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Guide to Viking turnshoes .pdf

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Guide to making replica Viking turnshoes.
Whilst many re-enactors are happy to try sewing
clothing, making shoes tends to be viewed as a difficult task only suited to experts. This isn’t a detailed
guide on how to become an expert shoe maker; It’s
a set of notes about my own self taught methods
which evolved to help me to make good looking and
serviceable replica shoes using a minimal set of tools
and basic skills which should be within the ability of
any re-enactor used to sewing their own costume.
In order to make your own pair of replica Viking period
turnshoes it is of course necessary to understand what
we mean by the term turnshoe, and I suppose to a lesser
extent the term Viking period. Put simply a turnshoe
is any shoe that is sewn together inside out and then
“turned” right way round to force the seams inside
where they are less likely to be worn or abraided in use.
This traditional way of making shoes is radically different and somewhat simpler than the methods used in
modern shoe construction, and it is this simplicity that
I would suggest makes making a pair of turnshoes an
attainable goal for somebody with basic sewing skills
but no previous shoe making experience.

Page 1.

With regard to the term Viking period, it can mean many
things to many people. Here in England it is commonly
taken to mean from the first attack on Lindisfarne
through to the Norman conquest - roughly speaking
the ninth, tenth and first half of the eleventh centuries.
Elsewhere in Europe it can cover far longer from the
early Migration or Vendel periods through to what we
in England would consider the Middle Ages or High
Medieval. It is important to choose a particular style
suitable for the date you are portraying. So whether
buying shoes or making your own you should not
select a design just because you happen to like the look
and style, or because someone has written the word
“Viking” on the label. The chart below, although some
what simplified, provides approximate periods over
which the archaeological data suggests some styles of
shoe were commonly in use. It does not cover every
find, and makes no allowances for regional differences
or odd exceptions to general trends, so please treat it
as nothing more than a loose overview. In other words
also do your own research into what is or isn’t appropriate for use within your own re-enactment society.

Miniature artist, sculptor and traditional craftsman

Guide to making replica Viking turnshoes.
In my opinion the hardest part of making a turnshoe
is not the actual construction but adapting a pattern to
fit your own foot. Much of the cutting and fitting of
period shoes was done around wooden lasts, however if
we are to simplify construction to avoid such complex
methods our pattern making must be that much more
accurate. Period turnshoes would not have been as
close fitting or provide the same level of comfort as
modern shoes, and having no cushioned sole or heel
is going to take some getting used to on modern paved
surfaces. Nevertheless, if they were crippling to wear,
or so loose and sloppy they became a trip hazard our
Viking ancestors would not have worn them and so you
will need to decide for yourself what degree of fit and
comfort you are expecting or are willing to tolerate.
Undoubtedly the best way to make a pattern for cutting
a new pair of turnshoes is to start with an existing but
worn out pair of comfortable old turnshoes you can
unpick and open out flat. If you have this option I recommend making your first pair of shoes this way as a
means of learning a few techniques, or at least use it
for basic dimensions to ensure a good fit. However this
does pre-suppose you already have a well fitting pair of
old turnshoes and merely want to replace them. If you
don’t have a pair of existing shoes to work from you are
going to have to draw your own pattern from scratch.
This involves applying the measurements of your own
feet to a generic pattern.

Page 2.

You will need to stand barefoot (or wear period socks/
hose if these are part of your normal kit) upon some
newspaper or old wallpaper and get somebody to draw
around your own feet. When you have done this you
will need to draw a straight line from the middle of the
heel through the gap between your big toe and the adjacent toe so as to form the centre line of the sole. This
line dictates the position of the point of the toe of the
sole, and if desired the point of the triangular heel riser.
Smooth out the shape of your foot to create the shape
of the sole taking care to add a little length at the toe
which is often the tightest part of the shoe. If you like
to add modern cushioned insoles to your turn shoes add
another 2-3mm outside of the shape you have drawn. If
a heel riser is required, take care to make this at least as
wide as the heel otherwise the back seems will dig into
your feet as you walk.

Next take a long length of ribbon or string and tie a knot
at roughly it’s mid point. This will be used to measure
the dimensions of your foot at various places, these
dimensions are needed for marking out the shape of
the upper. Mark two lines at right angles to the centre
line of the sole. One line should be at the widest point
of the foot, usually the ball of the foot. The other line
should be at the highest point on the arch of the foot.
Lay your string across one of these lines with the knot
at the centre point where the lines cross. Hold this
string in place with masking tape or other low tack tape
at the edges of the sole leaving the free ends of the
string extending past the width of the sole. Stand back
on the paper pattern and string and then lift the free
ends of the string up to meet on top at the mid point of
your foot. Mark on the string where they meet, then lay
the string back flat along the line on the paper sole and
transfer these distances to the paper pattern to denote
the circumference of the foot at each point. It is important the knot remains stuck to the central line to ensure
we get the correct distance to either side of the foot. If
we don’t, although the upper will be big enough, it may
twist the shoe out of shape. All of this is complex to
describe but very straight forward to do, so I hope you
have followed my attempt to describe the process.

Miniature artist, sculptor and traditional craftsman

Guide to making replica Viking turnshoes.

Page 3.

Now comes the complicated bit as we must reduce
the length of these cross lines by the width of the sole.
Measure the width of the sole from it’s centre line to
it’s edge, then measure back in the same distance from
the end of the cross line and mark this point. Having
done this for each end of both cross lines we will have
defined the critical dimensions of the upper

This takes a bit, and perhaps if this is your first attempt,
a lot of trial and error to get a smooth curve of the
correct length, especially if you are trying to match the
shape of a cut out at the heel to take the heel riser. I will
strongly recommend that although you should mark
the point you expect the closing seam in the upper to
be, you actually cut the upper a little longer, both to
allow for a seam allowance and also to allow minor
adjustments later on. Similarly the shape and height of
the top edge of the upper does not need to be marked
exactly at this stage. Once done this should give you a
pattern for both parts of your shoe.

When drawing the shape of the upper it is important that
the length of it’s outer edge is exactly the same length
as the outer edge of the sole, otherwise they won’t fit
together. To do this take your piece of string, tape the
knot to the point of the toe of the sole then carefully lay
it around the outline of the sole you have drawn. Mark
the string where it reaches the point you would like the
seam in the upper to be (usually on the inside of the
foot at about the arch). Mark the other end that passes
all around the sole where it too meets this desired seem
line. If the sole has a triangular heel riser, then mark on
the string the points where the heel riser starts and ends
and also the position of it’s pointed tip.
Without un-fastening the string from the toe end of the
sole, gradually open out the string to try produce the
shape of the outer edge of the upper using one of the
patterns at the end of this guide for help. The modified
ends of the two cross lines marked on the sole will give
you the width of the upper at these key points. Use the
marks on the string to adjust the length/shape of the
outer edge of the upper to correctly position things like
the cut out for the heel riser or the join in the uppers.
Once happy with the shape of the string sketch in this
line to mark it on to the paper pattern.

Miniature artist, sculptor and traditional craftsman

Guide to making replica Viking turnshoes.
Made traditionally the pattern does not need to be very
accurate as the leather can be trimmed to shape to fit
the wooden last. In simplifying the construction to
avoid using wooden lasts, accurate pattern making is
vital and so the outer edge of the upper must be exactly
the same length as the outer edge of the sole. Before
cutting your leather think about where you do and do
not need to leave a seam allowance. If you are sewing
a thick sole with an edge/flesh stitch (see later) you
won’t need a seam allowance on the sole. However it is
most probable that you will need to allow approx. half
a centimetre outside of the outline of the upper to allow
the shoe to be sewn together and turned. As mentioned,
the height of the shoe up the side of the foot is not
something that needs to be cut exactly at this stage.
Most Viking shoes were cut to about the height of the
ankle but as the exact height and shape can be trimmed
after the shoe is sewn and turned it is merely advisable
to leave enough height to provide plenty of leather.
Each style of shoe has it’s own idiosyncrasies when
cutting a pattern. I have for this introduction focused
upon perhaps the most typical; A simple slip on slipper
constructed from a separate sole and upper made with a
side seam and characteristic heel riser. These shoes are
wide spread geographically and cover the main period
of Viking occupation in England. Subtle variations may
include the shape of the throat and they may or may not
be fastened with a draw string about the ankle. If you
can make a pair of these shoes then you should have
learnt enough to cope with other different styles
Accept that you will not get a perfect fit with the first
pair of shoes you make. Note also that with wear your
shoes will stretch, so what may start out a little tight
may soon end up a little too loose. As you wear your
first pair of shoes, jot down where you need to add or
remove a fraction of a centimetre of leather. Go back
and amend your paper pattern prior to making a second
pair of shoes. Date and keep all your old paper patterns, along with all the notes about how each fitted.
They will form a useful reference each time you need
or wish to make new pair of shoes enabling each pair
to be modified to get a better and better fit.

Page 4.

Having drawn our pattern we need to think about the
leather we are going to use to make the shoe. Most
types of leather available in the modern world will be
unsuitable. Mainly because most modern leathers are
extensively dressed to produce a very smooth, polished,
shiny surface which may also be dyed an even colour.
Having dealt with many genuine Viking turnshoes
when working as an archaeological conservator I can
state with a fair degree of confidence that we need to
be using leather with a slightly more irregular surface
texture, grain pattern and growth marks. I have two different friends both of whom make a full time living out
of making reproduction shoes for re-enactors, both of
whom claim that they can’t sell shoes made from these
“character” leathers as their customers dismiss them as
looking “cheap”. Consequently don’t assume that the
shoes you are trying to make should be like those for
sale at re-enactment fairs. These people make what their
customers will buy and struggle with the educational
aspects of persuading people to buy what’s authentic.

We also need to think about the method of tanning used
to create the leather. Modern nickle/chrome tanned
leathers won’t soften when soaked, making it difficult to
turn thick shoes. Traditional veg-tanned cattle skin will
soften in water making it easier to work with. Cordwain
(sheep/goat skin) showed a brief spell of popularity in
England around the twelfth/thirteenth century and was
more popular in Scandinavia, but nevertheless most
turnshoes were made from cattle hide. As far as we can
tell, and allowing for a fair bit of variation, uppers were
typically thin, less than 2mm thick whilst the soles were
a little thicker at around 3-4mm. Given the surfaces we
tend to walk on in the modern world, most re-enactors prefer more substantial shoes with thicker uppers
and a sole about 4-6mm thick. Turning a shoe made
from thick leather is difficult, making good veg-tanned
leather essential. Veg-tanned leather will normally be
available in un-dyed and un-waxed condition which is
how we want it. The final colour and appearance of the
leather will darken and change a lot once we “stuff”
and waterproof the finished shoe so don’t feel you need
to buy dark brown leather to make dark brown shoes.

Miniature artist, sculptor and traditional craftsman

Guide to making replica Viking turnshoes.
Different people have different methods of transferring
their paper pattern to the leather. I like to lay my paper
pattern onto the hide and trace around it with a leather
workers over-stitch wheel. This leaves a row of tiny,
evenly spaced pin pricks in the surface of the leather.
Using a cutting mat or old wooden board and a heavy
duty craft knife with a new blade fitted I can then cut
the sole out exactly along this row of dots. With the
upper this row of dots will form each stitch hole and as
such I will cut about half a centimetre outside of this
dotted line so as to create my seam allowance. Marking
the exact line to be stitched and allowing extra leather
outside of this for the seam, is more accurate than adding
a seam allowance to the paper pattern and guessing just
how far inside this to pierce the stitch holes. Having cut
out the upper, I will use the awl to open up each stitch
hole around it’s edge.

It may be stating the obvious to some people but when
dealing with novice shoe makers attempting their first
pair of shoes, many people get themselves into a lot
of difficulty through muddling up left and right. Like
modern shoes Viking shoes were made differently for
each foot, so a right shoe is clearly different to a left
shoe. If your feet are pretty much the same size then
it may be acceptable to make a pattern for one foot,
cut this out, then simply turn this the other way up to
trace and cut a mirror image for the other foot. If you
know your feet are different you may want to make two
different patterns. Whatever you do clearly label both
the paper patterns and the cut leather to distinguish left
from right. When taking into consideration the extra
complication of sewing the shoes inside out it can be
very easy to get muddled and end up sewing a left
upper to right sole or end up with one part of the shoe
the wrong way around once turned.
With respect to sewing leather it has two sides referred
to as flesh and grain. The grain side is the less rough
outer side which shows the creasing, growth marks and
pattern from hair removal, the flesh side is the inside of
the animal with the rougher suede finish. The finished
shoe should have the grain side of the sole and upper
outermost. This generally means sewing them with
suede or flesh sides outermost before turning.

Page 5.

Though there are lots of variations on exactly how the
upper can be attached to the sole the following diagram
covers the three most common methods found in period
shoes. Perhaps the most common is the edge/flesh
stitch, here the awl makes an angled hole in the edge of
a thick sole and comes out the flesh side of the leather.
A more complex and difficult to sew variation on this
is the tunnel stitch where a curved awl is used to pierce
a very thick sole, the entry hole in the flesh side comes
back out the same flesh surface it went in, trapping the
thread in the body of the leather. Perhaps the simplest
means of sewing a shoe is the flesh/grain stitch. This
only works with thin soles but treats the leather as you
would woven fabric; that is you put the two outer sides
together and sew straight through them, turning the
seam inside when complete.

With later Viking/Medieval period turnshoes it is
common to see more advanced techniques involving
additional strips of leather inserted into the seams.
Much of this can be very interesting to those with a
desire to undertake an in depth study of period shoe
making. However, for the benefit of those who simply
want a first pair of shoes I do not intend covering rands,
turn welted construction the use of wooden lasts the
rendering of tallow, the making of code to proof the
leather and thread or any other of the more accurate
yet complex period techniques the novice shoe maker
is unlikely to consider. A full in depth study of period
shoe making would entail much more that I myself
have yet to attempt .

Miniature artist, sculptor and traditional craftsman

Guide to making replica Viking turnshoes.

Page 6.

In terms of thread for sewing your shoes we have a few
choices. Some of the earliest shoes were sewn with
woollen thread which quickly rots and the shoes fall
apart. Most shoes were sewn with waxed linen thread
which will still rot and fall apart. Some were laced with
thin leather or sinew thong. Study of surviving shoes
from the period shows that repairs were a regular necessity. If you value authenticity and want the full experience of caring for your shoes then use wool or linen
thread and take care to wax it well. If/when the novelty
of mending shoes starts to wear off you may want to
consider modern alternatives. Nylon thread will not rot,
but as it is much stronger you do need to take care not
to rip the leather when tightening each stitch as you
sew the upper to the sole. Most commercial producers of replica turnshoes use synthetic sinew which is
based upon waxed nylon. I certainly found that when I
switched to using this that much more of my time was When we come to sew our shoes together the first few
freed up for tasks other than mending my shoes.
stitches are always going to be problematic as we need
about five hands to hold everything in place. This is
where nailing and shaping the shoe around a proper
wooden last may make the job easier. However, lasts
really aren’t a necessity so don’t worry about getting
the tension right immediately, just get the thread
through all the holes for the for the first three or four
stitches, then tighten these up to pull the shoe together.
By the time the first dozen stitches are done the sole
and upper should hold together sufficiently to make all
the remaining stitches easier.
With respect to using the awl to pierce the holes for
sewing, I stated earlier that I start by using an overstich wheel to mark the positions all of the holes around
Though examples of a wide range of types of stitch can the outer circumference of the upper as part of cutting
be found in period shoes one type dominates in terms of the pattern out of the leather. Having cut out the upper I
attaching upper to the sole and that is saddle stitch. This then use the awl to open up each stitch hole. However I
basically entails putting a needle on each end of your do not pre-mark or pierce the corresponding stitch holes
thread and using each end to sew two simultaneous yet in the sole at the time I cut it out. Whatever your best
opposed running stitches through the same set of holes, intentions if you try to pierce all the stitch holes in both
one sewn from each side of the leather. This provides the upper and sole at the start, once you come to try sew
a firm fastening to hold the shoe together when turned, the shoe together you will find that as the leather moves
and if one stitch rots the other will still hold, at least for and stretches around the curves of the shoe, the two sets
a little while longer.
of stitch holes won’t line up.
However, whilst I talk about “sewing” this isn’t actually an accurate description. Unless you happen to have
immense strength and dexterity in your fingers, sewing
thick leather is impossible. What we actually must
do is use a sharp awl to pierce holes in the leather for
each stitch, the needles then act as nothing more than
a guide to help lace the threads through these holes.
Traditionally boars bristles were attached to the ends of
the thread which were flexible and allowed the thread
to be laced through the holes. I favour curved needles,
as even with a pre-made hole you may still need a good
grip on an otherwise smooth needle to pull the thread
through the leather.

Consequently I will only pierce the next stitch hole in
the sole once the previous stitch has actually been sewn
and tightened. I do this by passing the awl through the
pre-made hole in the upper to ensure perfect alignment.
Similarly it is wise to start sewing the upper to the sole
at the point where there is the tightest radius or point as
this is where it is most difficult to adjust the shape and
fit if you find your measurements aren’t quite accurate.
This usually means starting at the point of the triangular
heel riser and working forwards towards the toe of the
shoe. If the shoe has no heel riser than it is best to start
at the slightly pointed toe and work back to the more
rounded heel.

Miniature artist, sculptor and traditional craftsman

Guide to making replica Viking turnshoes.

Page 7.

Turning a shoe inside out, or more precisely turning
an inside out shoe the right way round can be difficult.
If you’ve only used thin leather this may not be quite
so problematic but with a decent thickness of sole you
will definitely need to soften the shoe first. If placed in
luke warm water, veg-tanned leather will bubble gently
as it soaks up the water and softens. It may take a few
minutes for it to stop bubbling but it can take more than
an hour for the wet shoe to fully soften. This should
make turning the shoe a little easier, though allow for
the use of much foul language the first time you attempt
this as without practice you will quite literally swear it
is “#*@$#%*!” impossible.

There is no standardised method of finishing off stitches,
either at the end of a seam, or simply the end of a length
of thread. My favoured method is to simply pass one of
the two ends of the thread back through the previous
stitch hole, knot the two loose ends together with two
or three secure knots and trim off any surplus thread. If
you need to continue sewing then it can be advisable
to start the next piece of thread two or three stitches
back from where you knotted off the last piece. By
overlapping the sewing this way you further reinforce
the potentially weakest part of the seams
When you have sewn most of the way around the sole
to attach the upper you can trim the excess leather off
the ends of the upper and sew closed the side seam.
The stitching for this should start at the top edge of the
upper and work down towards the sole. Working this
way you do not get an unsightly or uncomfortable knot
at the top of the upper seam. Furthermore it makes it
easier to attached the closed upper to the sole

Forcing the sodden shoe the right way around may
stretch the leather, so it is important to mould/shape the
wet shoe to shape as it dries. Traditionally this would
be done by forcing the wooden last back into the turned
shoe. If you can tolerate it, the best way is to wear the
wet shoes and squelch about the house or garden for the
afternoon allowing the shoe to mould to the shape of
your foot as it dries. If not, put a plastic bag inside each
shoe and pack them with scrunched up newspaper. As
they dry they will become more and more rigid which is
something we will deal with by “stuffing” the leather.
All manner of things can be used to stuff the leather to
both waterproof it and soften it to return it’s flexibility.
These range from simple cooking oil, to tallow, lard
or beeswax. Just keep applying these until the leather
will soak up no more and you are happy call the shoes
finished. Don’t be surprised if over a couple of days
you can get a new pair of shoes to drink all of a small
bottle of vegetable oil as the leather will hold a lot of
stuffing. It is this oiling and waxing of the leather that
will also turn the pale leather the rich red/brown hue
we associate with traditional leather. A general part of
day to day care of your shoes will be the occasional
re-application of another coat of oil or wax, just as you
would periodically polish any pair of leather shoes.

Miniature artist, sculptor and traditional craftsman

Guide to making replica Viking turnshoes.
Once the shoe is turned the right way round and has
been oiled or waxed to make it flexible again there may
be a few finishing touches to deal with; You may wish
to add toggles or cuts slits to apply a draw string or
you may want to carefully trim the leather around the
opening of the shoe to provide a more comfortable fit
at the ankle. One point I will mention is the finishing
of the opening. Many period shoes have stitch holes
around the top edge showing the existence of some sort
of whipping. Though it is very rare for the thread to
survive, some have argued this was just a whip stitch to
reinforce the leather and stop it from stretching, others
have argued it held a leather thong or cord to strengthen
it. A couple of examples from York show a decorative/
strengthening top band of fine leather held on with these
whip stitches. It is also conceivable that a reinforcing
cord could be stitched inside such a top band.

Page 8.

Making yourself some decent shoes will take a little
time, but as the leather and other materials used in a
single pair of shoes should cost only around £10-£15 at
the time of writing, hand stitching your own will almost
certainly be a lot cheaper than even the most reasonably
priced, budget pair of machine made replicas. What is
more, if properly made from a decent quality of leather,
and if they are well cared for, not only will they look
better, they will almost certainly last longer than the
cheap budget pairs of turn shoes that many re-enactors
buy and wear out on a regular basis thinking them to be
an economic deal.

Miniature artist, sculptor and traditional craftsman

Guide to making replica Viking turnshoes.

Page 9.

Miniature artist, sculptor and traditional craftsman

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