Saturday, May 7, 2016

Making Souliers de Boeuf

It only just hit me the other day: my first French and Indian War reenactment of the year is happening in one month at the Fort at No. 4 (Charlestown, NH). The souliers de boeuf I made two years ago have developed sizable holes in the soles, so I need to make a new pair. My 1710s kit will have to be put on hold. Now, I don't claim to be an expert--this is the second pair I've made--but I thought I'd share my experience and how I made them based on what I learned from research.

So what are souliers de boeuf? They're oxhide or "beef" shoes, made from sturdy leather that are formed around a wooden last. During the French and Indian War, Lieutenant d'Aleyrac described them in Aventures militaires au XVIIIe si├Ęcle as "oxhide shoes are made in a completely different manner than the French leather shoes, they have a sole as thin as the top which envelops all the foot at the height of the quarters; then, on this piece of leather, one sews a smaller piece of leather covering the top of the foot; this style is most convenient to walk in the woods and in the mountains." These shoes do not have any system of closure--no buckle or ties--but stay on the foot due to the tightness of the fit and the length of the top which extends to the ankle and curls upwards.

One interesting piece of information that I picked up recently while researching souliers is that, unlike the typical reenactor soulier de boeuf which is dyed a reddish-orange--like my first pair--they do not have to be dyed. In Catherine Cangany's article Fashioning Moccasins: Detroit, the Manufacturing Frontier, and the Empire of Consumption, 1701–1835, she writes that in 1757, a "burial record of a drowned man in Quebec noted that in addition to European-style clothing, the deceased wore "undyed beef shoes."" Undyed oxhide has a pale-tan color, like this image of a Canadian's souliers (albeit this watercolor is from the first half of the nineteenth century). Plenty of other sketches and watercolor images of souliers from this period and into the nineteenth century show natural-colored, undyed leather. For Anglo-American reenactors (yes, you too can wear these), especially on the Pennsylvania frontier, Joseph Doddridge, in his book Notes on the Settlement and Indian Wars, writes about smearing his shoepacks (or souliers de boeuf in the Canadian context) with blackball, presumably for waterproofing.

Before beginning the construction, you should watch the Office National Du Film Du Canada video on making souliers. This helped me considerably in making my own. Captain Harvey was filmed in 1979, making a pair of bottes sauvages ("Native American boots") for the guy filming him. While bottes sauvages are probably not accurate for the French and Indian War (I saw one reference to these a long time ago and haven't been able to find it since. These are best known for their use in the nineteenth century), the first 20 minutes show how souliers de boeuf are made. It's only the remaining seven minutes that he adds the leg to the shoes. Don't worry if you can't speak/understand French, everything you need to know is shown.


The first thing you need is a shoe last. It shouldn't be a left or right. I made mine by gluing 2x4s to the height of my ankle, then shaving it down until it was the shape of my foot, with no curve to the left or right.
You'll also need an awl, two strong leather needles, a hammer, heavy linen thread, beeswax for the thread, a very sharp knife or razor blade, and a couple paperclips or some thin wire. For the leather, I use 12oz vegetable-tanned cowhide.

Making the pattern:

The finished pattern (I made mine from a piece of leather, though you could use wood or even just a brown paper bag), should look like an elongated "D". I started by tracing my wooden last (if I traced my foot, the pattern would end up slightly curved either left or right), and then added two inches all around. The addition is for the sides of the shoe, so you'll want to double-check that this is the right height for you. If you have an arch or thick feet, you might want to add more. The way to check is to put your foot right in the middle of the pattern and lift the sides up around your foot at a 90-degree angle. They should be only slightly taller than the height of your foot as you'll add the top--or vamp--later on to cover the top of your foot. Another thing to look out for is that the sides shouldn't be rubbing up against your ankle bone--they should be just under the bone. I then traced out the pattern onto the leather and cut out two pieces. The last thing I did was notched with my knife where the toe seam would start and end. This is done simply by bending the toe back to the "heel" and cutting a thin notch inside the bend.

Preparing the leather:

In order to sew them and gather the toe, they need to be pliable. I placed one of the leather "D"s in warm water until it was soaked. Next, I made small cuts halfway through the leather along the toe's edge from the first notch to the second. These cuts, spaced 1/4" - 1/2" apart will help me in the next step, allowing me to sew a line of heavy linen thread through the center of the leather along the edge. To do this though, I need to run a piece of heavy linen thread (that's slightly longer than the toe curve) through some beeswax to increase its durability.

Gathering the toe:

This step just involves sewing the beeswaxed thread from one cut to the other without poking through to the outside. Honestly, the best thing to do is watch Harvey do this part in the video linked to above. When you start, make one big knot that can't be pulled through your holes. This is an important step as you will be pull very hard on the thread later on. As you sew up around the toe, you'll need to pull hard to force it to gather. When you make it to the very tip of the toe, match it up with your wooden last. Insure that you've gathered it sufficiently--not too little and not too much. You may also want to pause here to re-soak the leather if it has started to dry out. 
Once you're sure of the gathering around the toe so far, continue sewing and pulling on the thread until you get to the notch on the other side of the shoe. Work the gathered toe with your hands, stretching the leather or pulling the thread until you're happy that it matches up with the last. The last thing you need to do is hammer the last into the gathered toe. Make sure it's snug and the sides are pulling around it nicely (see the picture above under the "Construction" section). When you're confident, make a big knot and tie it off.

Adding the vamp:

The vamp pattern is made simply by inverting your half-sewn shoe and tracing the top. Harvey's method of lining up the vamp with the shoe and then lightly tracing the contour of the shoe along the vamp with a knife is the best way. Cut it down to shape and then double-check that it will fit by laying it on top of the shoe (as in the picture at right). Your seam will start and end where you began and ended the gathering seam from earlier. For the length, I cut the vamp as long as my shoe and then, in the final step of this whole process, I'll cut it down to size.
Once you cut the vamp from the leather, soak it in water to make it pliable. While you do this, you should also re-soak your shoe to keep it pliable.
Here's the tricky part: you need to cut a line on the outside of your shoe--about 1/4" below the edge. It needs to cut no more than halfway into the leather. This cut will not only guide your stitches for the vamp, but it will also hide them. For a reference, see the picture below in the "Sewing the Vamp" section.

Sewing the Vamp:

I added the vamp by making a hole starting in the line that I cut along the side, through the center of the leather, into the side of the vamp and then out the top about 1/4" from the edge. I then run two threads through the hole, in opposite directions, with their respective ends knotted (for a clearer image of this, see the picture in the "Sewing the heel" section). This is the method for sewing the vamp as well as the back and the heel.

Here are two very important things that you need to remember when you do this step: the first is that the shoe last needs to stay inside the shoe the entire time. It helps you drive the awl through the leather to make the holes and it helps to keep the shape of the shoe. 

The second thing I found very helpful is that, after pulling both
threads through the first hole, make a second hole on the exact opposite side of the shoe (where you intend to end) and another right at the tip of the toe. After making the hole in the side and vamp, run a paperclip or wire through it and twist the ends together (again, do this where you intend to end the seam and right in the middle of the toe). The wire will hold the vamp in place and help to prevent you from twisting the vamp as you sew up the toe (you'll notice how the shoe is gathered and "puckering" around the toe which is always troublesome when you have to sew it to the vamp).

I then just sewed up the "vamp seam" from one  end to the other and knotted it off. You'll probably need to soak the shoe once or twice during this step to keep the leather pliable.

After sewing the vamp on, I always like to test it out by trying the shoe on. It's always reassuring when it fits perfectly and I have a little extra leather in the heel (extra is better than not enough!). After trying it on, I place the last back into the shoe and hammer it as far forward as possible. You may also want to hammer the vamp seam lightly to help shape it a bit.

Sewing the heel:

I purposefully left some extra leather at the heel in case I made a mistake earlier on the toe, so I need to take a little leather off. I hold the shoe between my legs while I stretch the leather on one side around the heel of the last. I'll make a slight cut in the leather where the center line of the heel is, then repeat with the second side. Then, I cut the excess leather off.

The next step is sewing it. Using the same stitching technique as in the vamp seam, I drive the awl in, pull the two threads through in opposite directions, and then repeat. I sew this seam until I'm about half an inch from the bottom where I knot off the ends of the thread.

The next step--cutting the bottom of the heel--is a little tricky. I take my sharp knife and, starting 1/4" from the last stitch, carefully cut 1 1/2" from the center of the seam to the right, and then another cut from the center to the left. I then match the curved bottom piece that I'll call the "heel flap" to the back of the heel. The heel flap should stick out so, like when I matched the vamp to the shoe, I trace the back of the heel along the heel flap with my knife. I then cut off the excess leather from the heel flap and double check that the heel flap does in fact match up with the heel back. The flap should be a bit wider and thus "pucker" a bit when you match it up with the heel back.

Finishing the heel:

After trimming the heel flap, I soak the back of the shoe for a few minutes to make it as pliable as possible. Once done, I turned the heel inside out (as in the picture at right). Using the same stitching technique as you used for the heel back and the vamp seam, make the holes with the awl from the heel flap into the heel back and run two threads through the hole--from one end of the seam to the other. Make sure, like in the other seams, that you're driving the awl through the leather so that the awl does not punch through the right side of the leather, otherwise the stitches will show. Once finished, knot the threads.

This last part is critical to your future comfort: shove the heel of your last into the right-side of your shoe's heel (with it still inside-out). Hammer the inside of the heel seams (mostly the heel-flap seam), especially where you put your knots. This just helps to flatten everything out so nothing pokes your heel when you put it on later. After hammering the first time, turn the heel right-side out, shove your last into the shoe, and hammer the outside of the heel seams for extra-insurance and to flatten the seams from the outside.

Finishing the shoe:

Before you remove the last, determine the shape of the shoe's tongue and cut it down to size. Hammer any seams that look too "bumpy." Lastly, remove the last and try it on!

Upcoming Topics:

  • Role of First-Person Interpretation
  • 1716 Kit: Part 2


  1. Excellent, one of our members posted your blog link on our forum Good to see another 18th century Living History blog. I will post your link on my blog

    Regards, Keith.

    1. Thanks Keith. I've been a long-time fan of your blog, too!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. When and if you make another pair , skive the edge of the toe area to make a smoother seam around the toe box. On the originals I own, the heel is sew from the outside and this make the construction much easier. This is a extremely common shoe for both the French Canadians, Natives and the English Americans. I am currently working on 3 pairs for a Historical site.

    2. Thanks for the advice, Mike! That's really good to know. This was my second pair, so I'm happy to receive any advice from those with experience and who have seen some originals.

    3. Look up Soulier Tannes on FB. I have posted lots of photos that might help?