The Fascinating Past of Lasts

The Fascinating Past of Lasts

Lasts are used in traditional shoe making as a fitting aid. The last is a kind of mould that is made to match the size and shape of the foot the shoe is being made for. This mould is then used during the shoemaking process as a base for the upper part of the shoe to be worked around.

The word ‘last’ itself is an interesting one. It is said to come from the old English word ‘laest’ which meant footprint. This sums up the purpose of a last perfectly: traditionally these moulds were made for each customer in order to replicate the individual shape and size of their feet.

Before modern manufacturing methods took over, cordwainers (or shoemakers) created lasts by carving them by hand with a last makers knife.

Lasts were made out of wood, usually beach, maple or another hard wood. These types of wood are preferable to softer woods such as ash or oak, as these softer woods have a tendency to split or fray.

It was also important to choose a wood that was close grained and would work well with a polish or stain, as these protected the lasts over time. Lasts would be expected to be kept by the shoemaker for many years, meaning that the customer they belonged to could order a new pair of shoes whenever it was convenient for them, without having the wait or expense of a new pair of lasts having to be made.

Lasts were primarily created by hand until the industrial revolution when the Gilman last making machine was invented. This revolutionised the production of last making, as a single machine could produce around a thousand lasts every day. This was a huge change, as even the fastest last makers could only produce a handful per day by hand.

Are you interested in what modern lasts look like? Pay us a visit at our Swinegate store; we’d be very happy to discuss bespoke shoemaking processes with you!

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