Poor People's Poulaines Women & men with pointy shoes

Easy pointy shoes out of modern leather, which will look accurate at normal distances.

by Cynthia Virtue aka Cynthia du Pré Argent

Hand sewn turnshoes from a medieval recreationist merchant start at around $100 for good ones.  Learning how to do them is great -- if you can find a teacher.  This handout is for everyone else.

This handout is in support of the class, and covers shoes with points at the toe; mostly from the 15th century, but there is one picture of shoes from a tomb effigy of about 1314 which shows the basic early shoe with very mild points and metal mounts (decorations).  The Museum of London's Shoes and Pattens book has an excellent chart showing found shoe shapes by region and time period, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in this topic.

The main sources for this informal reconstruction are below. Other points were added after conversations with Master Geoffrey Matthias, and I. Marc Carlson who have done a lot of research into this area. Anyone looking for more details on shoes would do well to consult with these gentlemen, or others, who have made more of a study of the subject than I have.

My goal is to get as many people into pointy shoes as possible; they're not as difficult to walk in as it looks, and they are useful if you are wearing the very long houppelande skirts!  I hope that if folks make these, they will be interested in making the real version, out of heavy leather and sewn by hand in the accurate method.  This method is designed for either fairly thin leather (thin enough to be sewn by a sewing machine) or, if you want to try on something less expensive first, out of marine vinyl.  Sturdy leather poulaines are available from various sources, but the prices tend to be rather high unless you're making a chunk of money.  Hence, these are "poor people's poulaines."

But first: Some pictures!

Actual medieval Shoe
Servers with pointy shoesBertrand

Cloisters effigy Shoes from a tomb effigy in the Cloisters, 1314. Decorated with metal rounds, probably. Other decorations were common; embroidery, leather cut-outs, leather embossing or scoring, etc.

Note: Figure 12 of the page of many shoes from The Pictorial History of Costume is erroneous (toes held up by tying to the ankle with gilded chains.) It seems as if the evidence for toe-chains all originates later than the time that they "might" have been in use.  Some say that an error in translation of a manuscript about 100 years ago introduced this imaginative bit of footwear.  There are some descriptions from the 1500s that mention the toe-chains, but since they are not contemporary, they are suspect.

Marc Carlson (whose web pages on shoes I highly recommend to anyone) found the following citation, which supports his opinion that tying the points of the shoes to the knee was an incorrect assumption from later in history; in this case someone writing around 1550 or later, about a style prevalent 85-150 years earlier.  The second paragraph cited is from this source:

Stow, John 1525?-1605 The survey of London containing the original, increase, modern estate and government of that city, methodically set down : with a memorial of those famouser acts of charity, which for publick and pious vses have been bestowed by many worshipfull citizens and benefactors : as also all the ancient and  modern monuments erected in the churches, not only of those two famous cities, London and Westminster, but (now newly added) four miles compass (1598) - p.131.
The citation reads:
"In Distar Lane, on the North side thereof, is the Cordwainers or Shoemaker's Hall, which company were made a brotherhood or fraternity in the 11th of Henry IV. Of these Cordwayners I read, that since the  fifth of Richard II. (when he took to wife Anne, daughter to Veselaus,  King of Boheme), by her example the English people had used piked shoes, tied to their knees with silken laces, or chains of silver or gilt, wherefore in the fourth of Edward IV. it was ordained and proclaimed, that beaks of shoone and boots, should not pass the length of two inches, upon pain of cursing by the clergy, and by Parliament to pay  20 shillings for every pair.  And every cordwainer that shod any man or woman on the Sunday, to pay 30 shillings."

Certainly out of the hundreds of pictures I have seen that were created in the middle ages, not one includes chains running from the long toe of the shoe to either the knee or the ankle.  (Just imagine how easy it would be to trip and fall!)  If you come across one, I'd love to see it.

* So how long were these points, anyway? One fairly un-reliable source I have says that anyone who was lower than a prince could not wear points on their shoes that measured over six inches in length. If you look at the pictures in this handout you can see that the points during the 15th century seem to be between `half the foot long' and `as long as the foot' in most cases. You can do your own figuring for your own foot how long this really would be for you.

Materials needed:

Steps: (pun intended)

It should be noted that I've had some trouble making this process work quite the way I want it to.  If you have trouble, it's probably not your fault.
  1. Put on your sock.
  2. Using paper, make a cone to go over the end of your toes, to be the right shape for the long pointy toe. Should be 4" or shorter for your first attempt, and fairly narrow.
  3. Tape cone to sock/foot. Cover rest of foot lightly with masking tape, molding it to your foot shape.
  4. Draw seam lines on the masking tape (see pictures of medieval shoes to give you placement tips). I recommend: a low one around the ankle, a vertical seam just under the ankle bone on each side, and the line for the sole. Make sure sole line at point is flat with an arch above it.
  5. Carefully cut the masking tape and sock pieces off your foot. Flatten pieces so that they can be your pattern-pieces. Make "darts" where necessary in  the pieces, so that they will lie flat.
  6. Trace these pattern pieces onto scrap fabric. Add 1/4 inch seam allowance; sew together.
  7. Check fit on your foot and adjust as necessary (you  may have to re-cut another test version if you  make a lot of changes.
  8. Use either the altered fabric pieces or the original masking tape ones to trace onto pieces of heavy vinyl for the shoes. Remember to include seam allowance if using the masking-tape ones!  Turn pieces over to make the other foot.
  9. Sew vinyl together, using a leather needle if possible (leather needles have sharp edges, as well as the standard sharp point.)  Edge top edge of shoe or turn narrow edge over and  stitch, for strength. Add ties or buttons and loops if you wish (not always necessary)
  10. Note that you are going to have to fudge the seam at the edge of the sole a bit, due to geometry.  Proceed patiently and it should all come out ok.

All material © 1999 Cynthia Virtue Email Author with comments
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