Despite being the foundation of our boots, soles are easy to overlook. To Lin and Jordan of Dr. Sole, however, a boot’s soles border on the main feature, and occupy them with everything from the production of their soles to re-soling, re-welting, re-lasting, and even repair.
A short six years ago the Dr. Sole brand lay dormant as a brand name that was dreamed up but never used. Lin, who was pursuing a Masters in Colorado, returned to his home in Taiwan. His father-in-law owned a rubber sole factory there, and Lin studied all he could about the business. When he saw that the Dr. Sole brand wasn’t being used, he decided to dust it off and use it for something he loved: making heritage-style boot soles.
“I got a lot of inspiration from collecting old, NOS soles, and advertisements,” Lin said in his newly finished storefront in Taipei. Dr. Sole is one of the few cobbler stores in the world to focus on the bottoms of shoes. “Thanks to the Internet, I could also see many old soles through photos. That’s where it started.”
Lin began by making rubber half soles and heels. After seeing a pair of World War II-era USMC boondocker shoes with raw cord soles (a mix of rubber and hemp), he asked his father-in-law’s factory if they could make a reproduction. They told him it was a simple job, and to this day, Dr. Sole’s raw cord half- and full-soles are their best selling products.
“That is one of our advantages,” Lin said. “Since we have our own factory, we can do our own R&D.” He picked up one of his patented Zebra soles–made from crepe rubber and raw cord sole stacked one upon the other and then cut to create a striped effect–to illustrate how his ideas can spring from a sketch to a finished product quickly thanks to his company’s vertical integration.
Rather than just recreate a historical look, Lin also took care to make sure his soles were practical and durable by using modern rubber production technology. Take his crepe soles; they’re made with an expanded rubber that they form by blowing air into the rubber, which creates a sponge-like sole. This process renders a crepe material that has more cushion and can potentially last longer than similar offerings from companies such as Vibram.
Still, competing with such heavyweights in the sole industry has been a challenge, Lin admits.
“What surprised us at first is that we would send samples to brands, and they liked us,” he said. “But they thought our products were too expensive.”
These days his range of soles continues to expand and includes soles and heels made with cork, burlap from coffee bags (some with coffee grounds mixed into the rubber), wave patterns, and multicolored recycled rubber.
“Soles will never be a whole product,” Lin said. “Its destiny is to be a cost-saving item. However, we’re trying to tweak this destiny to give soles a main role in shoes.”
Making soles is only half of the story, though. Lin also offered re-soling work starting in 2011 and partnered with a local cobbler to have his soles put on customers’ shoes. The quality of work was spotty, though, and the cobbler couldn’t do re-lasting or re-welting.
“At that time, I thought, ‘Why not do it myself?’” Lin continued, “I already knew about soles, the construction of shoes, and Goodyear welting. I began learning how to do re-soling on my own from books and even YouTube.”
Lin tore apart his and his brother’s boots to teach himself re-soling. Everything was done by hand, including stitching the upper to the midsole–a grueling task without a sole stitching machine.
“My hands were all covered in bruises after the first re-sole,” Lin recalls, but he soon began receiving orders from Hong Kong, Singapore, the UK, and China, even though he was a beginner.
“I really appreciate those first customers who were willing to send me their boots,” Lin said. “Looking back, I definitely feel I’ve progressed a lot.”
One would think that buying a sole stitching machine as soon as possible was in order, but to this day, Lin and Jordan do all their stitching by hand. This process takes an exhausting three to four hours per pair of boots. In contrast, re-stitching a pair of boots with a sole stitching machine takes less than a minute.
“I think customers appreciate that we do everything by hand,” Lin said.
The only automated machine in his workshop is a sander, which he uses to smooth leather mid-soles and heels when finishing a pair of boots. Still, he hasn’t ruled out buying a sole stitcher in the future. But even then he’ll continue to offer hand stitching.
Doing so much re-soling work alone, and with an increasing number of customers, was destined to only last so long. Lin became overwhelmed with orders, and re-soling orders were taking him months to complete. When Lin met Jordan, a self-taught leather craftsman with re-soling experience, in the fall of 2015, he asked him if he wanted to join Dr. Sole. Jordan agreed and has brought his skills to the equation, including doing leather repairs, leather dying, and other custom work.
With Jordan on board, the shop now tries to keep re-soling cases to two months at most, without sacrificing any quality.
“Some cobblers do a nice outward job, but internally the boots are not well-repaired,” Lin said, citing how he replaces a boot’s corking on full re-soles, or throws out imitation leather mid-soles and uses leather ones instead. “I treat every boot like it’s mine, and to us, its soul is in the soles.”
Learn more about Dr. Sole via their website or visit their storefront in Taipei at 1F, No.22, Lane100, Songjiang Road.