The Art of Hand-Sewing Leather Shoes: What Makes it Superior?

woman sewing leather shoe by hand

Most leather manufacturing processes have become highly automated, or at the very least, machine-assisted.

This is especially true in today’s mass-market-driven world of leather footwear, where style usually reigns supreme over substance.

But this often doesn’t end well, especially for you, the buyer of these products. 

Here’s why: 

  • Mass-produced leather shoes lack the natural scars and blemishes that give leather its unique character. Instead, they have a shiny, glossy finish that’s susceptible to peeling, or a machine-embossed surface that imitates the feel and look of real leather.
  • Most mass-produced leather shoes are of poor quality because of the cheap synthetic materials they use, such as polyurethane. These materials yield poor-quality shoes that will often peel within months to a few years after purchase.
  • A majority of mass-produced leather shoes aren’t made of genuine leather. Their production involves shredding leather scraps and bonding them with polyurethane, then spreading the mixture on fiber and spraying it with a glossy finish. 

While these kinds of leather shoes are cheap, they feel like plastic and won’t stand friction or weather elements like rain and excess sunlight.

Taking a much slower, more nuanced and calculated approach, however, often yields superior leather shoes with much greater durability, elegance, and fit than their mass-produced counterparts.

As a leather product manufacturer, handcrafting my leather shoes (and other leather products) has been one of the greatest investments for my business.

You’ll get to know why this is so in today’s article, including why authentic leather shoe lovers place so much value on hand-sewn leather shoes.

1 - Hand-Sewing Provides Incredible Durability and Longevity

When it comes to quality leather shoes, durability and longevity are essential factors to consider. 

Handmade leather shoes have a distinct advantage in this area over their machine-sewn counterparts. 

The use of high-quality leather and the intricate hand-sewing process used in handcrafting leather work together to create a shoe that lasts a lifetime. 

Let’s discuss the two in detail below:

woman preparing needles for sewing
Popov Leather s​​ews by hand

1 - The Quality of Leather Used

Hand-sewn shoes often use full-grain leather—the highest quality of leather grade available.

Full-grain leather is that which has not been sanded or buffed. It comes from the layer of the animal skin that’s just beneath the hair and is made from the outermost layer of the hide. 

As a result, the fiber structures of full-grain leather are thicker and more interlinked, causing it to retain its natural strength and incredible durability.

Mass-produced leather shoes, on the other hand, often use the cheapest leather grades (like bonded leather and split grain leather) or faux leather such as leatherette, pleather, and vegan leather.

(Check out my Leather Terminology article to learn more about bonded leather and other related leather terms.)

These kinds of leather collectively have durability and longevity issues because some are derived from the innermost layer of the cowhide that normally doesn’t contain any of the hide's grain. 

Others contain as little as 20% of actual leather fibers, while faux leather doesn't even have an ounce of leather in it. 

As a result, these leather shoes often feel like plastic, smell artificial, and will crack, peel, or warp within a few months of purchase. 

Luckily, with Popov Leather Shoes, durability and longevity are guaranteed. All our shoes are made from full-grain USA leather which we source from Seidel Leather and Wickett & Craig.

“The Vibram outsole provides grip and will last for years. Hand-stitched to the same standards as Popov’s other products, these will stand the test of time and only get better with age. Another home run by the Popov crew!”

Daniel H., Bowmanville, Ontario

The results are incredibly durable leather shoes with an attractive finish that will only get better with time as the leather develops its rich patina.

2 - The Hand-Sewing Process Used

illustration showing the difference between machine and hand stitching
An illustration of how hand and ​​machine stitching differ

Machine-sewn shoes use a lockstitch, which essentially sews the upper and sole together in one pass. 

While this makes the process faster, it also creates a less durable seam. Over time, the stitches can fail, causing the shoe to come apart. 

Hand-sewn shoes, on the other hand, involve sewing the upper and sole together using what is known as a hand-sewn stitch

The process involves a needle and thread being passed through the leather upper, then through the sole, and back up through the upper. 

This creates a stronger, more durable seam that is less likely to fail over time. This sewing process also allows for a higher level of precision and control than machine-sewing.

illustration showing the difference when a stitch unravels
An illustration of how hand vs machine stitched thread unravels​​

The shoemaker is able to adjust the tension of each stitch by hand, ensuring that the seams are strong and even throughout the shoe.

The table below compares the differences between hand-sewn shoes and machine-sewn shoes:

Comparison Hand-Sewn Shoes Machine-Sewn Shoes
Types of Stitches Used Saddle Stitch, Running Stitch, Whip Stitch Lockstitch, Chain Stitch, Overlock Stitch
Durability of Seam More durable due to use of natural threads and reinforcing hand stitches Can be less durable due to use of synthetic threads and lack of reinforcing hand stitches
Customization High customization options due to flexibility of hand-sewn technique Limited customization options due to machine limitations
Production Time Slower due to reliance on hand technique Can be faster due to machine automation
Level of Precision Lower precision due to reliance on hand technique High precision due to machine automation

At Popov Leather, each pair of our slip-on leather shoes is meticulously hand-sewn and hand-lasted in our workshop using the stitch-down construction method, a slight variation of the Goodyear Welted construction technique, but with greater durability.

The upper leather is turned outwards and hand-stitched directly to the midsole, using the durable Tiger thread, which is considered the world’s strongest leather sewing thread, and a lock stitch process.

This guarantees exceptional durability because the remaining stitches will hold firm even if one stitch becomes damaged. As a result, your shoe's stitching threads will never unravel or come apart.

Did You Know? Hand-sewn leather shoes, unlike mass-produced shoes, can be resoled multiple times, further increasing their lifespan.

2 - Hand-Sewn Leather Shoes Are Super Comfortable and Well-Fitting

One major advantage of hand-sewn leather shoes is the level of customization and fit that can be achieved. 

Unlike machine-sewn shoes, the handmade process allows for greater attention to detail and a more personalized experience. 

When hand-sewing a shoe, you have the ability to create a design that's specifically tailored to your foot, which means that the fit of the shoe will be much more comfortable and supportive than a mass-produced shoe. 

Additionally, the hand-sewn stitches and seams of the shoe create natural contours that mold to the shape of the foot over time, further enhancing the level of comfort as the shoes are broken in.

The level of customization that comes with hand-sewn leather shoes also means that issues such as heel slippage or toe squeeze can be addressed during the fitting process. 

This is not always possible with machine-sewn shoes, which are often made in bulk and cannot be adjusted to accommodate individual foot shapes.

When designing the Popov Leather Classic Slip-On Leather Shoes, comfort and fit were among the top qualities on my list.

I felt the need to create a versatile shoe that could easily be worn indoors and outdoors, and for that, I knew I couldn’t compromise on comfort.

“These slip ons are very comfortable, and versatile going from house shoes at home, trips to the store, at work, in the office, and to events on the weekends. Every time I slip them on, it’s like meeting a familiar old friend.”

Chris V., Edmonton, Alberta

The Popov Leather shoes have outsoles made of Vibram Gumlite, a soft and lightweight rubber material that makes the shoes super comfortable to walk in, even for long distances. 

The shoes are built on a standard service boot last, a design that's highly elegant and accommodates different foot shapes. 

Additionally, as you continuously wear the shoes, they'll begin to mold to the shape of your foot, ensuring maximum comfort and fit. 

Our shoes are designed to comfortably fit average foot widths (D-widths) and include footbed inserts that are shaped to offer enough arch support for more comfort, but you can also easily replace them with an arch-support insert you already have.

3 - Hand-Sewn Leather Shoes Look Elegant and Stylish

Hand-sewing is an art form that adds value and beauty to leather shoes. Anyone who appreciates the artistry of hand-sewn leather shoes understands that investing in a pair is a lifelong investment in style and elegance.

The process of hand-sewing enables the creation of unique and intricate styles that are impossible to replicate through machine sewing. 

The artisanal nature of hand-sewing allows you to play around with patterns, colors, and finishes, resulting in shoes that are truly unique and personalized.

When it comes to elegance, styles, and aesthetics, Popov Leather’s handmade leather shoes score a perfect ten. 

Their beauty and uniqueness are unrivaled. The level of craftsmanship and attention to detail that you’ve come to expect from Popov Leather products is the same you’ll get with these shoes.

One particular aesthetic aspect that’s embodied in the Popov Leather shoes is the unique and attractive stitching. The visible stitches on the shoes’ exteriors give them an added layer of character and beauty. 

The shoes' liner leather also matches their outer leather, and their edges are burnished and polished to showcase our thoughtful attention to detail. 

The unstructured toe box, leather liner, and outer collectively lend an elegant shape to the shoes that will make you look classy and confident every step of the way.

Our leather shoes also come in four classic colors—Black, English Tan, Natural, and Heritage Brown—that will complete almost any sophisticated casual or formal outfit.

4 - Hand Sewn Leather Shoes Provide Value, but at a Price

man manufacturing the upper part of leather shoe
A man working on the upper part of a​​ leather shoe

Generally, hand-sewn leather shoes tend to be more expensive than machine-sewn shoes due to the level of skill and craftsmanship involved in the process. 

Making high-quality leather shoes by hand requires a high level of skill, precision, and attention to detail. It takes years of practice and experience to master the art of shoemaking, and even then, there is always room for improvement and refinement.

Each pair of hand-sewn shoes is unique, and the shoemaker often spends a significant amount of time ensuring that they are of the highest quality.

The process of making hand-sewn leather shoes is also incredibly labor-intensive and time-consuming

Every aspect of the shoe, from the pattern design to the selection of the leather to the stitching, requires a high level of skill and attention. 

The shoemaker must have an understanding of the anatomy of the foot and the different types of leather and materials available to select the best options for each individual shoe. 

They must also possess an acute sense of detail, as every stitch and every cut must be precise to ensure a perfect fit and a beautiful finished product. 

They'll need to work with a variety of tools, such as knives, scissors, and specialized stitching needles, to create a shoe that is both functional and aesthetically pleasing.

In addition to the skill and attention required, the quality of the materials used in hand-sewn leather shoes is also a significant factor in their cost. 

The best shoemakers use only the highest quality leather, sourced from reputable tanneries, to ensure that their shoes are not only durable but also age beautifully over time. 

Real leather goes through an intense, costly, and consuming process to give it the final look. Tanning, which is a process of treating the hide with chemicals to make it produce durable leather, is often an expensive and time-consuming process that may take months to complete.

During tanning, the hide goes through several stages that each require specialized equipment, energy sources, and labor, all of which add to the overall cost of leather production.

These stages include: 

  • Curing: Involves soaking the hides in water concentrated with salt to prevent fungal and bacterial growth.
  • Liming: The hide is soaked in milk of lime to remove fats and grease.
  • Fleshing: The hide is passed through rotating scrapping rolls to eliminate any meat residues and connective tissues.
  • Dehairing: Chemicals like calcium hydrosulfite and sodium hydroxide are added to the hide to remove hair.
  • De-liming: Acids such as acetic acid and carbonic acid are added to the lime to reduce its alkalinity and shrink its fibers.
  • Pickling: Finally, the hide is treated with enzymes like lipases, amidases, and amylases to soften it.

Once the leather is ready, the process of shoemaking can begin. This lengthy process is why you’ll pay more for a quality, handmade leather shoe design.

However, since the leather is typically of higher quality than the leather used in machine-sewn shoes, your shoes will look better, feel better, and last longer, just like our Popov Leather shoes.

We only use full-grain leather from incredible leather companies like Seidel Leather that value quality and are dedicated to making the best leather available.

So while the upfront cost of our hand-sewn leather shoes may be higher than those you'll find in a regular store, they are a smart investment in the long run. 

Let’s say, for instance, you buy our Black Slip On Leather Shoe for $400 and use it for the next 10 years. This means that the leather shoe will only cost you $40 a year, although it’s likely that you’ll use it for longer.

Why This Matters: Investing in hand-sewn leather shoes not only saves you money in the long run but also reduces environmental waste caused by constantly replacing mass-produced shoes.

Hand-Sewn Leather Shoes: A Smart Investment

Hand-sewn leather shoes are a true testament to the art of craftsmanship. From the level of attention to detail required to the quality of the materials used, these shoes are a superior choice for any sophisticated man looking for durability, comfort, and style.

At Popov Leather, all our leather shoes are fully hand-sewn and hand-lasted in our workshop using the stitch-down construction method, ensuring longevity, perfect fit, and style

The unique customization and personalized fit that come with these shoes are unmatched. They’re built on a standard service boot last, offering an elegant design that complements many foot shapes.

Here is a behind-the-scenes video on how we made our first handmade shoe:

They also come in four classic colors that blend well with almost every formal and casual outfit for the perfect sophisticated look.

So, if you are looking for a pair of quality leather shoes that will not only last a lifetime but also look stylish, comfortable, and unique, then our handcrafted leather shoes are the way to go.

Browse our leather shoe collection to find the perfect match for you, including our all-natural leather cleaning products to ensure your shoes maintain their pristine condition.

Written by Ryan Popoff

Ryan Popoff is the creative mind behind Popov Leather wallets, iPhone cases, belts, watch bands and journals since 2013. With a Bachelor Degree in Fine Arts, my leatherworking journey began at home. I wanted to create a simple leather wallet that could fit into my front pocket and — to my delight — it was a hit with family and friends. Hopefully you love our honest, quality leather goods too! Reach out with questions.

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