Small Scale Marikina Shoemaking

Marikina has developed its own identity as the shoemaking capital of the Philippines. Over the years, trends and traditions have evolved to suit the industry demands and thus created its own brand of shoemaking. As I was learning shoemaking from a journeyman shoemaker (who eventually became Black Wing’s first foreman) during the first year of the workshop, I noticed that the local method had to make do with whatever locally available materials that we had in order to make proper shoes. This resulted in a mix-match of various materials and methods in order to recreate the purpose of the construction methods without the proper machineries and materials.

Due to a slow demand for quality Marikina handcrafted shoes in the late 90s and 2000s, the quality of materials available for the local shoemaker has deminished. We were then left with entry level raw materials which were readily available for the mass produced “probinsya” markets. Because the industry never fully mechanized, all shoes, even the cheap leather ones which can be bought for Php800 are all handcrafted. This created a talent pool of shoemakers who can be further developed into a world class workforce should they be guided properly and developed in order to serve a more discerning market. So I would like to tell you the processes that a shoe goes through in a typical Marikina workshop before it goes to market.


STEP 1: Hulmahan – Shoe Lasts

Shoe lasts are the foundation of every shoe. It determines the final shape of the shoe, its dimensions and the proportions of the design which will be patterned on it. Development of the shoe last usually starts with what we call a master last. This is the initial prototype where the initial specs are determined and tested. From the toe box, arch, instep, width/girth, heel profile, all these and many other features of the shoe are designed and implemented in this step. It is an art in itself where a proper last maker translates the basic foot proportions and creates the basic shoe profile. Traditionally, there were master last makers who develop and sculpt shoe lasts for local brands to use but recently, it has been difficult to find last makers who are masters of their craft. The rise of low cost, mass production shoemaking has made it a not so lucrative profession and skill since most local shoemakers now just make do with what is commercially available.

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Most shoe lasts now come from commercially sold ones from the local shoe supply shops which are usually based on imported master lasts then are locally reproduced. Other shapes and profiles come from replicated profiles from commercially available shoes which the workshops want to replicate. Shoe last piracy is still an issue since most last factories keep a copy of the good lasts that they have reproduced and sells it to their other clients. It’s something which is endemic to the industry which can discourage small designer brands from developing their own lasts since R&D costs resources just to be copied by other workshops.

STEP 2: Pagapapadron (Padron) – Design and Pattern Making

If the shoe last is the foundation of the shoe, the design and pattern implementation are the essentially the soul of the shoe. The design determines the purpose, from formal to casual, from aesthetically pleasing to functional purpose. Then the pattern is the implementation of this purpose, which can make or break the shoe. While the master pattern would almost always fit well, the subsequent sorting usually have issues which require handlasting in order to address the imperfections. What do I mean about this?

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Our local padronista, or pattern makers, have a variety of methods to scale the pattern to different sizes. The local term for this is “sortidos” which basically means to create a set of patterns with covering all sizes. They have a variety of methods available to them in scaling the patterns but most local patternmakers do not test the pattern but instead rely on their instinct when it comes to doing quality control on a pattern. While this works for less complicated designs, such as boatshoes and basic loafers, when it comes to oxfords and monkstraps the error margin increases as the pattern gets further away from the master pattern. There have been conflicting schools of thought from the professionally trained pattern makers whether they should go for the formula method or the radial method. Either way, the key step to pattern making for production is actually pattern testing.

The biggest threat right now to the MSME shoemaking is the lack of experienced pattern makers. Most of the old pattern makers are retired and the new ones are not that experienced yet, not to mention lackingnthe proper mentorship from senior patternmakers which make for part of the problem. Another is the lack of proper professionalization of the industry. Small workshops simply do not have the budget to maintain an in-house pattern maker. Most of the pattern makers are freelance and would like to keep it like so for the reason of not being bound to a single workshop.

Once the patterns are finalized on paper/cartolina, they are stuck to more sturdier materials such as thick plastic or thin metal sheets. These would make it easier for the cutter/clicker to mark the leathers for the individual panels.

STEP 3: Cutting – Clicking

Clicking is the traditional term used to refer to the cutting of the leather for upper assembly. The term is derived from the the clicking sound the leather cutting tool makes when lifting the clicker die/blade from the leather. The use of a clicker die makes things more accurate and uniform and is good for production lines. Micro and small scale workshops however, employ the use of cutters but instead of using a clicker blade, we often use regular sharpened cutter blades and scissors to cut our leathers.

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It usually starts with the cutter curating the hide, checking for defects and marks them with a silver pen or white pencil in order to avoid them when tracing the pattern over the hide. These are usually insect bites, scratches, burn marks, and paint that have accumulated on scars when the hides are tanned. Once the defects are marked, the cutter then determines the pull of the leather, or “task ng balat”, in order to ensure the firmness especially in areas that bend. After that, the cutter traces the pattern onto the leather, carefully calculating the maximum yield. Experienced cutters make for less wastage. In mass production facilities, they have computer aided pattern markers in order to maximize the yield of each leather hide.

STEP 4: Areglo – Upper Assemble

The next step is to prep the uppers. The local term is “pagaareglo” which is a series of steps in order prepare the cut leather for permanent stitching. This usually includes skiving, which is the thinking of the leather along the edges so that the overlapping area between panels won’t be so thick. Skiving can be done manually using a blade or mechanically using a skiving machine. More advanced workshops employ the use of a splitting machine in order to equalise the thickness of the leather or to get the desired thickness per panel before skiving.

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The next process is to add details like brogues. Hand stitched elements can be added during this stage as well. Once the details have been added, the pattern is assembled by joining it along the edges. Rubber contact cement is usually employed to create a temporary hold over the pattern edges so that it would be easier for the sewer to close the uppers. After this, the lining is also cut and assembled to be given to the sewer for closing.

STEP 5: Tahi – Closing

Closing is technically the last stage that the upper goes through before the upper gets sent to the shoemaker for the next process. This is a pretty straightforward process which requires a lot of skill on the part of the sewer since the stitches highlight the design, reinforce what I call the “line” which guides your vision to follow a specific path along the shoe, and also give strength and support along the seams of the shoe. Enclosing the brogues with stitches are also part of this process which if vital in producing a good looking pair of shoes if the design allows for it.

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STEP 6: Lapat – Lasting

Lasting, or paglalapat, refers to the act of pulling over the built leather uppers onto the last then is fastened/secured onto the insole, or letehan in local terms, via shoe tacks. The toecap and heel also receive stiffeners (could be board or leather or even plastic cement/engrudo) in order to form a hard counter on those areas to provide both form and structural integrity to the shoes. The leather is allowed to sit on the last for some time, usually a day or two, while also being heated for the leather to form and hold its shape. There are a few days that we go about this, during sunny days, we just leave the shoes to bake under the sun. For more mass production methods, a coal oven cabinet is often employed where shoes bake inside for around 4 to 6 hours before being taken out for individual hammering or “baldog” or ironing out the leather for better form fitting crease removal. With us in Black Wing, we usually let the shoes sit under the sun since the coal cabinet can severely dry the leather, we also make use of custom mounted heat guns instead of using open flame via a Bunsen burner for safety purposes.

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Sometimes, we have to wet the leather if it is too tough. Once wet, the fibers loosen up a bit allowing for the shoemaker to pull on the leather better and once the leather dries up, the form will hold better. In some production lines, steam would sometimes be utilized in tandem with lasting machines to cut lasting time exponentially.

STEP 7: Enya – Welting

The welt is a strip of leather that goes around the bottom of the lasted uppers. Its main purpose is to act as a brace for the welt stitch which is determined by the method of shoe construction which will be utilized. It is an integral component for Goodyear welted and Blake rapid shoes. The shoe brand Allen Edmonds even developed a method wherein they were able to use the welt as the brace to maintain the form of the shoe instead of using a metal shank as a spine. On the traditional Goodyear method, the welt is hand sewn to the insole. Once done, form or other midsole materials are put in before the outsole is attached.

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For majority of Marikina manufacturers, a Blake stitch is the preferred method due to its economy and speed. The welt used are usually decorative although with us in Black Wing, we use the “welt line” of the marks created when the welt is removed during resolving as a guide for relasting the shoes. It follows the same process as the Goodyear welt minus the stitching of the insole onto the welt.

STEP 8: Midsole

This step is often disregarded for low cost shoe production. That is why on cheaper shoes, sometimes you’d feel that there is air in between your insole and the outsole. That is usually the space that was filled in by the midsole but instead was left empty by the shoemaker and adhesive was put in order to bond the insole and the outsole. Or sometimes they use thick cardboard as their midsole which eventually disintegrates over time.

The proper midsole material is actually cork. Cork has a property of being flexible and can hold a shape over time, which is perfect for support purposes. Do you ever wonder why Birkenstocks feel great after a while of using them? It is because its primary material is cork and once it molds into your foot, the support that it gives becomes something that hard to replicate with non-cork based footwear.

The metal shank is also installed in this stage in order to act as the spine of the shoe. This counters the wearer’s weight when pressed down as the wearer walks on the shoes. Without a proper spine, the mouth of the shoe will open up every time weight is put on the shoe. The higher the heel, the bigger the gape.

STEP 9: Swelas – Outsole

Attaching the outsoles is the final step to close the shoes. Outsoles are usually rubber or leather in nature. Some are unit soles or component soles which are already built and is usually made out of plastic and rubber compounds. Craft rubber outsoles are usually cut from sheet rubber, or tire interiors in our case, in order to accommodate custom widths and lengths. The same can be said for crafted leather outsoles which is what is usually used for custom shoes. Unit outsoles are good for mass production but cannot be easily used for custom fit shoes. This is because the outsole determines the instep shape which is the base of the shoe last. Ever wonder why some RTW shoes (from Geox, Hush Puppies, Aldo) are tighter than others even if they are from the same brand? It is because the outsole determines the fit of the shoe since it determines the shape of the base of the shoe. Custom crafted outsoles are better since the width can be tailored to your feet, making for a more comfortable fit.

Once the outsoles are glued, we will carve a channel running around the outsole to provide a guide for the Blake stitch. Once the outsoles are stitched, we attach the heel in order to seal the ends of the Blake stitch. Nails and screws are then installed to mitigate the heel wobble that might occur with use. Locally, commercial heels made of either rubber or stacked marine plyboard are used. We normally use the marine plyboard since it simulated stacked leather well. To enhance the look, we sometimes wrap the heel with “stacked heel” whihc is basically a thin cutout sheet of a stacked leather heel to give it a more “natural” look, especially for unpainted outsoles. We then present an option whether to attach a sole protector, which is a thin rubber sheet, in order to help protect the base outsole from wear as well as provide better grip. The sides are then sanded down to create a smoother finish.

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STEP 10: Finishing

This is the final stage before the shoes are boxed. Normally, final quality control is implemented here in order to verify the shoes for the client. This is also the stage where the shoes are cleaned of stray adhesives, frayed leather edges, minor marks and scratches. Any shoe makeup will be applied in this stage before being waxed and polished for presentation to the client.

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I hope this has been informative to you guys. This is how we typically do shoes here in Marikina. Some methods may vary a little from others but the general steps are as was discussed. Most Marikina workshops produce handcrafted shoes and are rarely machine assisted hence is very labor intensive which is why we are slow to produce and cannot sell abroad in commercial quantities. As the greatest weakness of Marikina is production, it can also become our greatest asset if utilized properly instead of being wasted on cheap shoes. I have set our limitations as according to Marikina’s limitations in order to show how far we can take local materials, methods and talents with just a few major tweaks to how we do things. Black Wing is the result of that.

Now we are working towards the more. We will make Marikina great again, but not with the way the oppressive system of undermining our artisans via the pakyaw system and scrambling to produce cheap shoes. We are what we eat. In our case here in Marikina, we are what we make… so if the mindset of the industry players here is to make cheap, low cost, low talent bargain footwear then it just goes to show how we have lost the dream, the pride, the honor, the essence, the truth of being the shoe capital of the Philippines.

Recently, there has been a boom in local shoemaking. This is largely part to the awareness to the plight of the Marikina shoe industry, the high cost of doing business with Chinese suppliers, the development of a sense of patriotism among the millennial population to #supportlocalph and the shift of the general market behavior from looking for cheap bargains to looking for best value proposition in products and services.

While the boom is very much welcome here in Marikina, I am concerned that the industry players, while benefiting from this, hardly changed their business model and just rode on the wave of interest without thought to the sustainability of their business models. The main concern is that the labor practices have not changed. The industry players had a chance to change our labor practices to fit modern acceptable standards to make it sustainable and appealing to the new generation as a profession. Most Marikina made shoes are not made ethically to be honest. And the market perpetuates this practice by continuing to drive local brands to sell at cheaper prices. If this continues, as most old industry players know but wont acknowledge publicly, is that after this generation, we wont have any more local shoemakers. If we do not create a proper and sustainable business model for the local shoemaker, the local knowledge and and craft dies with the aging ones now. This is the reality of Marikina shoemaking. More than the marketing, more than #supportlocalph, more than Black Wing. We are trying to save our local culture, not by patronizing cheap shoes made by novices, but by aiming to elevate our craft to be properly recognized as being able to compete on even grounds with artisans from Italy and the UK. It is a work in progress, still an uphill battle but I know we can do it. We just need a little more time, and a market who is aware of our cause.

 

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