Shoe construction is both an art and a science, and nowhere is this more apparent than when we discuss shoe lasts. A shoe “last” (derived from the Old English word laest, or footprint) is a 3D foot-shaped form used by shoemakers to give shoes their shape during construction—or in the words of legendary shoemaker László Vass, a last is an “an abstract copy of the human foot in wood.” Lasts aren’t always made out of wood—plastic, or even plaster, is often used instead—but they’re the single most important tool a shoemaker uses. Because a shoe can’t be molded around a person’s actual foot during construction, a stand-in is required. This is where lasts come in.
Lasts provide a working surface on which two-dimensional components can be given three-dimensional shape. Shoes are molded around a last while they’re being created, and these lasts usually are hinged so that they can fold for removal after construction. A last determines the internal dimensions of a shoe, i.e., the space inside the shoe itself, as well as its general external appearance. All of a shoe’s attributes are defined by its last: What is the shape of a shoe’s toe? How much room does that toe contain? What is the shape of this shoe’s heel? How much room is there in the instep? All of these questions, among dozens of others, are questions for which lasts are designed to provide the answer.
Traditionally, lasts are created out of chunks of wood based on a blueprint compiled from over twenty different measurements. But only certain types of wood are suitable for lasts: the most common types that lastmakers use include walnut, beech, oak, and elm, but the European beech and the hornbeam are the varieties most preferred by lastmakers. Most lasts are symmetrical, i.e, the left and right lasts are identical but mirrored. Bespoke shoemakers will sometimes even make individualized (and therefore necessarily asymmetrical) lasts for their clients, but this is a rare and time-consuming task.
These days there are few lastmakers in the world who still work entirely by hand. In most cases, it’s simply cheaper and more efficient to involve machines at least somewhat in the last-creation process—especially when a large number of the same last is required. And although back in the day all last blueprints were entirely hand-drawn, now computer software can help speed up the design process as well as produce more accurate-fitting lasts. This is where arts meets science: a last originally drawn by hand can be fine-tuned on a computer and then sculpted out of materials using the most advanced machinery. A single last can be used for many, many years and end up assisting in the production of thousands of shoes.