. Times.

But I’m stubborn, so I persisted. I decided it would be best to have asymmetrical shoes and have a smaller bud on the other shoe, so that I wouldn’t have to endure the same pain twice. After three days, my hands were cramped and I had blisters on my fingers, but I was pretty dang pleased with myself. As Poison sings, “every rose has its thorn” (or in this case, needle).  I Mod Podge-d the stitching on the inside because I didn’t want my foot to wear away at it too much.

Then came the construction. I was kind of lucky since I took so long to cross-stitch my shoes that Eitan finished his pair before me, so I kind of learned from him, rather than from SneakerKit’s vague online instructions.

The instructions are kind of hard to understand, and the videos don’t have any commentary. The trickiest parts were hard to see. Also, even when you get the gist of it, sewing the leather to the sole is kind of finicky. Both of us had to redo one of our shoes once. It’s pretty much all about getting the tension right. It’s easy enough to pull the stitches and adjust the tension, except that on both of my shoes, at some point the needle split the thread in one of the stitches and it became impossible to pull the stitches tight. I had to kind of bring the loose parts into the inside of the shoe and hope the insole hid them.

Eitan was so excited to wear his shoes the first day – and for good reason, they look great! He wore them for a day at work and when he came home he took the insoles out – the bottoms had completely crumbled. We are waiting for a response from SneakerKit to find out what’s going on, but in the meantime I cut a second pair of insoles out of scrap leather and placed them underneath the ones included in the kit, just in case.

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Otherwise the shoes are pretty comfortable, but they don’t seem to be incredibly practical. When I bend my toe I can see the stitches and the holes in the leather, and I feel like anything could seep inside my shoes with ease. Anyways, I spent so much time on the cross-stitching that I wouldn’t want to wear them anywhere they’d get dirty, so for that reason alone they’re not very practical. Eitan is worried that the stitching will come undone, and I get that (we kept joking about his shoes spontaneously falling apart at the office).

In the end, I wasn’t really expecting that I would spend many days strolling for hours in the first sneakers I had ever made. I’m going to call these my art sneakers, more for show than for wear, but I do still hope to wear them once in a while. It is awfully satisfying to make the things you wear on your feet.

Sewing a jacket isn’t always a snap

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Photos by Ariel Markus

Pattern: Kelly Anorak by Closet Case Patterns

Fabric: Outer – Robert Kaufman Hampton Twill from Matchpoint Fabrics 

Lining – Nani Iro Brushed Cotton & Navy Bemberg Rayon from Spool and Spindle

So I hopped on the Kelly Anorak bandwagon, and finally made my first ever handmade jacket.

I gotta say, I was pretty nervous about it. There were a lot of techniques I had never done before, but I really wanted the challenge. I figured, though, that if hundreds (thousands?) of people had managed to make it successfully before, then with the help of the sewalong I should be just fine. I made a trip downtown to the Leather and Sewing Supply Depot and picked up all the tools and notions I would need for the project (I was hoping to buy the kit from Closet Case directly, but alas, they were sold out).

I was really nervous about my fabric choices, especially since I ordered everything online and couldn’t get a sense of fabric weight. I wasn’t sure if the Robert Kaufman twill (Hampton) I chose would be heavy enough, as other projects under the Kelly Anorak hashtag had used the heavier-weight Robert Kaufman twill (Ventana, which Closet Case Patterns recommends for this project). Still, I had faith that along with some lining (and potentially underlining), all would work out fine.

I actually ordered some flannel to underline the jacket for warmth, but opted not to use it in the end, as the outer fabric and lining combined felt sufficient for the spring jacket I was going for. Even without the underlining, it took me two days to cut out all the pieces (outer, lining, and interfacing) – there are a lot of pieces, and the instructions recommend that you write down and keep track of which pieces you’ve cut (of course, I didn’t do this).

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Now, I bought the printed pattern of the jacket, and bought the PDF of the lining expansion. I didn’t have paper at home to print the PDF right away, so I thought I’d be smart and cut out the lining later when I had more paper, so that I wouldn’t waste time waiting for the day I made it to the office supply store. Well, I cut out the outer fabric using only the printed pattern pieces, not realizing that the lining expansion included different sleeves! (These are quite a bit roomier and don’t have a cuff or placket) I had already cut the original sleeves out, and they wouldn’t match the lining sleeves (luckily I realized this before cutting my lining). So, I had to cut out the sleeve lining from the original pattern, with the cuffs and little sleeve placket. It was really difficult to line sleeves that weren’t meant to be lined that way, and I don’t really think I did it properly. (If you’re interested, I didn’t “turn” the coat as per the instructions, but rather slipped the sleeve linings inside the outer sleeves and basted them at the raw edge before sewing on the cuffs as usual). But you can’t tell looking at it from the outside, so it is what it is. It’s just important to note, if you bought the lining expansion, that the sleeves have to be cut from the lining expansion pattern pieces. Lesson learned.

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I lined the jacket body with a lovely, thick Nani Iro brushed cotton, which is soft like flannel but kind of feels like a tablecloth in weight (I don’t mind). I’m very pleased with how the print on the Nani Iro coordinates with the slate grey twill. I chose Bemberg rayon to line the sleeves so my arms could slide in without the sleeves of shirt riding up to my armpits.

Sewing the jacket went pretty smoothly overall, but I found at times the sewalong gave wrong or different instructions to those that came with the pattern (for example, one or two times the sewalong tells you to sew fabric right sides together as opposed to wrong sides together or vice versa). It’s best to follow the paper/PDF instructions and turn to the sewalong for visual aid (especially when it comes to the many tricky and confusing seams).

The entire time I was sewing, I was dreading the installation of the snaps at the end. When I practiced, the snaps sometimes would get completely hammered out of shape or the awl would not make a large enough hole to fit the snaps into. The tool for installing the snap studs would smoosh the heads of the studs flat every time (they were supposed to be rounded) – visually this was fine, but it made it very hard to snap and unsnap them. Since I could not find a creative solution to this, and did not wish to go back to the store and complain (or possibly have to buy a new tool), I settled on installing the snaps as an aesthetic choice rather than as a functional one. The snaps are so difficult to pull apart that I’m afraid if I close them I’ll tear the jacket. Luckily, the zipper works well and I can open and close the jacket anyways. Since the snaps made me angry, I opted not to include them in the hood, since I had no patience or use for them there.

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I think some day a long time from now I’d love to try making another Kelly, because I found it incredibly satisfying to finally make my own outerwear. It’s perfect for these in-between spring days, and the fit was fantastic right out of the envelope (though I did make a muslin first). I can definitely see why everyone loves this jacket so much! I think I’ll get a lot of wear out of it this season.

Have you made the Kelly Anorak yet? Have you been thinking about making it but just haven’t managed to jump in?

Elisalex + Emery

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Pattern: By Hand London Elisalex + Christine Haynes Emery

Fabric: Liberty of London Tana Lawn

I generally try not to rush my sewing, and I find that when I give myself deadlines of any kind I have a lot of trouble getting through a project stress-free.

I made this dress in the midst of a very busy time – Passover cleaning. It was my first time cleaning our apartment for Passover (usually we go to family for the entire eight days), so it was extra stressful. Still, I was convinced that I had to finish sewing the Kelly Anorak I had been working on (more on that in the next post!) – and, miraculously, it was finished just within a week of starting it. And, of course, I cannot be without a project, so as soon as I finished my Kelly, I got started cutting out the next piece of fabric in my stash.

Of course, in order to avoid deadline stress, I told myself I was just trying to make progress, and not to expect to finish anything before the holiday (as you’re supposed to avoid doing any “handiwork” during Passover). I do hate starting things and leaving them unfinished for a long period of time, but I told myself that I would rather get something done rather than leave it.

And, well, by Friday (the first night of Passover), I had finished all of the dress except for the zipper, facing, and hem. At that point I had to finish it! So I spent the entire day sewing away (at a surprisingly calm pace), until I finished the dress a mere three hours before the start of the holiday. Isn’t it nice when things work out that way?

This Liberty Tana Lawn was actually not intended to be a dress. At Liberty’s, I wanted to buy two different fabrics, but it was too expensive to get 3 yards of each (3 yards is my standard yardage for sewing dresses) – so I bought two yards of one, thinking I would finally sew my first blouse out of it.

Well, once I laid the fabric out on my dining table and played around with my pattern pieces, I discovered that I could actually squeeze a dress out of it (will I ever make a top??). I combined the Elisalex bodice with the Emery skirt, since I know both those patterns work well for me and I wouldn’t have to deal with a muslin. I spent a long time toying with the idea of making the sleeves puffed, and in the end settled on easing the original sleeve pattern into a cuff (giving the sleeves just a slight puffiness). I shortened the sleeves considerably to fall just above the elbow, and then cut out two rectangles that were sewn into cuffs.

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Since this Tana Lawn print is quite translucent, I underlined the bodice pieces with white cotton lawn. The skirt is lined with Bemberg rayon so it won’t cling to my legs too much (but also mainly because I didn’t have enough of the cotton lawn left). I serged all the seams because I wanted to keep things simple.

I also cut out fabric to make a matching sash, but I was really impatient to have a wearable dress ready, and so I may make and add the sash later. I am really pleased with the dress on its own though, and am still waiting for warmer days so I can wear my light and cotton-y dresses. Shouldn’t be long now, should it?

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Liberty of London Zoe Dress

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Pattern: Zoe Dress by Schnittchen Patterns

Fabric: Liberty of London Tana Lawn

My thought process throughout making this dress certainly had its ups and downs, as the pattern I used had its…mysteries. This was the first time I sewed anything by Schnittchen Patterns, a German pattern company with some really lovely modern designs. I bought the German-language pattern as a PDF (I actually thought I was purchasing an English-translated one. Turns out only the pattern pieces were labelled in English), figuring that regardless of the language barrier, I could interpret the instructions, IKEA furniture-style. Well, this was the first time ever that I got a pattern with text-only instructions. Nevertheless, I figured I’d just follow the sew-along linked to somewhere on the website. Well, the link was broken, but using the magical powers of Google, I found it. By using Google Translate (which offered some laughable translations), the sew-along helped me enough to sew up the dress.

Something else mysterious about the pattern was that nowhere on the internet – not in Google searches in English or German, not on Instagram – did I find more than three photos of a finished dress. Two of them were posted by Schnittchen (one on the product page and one in the sew-along), and one of them was posted by Tassadit on her blog, Rue Des Renards.

Do people not make this dress? I scoured Instagram – first I tried the English hashtag, #zoedress – which was much too vague and gave me hundreds of children’s dresses. Then I tried in German – #kleidzoe – turns out there’s another German pattern company that has a “Zoe Dress”, because that’s all I saw. I didn’t find anything else. It surprised me, because it’s a nice enough dress, and it’s beautifully photographed on Schnittchen’s website.

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But I didn’t let the lack of photos stop me, and I figured it would be a bit of an experiment. Of course, since I used the precious Liberty Tana Lawn that I bought at Liberty’s this past October (I was drawn to the little orange frogs and peaches!), I made a muslin first. I was a bit worried, because the shaping of the pattern looks pretty unusual (the centre back dips upwards and the back neckline is quite high, and the sleeve cap looked especially curvy) – but after making the muslin, the only change I made was adding a bit of ease at the side seams and centre back. The dress doesn’t have a lining, and I opted to pink the seams and bind the armholes with matching bias binding.

There were a few things in the actual pattern that bugged me, but they aren’t really problematic if you’re familiar with garment construction. One was that there weren’t notches in a lot of places that I felt needed them (in the waistband side seams, and the notches in the armscye are the same in front and back), so I had to add them myself. Another was the French cuffs on the sleeve – there was too much excess fabric in the sleeves to sew the cuffs down without puckers, so I just cut them off and hemmed them as I usually would. Not adding the collar was a personal choice, as I didn’t really feel it suited me.

Also, you can’t really see the pintucks because of how busy the print is, but the pintucks in the skirt don’t line up at the skirt side seams. I considered sewing the skirt pieces and then sewing the pintucks, but I decided to follow the sew-along’s instructions. Since my pintucks were folded just a few millimetres off, they don’t line up with each other (if you’re a perfectionist this would really bug you). Luckily, the print hides it and I can barely see the tucks in the first place. These are just little things you’d want to be careful with if you were sewing the dress in a solid colour, or if you’re a bit more nitpicky.

That said, I wouldn’t say the fabric I chose was the right choice for this sort of pattern. There are so many lovely little details that just get hidden in the print. I do love the print, so I’m still quite pleased with the dress, but I don’t think it was a match made in heaven.

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The dress overall is quite well drafted, but I also don’t think that the shape of it suits me. It has quite a high waist, and together with the gathers, it’s a bit too “baby doll” for me. I like a dress that comes in at the waist. I considered lengthening the bodice so that it would fall at the waist, but the pattern was intended to be high-waisted, and I really wanted to give a different style a try. I probably wouldn’t make it again, but I would certainly recommend the pattern to someone who’s a fan of the high-waisted/empire look. Also, the neckline is really very high. I actually sewed the neckline facing 1/4″ deeper to make the neckline a bit more open – it didn’t require any adjustments, just a matter of sewing a 5/8″ seam allowance instead of the 3/8″ the pattern calls for.

In the end, it’s the beautiful Liberty fabric that makes this dress feel truly special, and despite the parts that aren’t just right, I’ll probably wear it quite a bit if (when?) the weather ever warms up.

Zeena Dress in Nani Iro Double Gauze

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Pattern: Zeena Dress by By Hand London

Fabric: Nani Iro Suzuran Field – Double Gauze

I don’t know what took me so long to get around to this dress. Sometimes there’s this one little hurdle to just get over before you can get sewing. Either you’ve lost your sewjo, you just didn’t buy a matching zipper or thread, you don’t feel up to tracing/cutting the pattern…we’ve all been there.

For me, it was the fit adjustments. I have forward-thrust shoulders, and adjusting for it is always pretty straightforward with set-in sleeves (it involves taking a wedge from the front of the shoulder seam and adding it to the back). I struggle a lot when it comes to kimono sleeves though (which is annoying because half of my vintage patterns are kimono sleeves). Since the sleeve and bodice are one piece, I can’t make an adjustment to the shoulder without having to adjust the entire sleeve. Yes, I found one or two tutorials, but they involved cutting an impossible-to-shape triangle out of the shoulder (comment below if you know of other solutions!).

So when I sewed up an adjusted muslin, I moved the entire shoulder seam (neck to sleeve hem) forward more than an inch! I tried on the original muslin and then the adjusted one, and they both looked exactly the same. I felt so dumbfounded that the pattern sat gathering dust atop my scrap bin for about 5 months.

Last week I finally mustered up the courage to try again – I still felt conflicted, but my gut told me not to make any adjustments to the original pattern.

After all that, the whole dress (minus hemming) was done in a day.

I love it, though. It was my first time working with double gauze, which I found to be surprisingly “sticky” (for lack of a better term) – easy to sew, but trying it on over leggings wasn’t a good idea. But overall, it’s soft, lightweight, and just opaque enough that I could get away without a lining.

I almost always line my dresses, so since I wasn’t lining this one, I opted to do French seams for all the seams except the zipper and waist seams (I had to serge those. I didn’t want to, but I had gotten impatient at that point. It got the job done). I would recommend French seams if you’re working with a lightweight fabric – my fabric was borderline thin-enough to get away with it. Since double gauze has two layers, I was also able to slip stitch the neckline facing down all the way around.

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After all my non-adjustments, I found that the fabric still pulls kind of weirdly around the neck. I’m not sure if making my shoulder adjustment would have changed that. All in all, the fit is perfect around the waist and I love the pleats that go all the way around the skirt. It’s cozy but flattering. I also cannot get enough of the fabric – the colour, the print…I couldn’t even tell till I started sewing it, but the little white dots are actually bits of silver! Ah, Nani Iro, you have me under your spell.

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