How a shoe is made

There’s a lot that happens to your shoes before they hit the shelves

Looking at a finished piece of gear, it’s not always obvious just how many steps are required to actually construct it. Keen’s outdoor category director Blaine Conrad explains how you take a shoe from raw pieces to perfection.

A pair of shoes can be broken down into three main portions: the upper (which wraps around your foot), the midsole (the cushioning and support) and the outsole (the grip). Each section is made separately.

The upper:

Designers first create a 2-D drawing. From this blueprint, a pattern is made according to the specific foot shape-or “last”-which defines how the shoe will fit. A cutting dye-imagine a cookie cutter-cuts the 2-D shapes out of hides of leather or rolls of synthetic materials such as nylon or mesh. Each of the pieces is then stitched together to create the upper shape. Next a heel counter-the stiff cup that helps with fit and stability-is added and eyelets are stitched into the upper. Finally, the interior lining is sewn to the outside material, after pieces of foam are inserted in between.

The midsole:

The recipe and technique are slightly different depending on the end use of the product and what’s being used to form the midsole-injected EVA, compression-moulded EVA or injected PU-but the process is similar. The raw midsole material is mixed together and then placed in a mould for a specific time, allowing it to cure and take shape.

The outsole:

Depending on the desired properties of traction and durability, different mixes of uncured rubber are rolled into a sheet. Pieces of rubber are cut from the roll and put into a steel mould, where the rubber is heated, vulcanized and cured into a treat pattern.

Putting it all together:

The outsole and midsole are cemented together. A model of the last is inserted into the upper to give it shape, then the upper is joined to the combined outsole-midsole with pressure to ensure a complete bond. The last is then removed. (at Keen, the shoes are then inspected for quality.) Laces and a foot form (a paper or cardboard insert to help shoes keep their shape during transport) are added before the shoes are boxed up and shipped to retail stores.

Why the teal blue?

Ever wonder who comes up with the colours for the outdoor gear you use? Well, if you’re an Arc’teryx customer, chances are it was Kristi Birnie. As the Bird’s colour design manager, Birnie is a part of a four-person team that is responsible for picking colours for all the company’s products. It’s a fairly unique job title in the outdoor industry-colours are often picked by product designers-but one she says makes a difference.

“Colour is often viewed as superficial,” she says. “But I think it’s one of the most important aspects. People react viscerally to colour. It needs a lot of care and attention at each step to do it right. I can tell when compromises have been made.”

Each season, the Arc’teryx team selects a palette, considers what colours will carry over from previous years, and then assigns colours to each product. Birnie says they try not to follow what others are doing, but to lead. Inspiration comes from all over the place, including artists and artisans but especially from nature. “Usually we’ll see something in our daily life that catches our eye, ” she says. “I’m constantly surprised with the endless amount of colours out there.

But before they choose a colour for any one product, there’s a multitude of variables to consider. How will this colour work with other layers? (Arc’teryx wants all its product lines to work together, so that if you buy a shell you can find complementary colours in Arc’teryx fleece, base-layers and packs.) Also, what colours are available for zippers, Velcro, cords and straps? Will they match or contrast?

Once Birnie settles on a specific colour design for a product, it’s time to talk to the mills. Fabric mills offer a set number of pre-dyed colours, which Arc’teryx rarely uses. Instead, the company sends its chosen colour to the mill and has it custom-dyed. “We have to be creative to come up with things that are fresh, new and lustful, but we also have to be honest with the reality,” Birnie says. Because different fabrics absorb colour differently, sometimes the colour is exactly what she was looking for and sometimes it’s not. In that case, she then has to decide whether to keep the colour or work on it some more.

For Birnie, the moment of truth comes when she sees someone using an Arc’teryx product. “When they paid their own hard-earned money for it, and they obviously love it, it’s pretty special.”