The last is the soul of a shoe. Apart from selecting the leather, there are few elements of the shoemaking process that are more impactful on the end result than the crafting of a last. Originally hand carved by cordwainers, i.e. bespoke shoemakers, using hardwoods like maple or beech, most lasts today are made up of a high-density plastic that is 100% recyclable and more suited for mass production.
If you have the requisite disposable income, most of the Northampton shoemakers—including Alfred Sargent, Edward Green, John Lobb, and Crocket & Jones—offer the traditional bespoke service, which includes the creation of a custom last, tailored to the measurements of one’s foot.
What is a Last?
The word “last” comes from the Old English “laest,” meaning footprint. However, a finished last is by no means a carbon copy of your foot. It’s something of an abstraction, based on up to thirty-five measurements which are then tailored to the design and intended function of the shoe. Lasts can differ amongst shoe styles of a single brand or manufacturer, although some designers try to use fewer lasts to avoid confusing customers.
Of the thirty-odd measurements needed to create a bespoke shoe, the most standard measurements include: tread, flare, toe spring, throat opening, heel-to-ball, and four separate girth measurements (ball, waist, instep, and heel). After a last has been carved or otherwise created, the shoemakers use it to attach the separately crafted uppers to the welt and sole. The upper and the sole then form around the last, making a perfectly fitting cavity for the wearer’s foot.
Why is a Last Important?
Your foot has more dimensions to it than just your shoe size. It is estimated that ninety percent of people have different sized feet across all of those measurements we discussed above and this makes it difficult for shoe manufacturers to tailor their products in a manner that scales while they can still meet demand. Some cordwainers, like Norman Vilalta, remain obstinately committed to the tradition of making custom shoes to the requirements of each customer’s feet.
Most consumers, however, aren’t willing to put up several thousand dollars for hand lasted shoes, so the vast majority of manufacturers have designed their own signature lasts that they use to produce ready-to-wear collections. With the vast breadth of ready-to-wear options, you can find an ideally fitting shoe without spending two month’s rent.
Ready to Wear Lasts You Should Know
Of the many lasts used, some of the best known and most frequently referenced include: Alden’s Barrie last, Red Wing’s No. 8 last, Dr. Martens 59 last, and the Munson last (designed by a WWI army doctor in 1912). The success of these particular designs is attributable their forgiving nature, providing the largest pool of consumers with a common point of reference for discussing the nuances of different brands.
They’re a good place to start if you’re looking to familiarize yourself with the vocabulary. Note: most lasts are referred to by numbers, although some have branded names (e.g. Barker Black’s Ashfield last).
Alden Barrie Last
The Barrie last runs large and wide with plenty of toe space, although its low-profile is not ideally suited or those with a high instep. Known as forgiving, the Barrie last has a workhorse silhouette and is ideally suited for wider, heavier shoes. It’s often discussed in conjunction with Alden’s second most popular last, the Truebalance last.
The Munson last, as we already mentioned, was patented in 1912 by US Army doctor, Edward Munson. Over the course of four years, Dr. Munson studied the feet of more than two thousand soldiers, before finalizing the last. Following the modernist dictum “form follows function,” it was one of the earliest shoe designs to incorporate a natural toe box, making it ideally suited to the contours of the foot (not to mention much more comfortable).
It was rapidly adopted and became the standard infantry footwear for WWI and WWII. Brands like Russell Moccasin and Red Wing have recently revived the Munson’s popularity, and even J.Crew has been pushing it lately.
Red Wing No. 8 Last
Red Wing’s No. 8 last is probably the best known last among workwear aficionados. It’s the oldest last still used in the production of Red Wing shoes, and responsible for some of the companies best selling styles, including the 8165 and 8111.
Dr. Marten’s 59 Last
Loved by everyone from harbor workers to punk rockers, Dr. Martens have always found a special place in the hearts of their customers. The “59” last is an amalgam of others that Dr Martens has used over the years, and by the mid 80s had become known as the classic last shape of the brands core styles, including the 1460 boot and the 1461 shoe.
What are your favorite lasts? Let us know in the comments below!