How to Select Footwear Materials
The materials you select for your shoe design are what make your shoe design ideas come to life! You will find the shoe pattern is not the critical or special feature but the upper material is! Learning how to specify footwear materials is critical when you are learning how to make shoes! You have an infinite menu of material choices and colors to create your footwear masterpiece! Rich leathers, silky mesh or high-tech synthetics; Take your pick. You must take great care to pick the right materials that can stand up to the demands of footwear. The demands for footwear performance and manufacturing must be met. A beautiful material that rips during the lasting operation or fades in sun light just can’t be used! So lets learn how to select footwear materials!
Factors for Shoe Design Materials:
When you select materials for your shoes the shoe design brief should help guide your choices. The design brief defines the type of shoe you are making. A ballerina slipper or work boots for lumber jacks? What is the best sneaker material? What are the the best running shoe materials? Are these going to be inexpensive or premium shoes? With your design brief in hand and some background knowlege you can select the right materials suitable for your shoe design.
The most common materials for shoes are leathers, textiles, synthetics, rubber, foam and plastic. Each have their specific uses in footwear. Depending on your design, each material will have a place in your shoe. Let’s take a quick tour of these common materials!
Leather is the most common material used for making shoes. It is durable, flexible, stretchable and is available in many styles, color and prices. It is truly a great material, you can make beautiful functional and fashionable shoes!
Leather is alive! Not really but the character of leather changes as it wears. A fine leather shoe breaths and conforms like no other shoe. The handmade leather shoe can be a masterpiece of a shoe makes craft. But leather does have some drawbacks. It can be heavy, hot, and susceptible to water absorption and damage if not treated. Water resistant and water-proof treatments add cost. Leather is a relatively expensive material when
compared to fabric or other man-made materials and must be treated with care during shoe manufacturing.
Because leather hides are from individual animals each is a different size and each will have scars, imperfections, even brands that must be avoided when cutting. This uncut material is called cutting loss. For leather, cutting loss is at best 5% of a hide, for the highest quality shoes leather cutting loss can be 15%. That’s 15% of the material cost being thrown away.
Depending on the import rules for your country, leather is often a lower duty rate. Shoes made with 51% leather surface area are around 9% import duty. A textile shoe can be 20% of the FOB price +.90, that’s high duty! (depending on the country of origin).
Definitely visit a tannery to see how leather is made. To learn more about leather read this article – Designer’s Guide to Shoe Leather.
Textiles for shoes come in a huge variety of colors, weaves, knits, fibers and denier. Denier is how thread weight is measured. 1 denier = 1 gram per 9000 meters of thread. Typical denier is 110D for very light weight fabric, 420D and 600D are common in shoe fabrics. Footwear textiles come in many fiber types including cotton, wool, nylon, polyester, polypropylene, rayon, lycra and many others. Each has their own look and physical properties.
Textiles are a miracle material for shoes! With an infinite variety of weaves, colors, patterns and special features, textiles have a special place in footwear design. You will find textiles inside and out on footwear and even on the bottoms. The man-made polymer fibers such as nylon and polyester are light weight and durable. Lycra is stretchable and cotton canvas is a must for vulcanized construction and has a look all its own.
Depending on the import rules for your country textiles are often a higher duty rate. Shoes made with 51% textile surface area are sometimes 20%. A textile shoe costing less then $12.50 USD will be 20% +.90 duty! (depending on the country of origin). However there is a trick, by molding textile on the sole of the shoe you can avoid the high duty rates! Textiles will be reviewed in-depth in their own article.
Whatever you call it, synthetic, synthetic leather, PU leather or just PU this material is another must have for modern sport shoes. This class of material offers the shoe designer a huge variety of colors, textures and features at a wide range of prices. It was once considered to be cheap junk not suitable for high quality shoes, times have changed! These man-made materials are often a composite made of two layers. A backing layer made of woven or non-woven polyester fibers combined with an external surface by “dry” lamination process or by liquid “wet” processes. The least expensive synthetics have a fibrous woven backing with PVC skin made by wet process. The surface may not be 100% smooth and the shoe will show wrinkles and creases. This material is the cheap stuff found on inexpensive shoes.
The high end PU leather starts with a water-resistant micro fiber PU backing. This backing has a smooth surface, cuts cleanly, and can be dyed to match the surface materials. The micro fiber style backing can be ordered in .5 to 2.00mm thicknesses, has some stretch, and can have a water-resistant treatment. On top of this backing the skin can be applied.
Polyurethane plastic film .2 to .5mm thick is made in a separate operation and the two layers are then rolled together with heat and pressure. The PU outer skin is then printed, embossed, scuffed or polished to create one of the millions of surface options. The largest PU maker has hundreds of different emboss patterns that can be applied to hundreds of different surfaces. If you can meet the order volume required, you can pick any color you want! Synthetics will be reviewed in-depth in their own article.
There are many types of foam used to make shoes, here we are going to review the types of foam found inside the uppers of shoes. Generally foam is divided into two types, “Open Cell” and “Closed Cell” foam. Open cell is exactly what is sounds like, the plastic compound that makes up the foam cells is open, air and water are free to enter and exit the foam just like a dish washing sponge. Closed cell foam is exactly that, the individual cells are closed or sealed not allowing the foams internal gas to escape.
Open cell foam is generally softer these foam are made of Polyurethane plastic. This type of foam is commonly known as “KF or KFF” foam. This foam is available in different densities and in almost any thickness and color. This foam is used in the tongues and collars of shoes. Thin sheets of PU foam are used to back fabric in most shoes uppers. The PU foam allows the stitches to sink in and gives mesh some extra support while reducing wrinkles.
Reticulated foam is the most open style of foam. This type is often used for ventilation features.
Closed cell foam is generally denser. Midsoles of shoes are all made from closed cell foam. Midsole foam is covered the article Outsole Design. The most common Closed cell foams include EVA (ethyl vinyl acetate), PE (Polyethylene), SBR Styrene butadiene rubber) , PU (Polyurethane) Latex and Neoprene are the most common types. Each has their own properties. EVA foam is used for backing mesh materials, 2mm sheet EVA will make the fabric water proof. Neoprene and SBR are used when elastic properties required. Latex is common for collar linings. PE foam is very light but not so durable so it’s use is limited.
How to Select footwear Materials is discussed at length in the the book How Shoes are Made. The Book contains shoe material list and suppliers. Check out Chapters 17, 18,19,20 and 22.
How Shoes are Made.
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