Birkenstocks are enjoying a resurgence in popularity among both men and women, largely due to their extreme comfort. To understand the history of this unique sandal, you need to go all the way back to the German village of Langen-Berghheim 1774 where Johann Adam Birkenstock was a local vassal and shoemaker. In 1896, Johann’s great-great-grandson developed a shaped insole for use by shoemakers. The famous cork footbed that we all recognize today was created in the 1930s. They even coined the term ‘footbed’! It was introduced to the United States in 1966 and Nordstrom became the first department store to carry the line in 1986.
While many of us have focused on making handbags, backpacks and small leathergoods, making sandals with the Birkenstock footbeds represent a great point to begin your sandal (and even shoe) making journey. Once you have your supplies (discussed below), you should be able to make sandals without requiring much more than leather, buckles and glue.
Of course, you could begin by making our own custom Arizona, Gizeh or Salina-style sandals, but there are exciting possibilities for creating your own designs.
You’ll need a few things to create your own sandals based on the Birkenstock footbeds:
- Last(s) – The last is a mechanical form similar in shape to a foot. Lasts are sold in pairs one for the left and one for the right foot. You will need a last for each size sandal you wish to make. If you intend to go into business making shoes and sandals, you will want to get an entire range of lasts. If you just want to experiment or indulge yourself, then you just need to buy a last for your size. If you’ve never owned a pair of Birkenstocks, I encourage you to try on the sandals at a shoe retailer, as your size may be very different from what you wear with other shoe brands. There are special shaped lasts made just for the Birkenstock footbeds. They conform to the arch of the Birkenstock footbed and have a special concave ridge for the toe gripping portion of the footbed. The good news is that the lasts are unisex, so you won’t need to purchase different lasts for men or women.
We are fortunate that District Leather supply is carrying Birkenstock lasts. You can purchase one last size or a whole range. Contact District Leather about quantity discounts if you need a full range set up. The nice thing about the District Leather lasts is that they have a bifurcated (split) toe design which is great for making thong style sandals. You can access the District Leather Birkenstock lasts here:
- Birkenstock Footbeds, Soles and Buckles – You can buy footbeds and soles (and perhaps buckles) from the following places:
- Frankford Leather (Philadelphia, PA) You need to open a wholesale account, so this supplier is only open to those with a Tax Resale ID; Minimum order is $35
- O Baltor and Sons (San Francisco) No website; you need to call to order (650) 589-8759
- Saderma Leather (Los Angeles). No website; you need to call to order (323) 461-4861
- District Leather Supply has plans to carry these supplies as well.
- Making Tape – This 1 1/2” masking tape is great for taping your lasts.
- Tape Measure – You’ll use a tape measure for marking your pivot and midpoints. The shoemaker tapes do not have a metal tip, so they are more accurate for measuring right from the beginning of tape.
Once you have your supplies, it’s time to get started! You’ll want to ‘tape your lasts’, mark your reference points and draw your design on the tape.
Keiko Hirosue with the Brooklyn Shoe Space has a fantastic YouTube video series teaching you how to tape your last, mark your reference points, draw your pattern and move it to pattern paper. While her instruction is for making a sneaker pattern, the same concepts will apply. Use your creativity to come up with new designs! You should want to be inspired by the brands, but make a design that is uniquely yours.
The School of Shoemaking and Craft also has a helpful video for making a sandal similar to the Arizona Birkenstock model.
There you have it – the supplies and resources you need to begin making sandals. Good luck in your sandal-making journey! Be sure to tag @LeatherworkSchool on Instagram so we can see your sandal designs.