How to make a GORE-TEX shoe?
Andreas Marmsoler makes a shoe at the Gore Footwear University in Pirmasens, home to some of Germany's oldest shoe factories.


The shoe manufacturing town is also home to ISC, the International Shoe Competence Center, where you can learn how to make a GORE-TEX shoe. That's something I'd like to do!

Before getting down to work, lecturer Joachim Horzella fills us in on the history of shoe manufacturing. The first thing I learn is that early shoemakers only made one shoe last, using it for both feet and making no difference between right and left. That was about 100 years ago. The last influences the shape and design of the shoe. In the days when only one last was used for both feet, at least there was no need to tell the difference between your left and right shoe. However, as it can't have been particularly comfortable for the feet, manufacturers eventually started using right and left lasts.

Before you start manufacturing, you have to think about what kind of shoe you want. Do you want a Derby, Oxford or pump style shoe, or perhaps a Chelsea boot? Which construction technique are you going to use – sewing, gluing or injecting? What shape do you want – a pointed or a rounded toecap? How high should the “pitch”, or heel, be? Of course, you also have to put some thought into the shape and measurements of the last: the ball girth, which is around the ball of the foot, the instep, which is the circumference around the foot at the instep, or the heel girth, which determines the distance from the heel to the instep.

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Finding the right shoe size isn't easy

There's one other thing I want to know: how are shoe sizes measured? I normally wear size 43. However, there are different shoe size systems. There is the UK system where a UK size 9 is the equivalent to an EU size 43 and the Paris Point system of measurement (which would also be size 43). Then there's the Mondopoint system – which is used predominantly for ski boots and by the military. In this system, which uses metric measurements, a size 43 is a 28.5. When I try on a pair of shoes, I often find that size 43.5 fits me better than 43. It seems to depend on the manufacturer. Now I know why sizes can differ: it's all to do with the shape of the upper and the measurements of the last. Joachim Horzella also says that it is the width of the shoe at the ball of the foot that can make the difference. Here too, there are different measurement systems: the French use a scale from 1 (narrow) to 10 (wide), while in the UK the width fittings go from A (narrow) to K (wide). All rather confusing – that's why Horzella suggests you do quite a bit of walking around in the shop before making a purchase. He also has one general piece of advice: buy shoes in the afternoon because that's when your feet are at their biggest.

The next surprise for me is just how many components are needed to make a shoe. To give you an idea of just how many there are, here's a list: the shoe upper, the toecap, the insole, the outsole, the heel cap, the lining, the laces, the membrane, for example the GORE-TEX membrane, and other items such as sewing threads. That means that even a pair of shoes for a baby can be made up of as many as 30 different components.

The next thing I learn about is the anatomy of the foot and the biomechanics of walking. It all sounds a bit dry, but this knowledge is essential if you want to produce a shoe. The foot consists of 28 bones and roughly 240,000 sweat glands – one third of which are on the sole of the foot. I also learn that the shoe construction can influence how you move. That's why the components and materials used in the shoe must be able to absorb the shock of the foot hitting the ground. It's quite incredible how many things you have to think about before you can start making a shoe.

The shoe begins to take shape!

At last I can start: today I'm going to make a men's leather shoe. You start by cutting the leather sections of the upper. I position the leather so that the laser cutting machine produces as little waste as possible. You need a steady hand when you position the computer image on the leather. However, it needs to be even steadier if you want to cut the leather by hand using a knife and pattern. Next, you need to cut the lining sections and affix these to the leather. This is done in a special press at a temperature of 136°C. Then it's time for some stitching with a sewing machine. The size of the needle depends on the sewing thread. You can do without your foot getting as nervous as mine did: by no stretch of the imagination could you call my stitching straight.

After the sewing, things get a bit easier for a while when a press is used to attach the toecap. Then it's time for lasting. A heel cap is attached to the rear section of the upper and moulded to form the desired shape. Great care is required for this process as this is the point at which creases can easily be introduced and, as we all know, blistered feet can be very unpleasant. The lasting process requires my total concentration.

A special device is used to get as much moisture as possible into the upper to make it pliable so that I can stretch it over the last. Then the insole is attached to the lasted upper. Next comes toe lasting, also called “pulling over”. This part of the process is also all about fit and giving the shoe the necessary shape and stability in the toe area. After the upper has been attached at the toe, it is attached at the sides and seat (heel). And, surprise, surprise: yet another machine with a whole load of cables is used. Its name: a “side and seat lasting machine”. The next step is to apply heat and cold to the leather so that it moulds easily to the shape of the last. Shoemakers talk about heat setting and cool setting. The lasted upper is heated using water vapour and dried in warm air. It is then cooled down to keep the desired shape. Now for the outsole - and 2 more machines. One is used to apply the adhesive and the other to press the outsole and the rest of the shoe together. That's it. Your shoe is finished.

The only question that remains is, during which of these many processes is the GORE-TEX membrane built into the shoe? As there are a number of different GORE-TEX patented shoe constructions, it is impossible to say at exactly which stage of the production process this step takes place. One possibility is what is known as the GORE-TEX “Bootie”, or what we often refer to as the “Sock”. Because that really is what the “Bootie” looks like! It is stitched to the shoe upper and pulled over the last at the same time as the upper. Whenever a GORE-TEX membrane is built into a prototype, the prototype is put through a battery of tests in the Gore laboratories to make sure that it delivers what the brand promises: waterproof and breathable protection.

Personally, I have come to the conclusion that the manufacture of high quality GORE-TEX footwear is incredibly complicated, but I still had great time!

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