It’s still solidly winter, and winter means boots. Also, I am occasionally prone to impulse buys when thrifting. Ok, really prone. Over two years ago, I picked up a pair of fashionably slouchy black mid-calf boots. What could I do? They’re real suede, my size (um, maybe a size bigger), and were under $10. I tell ya, you would have done the same.
Unfortunately, I have small calves for my height, and can’t fill out a pair of boots to save my life. The ankle boot look only looks good with boots that are, well, actually ankle boots, so I spent a long time stubbornly stuffing them with thick socks or safety pinning them to my tights. These efforts were almost always unsuccessful, but I didn’t want to just give such a nice pair of boots back to Goodwill.
Finally, this winter I was looking at knee-high flats. If only my lovely boots would just stay up, and if only they were a little longer, then I wouldn’t have to donate them to make room for new boots. New boots that looked rather a lot like the ones I already had, in fact. Boots that wouldn’t stay up even if I bought them, because the calf circumference was too big. If only I could find affordable leather knee-high boots with no heel and a fitted zipper. Hah!
At last, I got fed up. Why couldn’t my existing boots be everything I wanted?
No reason, really. All there is to fear is fear itself, and all that. Besides, I reasoned, they weren’t doing anyone any good sitting in my closet.
Several hours and a lot of cursing later, I have fully-functioning lovely tall boots that haven’t fallen down yet, even when worn with bare legs. They’re already my favorite pair of boots ever. I’m even going to try taking them to Vegas with me — who says dancing has to mean heels?
*Take on this project at your own risk — regular sewing machines aren’t designed to sew shoes.* *Nor are regular thumbs and thimbles*
- One pair of boots that you don’t mind ruining. They should be fairly roomy in the leg, but fit your foot. Mine are probably half a size too big in the foot, but I tend to like roomier shoes as a rule. Materials other than actual suede may be easier to sew, though I am not 100% on that point.
- 2 metal-tooth zippers at least 3 inches longer than your desired boot height. I used gold-teeth coat zippers from Jo-Ann’s
- Fabric of some kind (semi-optional, see directions for explanation)
- Heavy-duty upholstery thread to match your boot/the existing stitching
- An awesome sewing machine. Or just a sewing machine. Mine’s old, cranky, and jams a lot, but a good one will save you tons of time and grief
- Clothespins – I use them for ‘pinning’ suede, since pins are hard to insert and will leave little holes
- Zipper foot (optional, but recommended)
- Walking foot (totally optional, I didn’t use one, but it would definitely help with the thickness of the leather and help prevent jams)
- Large sewing needle and thimble (optional but you will probably want them)
- Zipper insertion – I would highly recommend NOT making this your first project with a zipper!
- Manipulating weird fabrics through your sewing machine
- Sewing with very small seam allowances
- Being able to “wing it” if something goes weird
- The ability to not blame me if you ruin your boots. Very important.
Time: About 3 hours/shoe
1. First, examine the inside of your boot. Locate the line of stitching that attaches the lining to the body of the boot. Locate the tag if there is one; it will likely be sewn into that seam. Rip ‘er out. Do use a seam ripper if you have one; while a pin will work in a pinch, for the robust leather texture it’ll help to have a proper seam ripper. The lining should pull free. Literally in my case, as the lining was glued as well as sewn. You should be left with one (or more, depending on your shoe manufacturer) round of stitching that attaches the cuff to the boot, and a little tab of leather that used to be sewn down but is now hanging free.
2. If your boots are slouchy, chances are the ‘slouches’ are anchored in place by strips like these.
Cut them out, and you’ll be able to pull the boots up much higher. If you still want the slouch/the boots weren’t intentionally slouchy to begin with/whatever else, then you can skip this step. Lucky you, you’ll also get to skip several other steps!
3. Now the scary part. The back seam of my boots was reinforced with a strip of some kind of heavy interfacing. Glad as I am for the worksmanship, it made picking the seam apart pretty much impossible. If your boots are the same, you’ll have to grab a pair of scissors — not fabric scissors! — or an exact-o knife and carefully cut down the center. (Yeep!)
Phew. That wasn’t so bad, was it? You’ve made your first really irreversible change. From here on out you might found it easier; you’ve already ruined the shoe, you can only try and improve it from there.
4. Now you’ll want to grab that half yard you have lying around. If your boots were slouchy and you want them to be taller, you’ll notice that your lining no longer reaches the cuff. You’ll have to add a few extra inches to make up the difference. You can use pretty much anything you have lying around, but stretchy fabric would be the easiest to match if your lining has some stretch.
I went with some leopard print fuzzy fabric left over from an animal costume I made a while back. At the time, it matched my hair and my skin tone. I chose it because a. I’m not really a leopard print kind of gal and will never use the leftovers for anything visible, b. the fuzzy texture will help the boots “grab” stockings and socks (though they haven’t needed the help staying put) and c. there’s a funky glamorous ridiculousness about the animal print. It makes them feel extra special.
Measure your boot from side to side. Add a bit for safety fudge-room. Then measure the distance from the top edge of the lining to the bottom edge of the cuff. Add whatever seam allowance you feel most comfortable with on the bottom. At the top, you’ll be sticking the top edge of the fabric underneath the little tab that used to be stitched down on top of the lining, so the SA will be determined by that. Cut your fabric accordingly. I cut mine on the fold so I didn’t have to worry about any raw edges while handling the tricky top bit.
Note: For really stiff or warm boots that stay up on their own without having to be so tight (mine can barely accomodate pants), take this opportunity to iron/sew on some heavy-duty interfacing to the back of the lining. If you want to add warmth, you could also add a layer of fleece or even quilt batting (though that would probably make the boots a little thicker) behind the lining. Baste the insulation/stiffening layer to lining to make sure it stays where it should be, and doesn’t develop folds or fall down.
5. Sew the extra fabric to the lining, right sides together.
When you attach the new lining to the cuff, do it like this:
See how, instead of placing the right sides together, I just tucked the top edge of my fabric underneath that little tab of leather? Lay that arrangement flat on your sewing machine, with the boot and cuff hanging off to the left-hand side of your sewing machine, the lining to the right hand side, and stitch along that tab, making sure to keep the lining properly under. It’s a little bit tricky to sew, but it won’t show on the outside so a little bit of wobbly stitching is ok. A walking foot would likely solve that issue anyway.
6. Take your zipper, and cut off the bottom end. Remove the zipper pull from the zipper and set it aside. DON’T LOSE IT. I lost both of my zipper pulls at least three times. It’s stressful.
Now insert the zipper into the back seam of the boot. If the boot is way too large, you will want to measure your calf at the top, middle and bottom. Mark the size on the suede in chalk, and clothespin the zipper to the boot at the chalk marking. You will probably end up with a roughly diagonal line from the widest part of your calf in toward your ankle. Remember to add the width of the zipper in! I don’t have pictures of this step because I just kind of eyeballed it. I know the circumference of my calf pretty well because I make pants and leggings and such, and I have an unfortunate tendency to just trust that and not measure things. It worked out for me, but be smarter than that, ok?
Make sure there is some extra length at either the top or the bottom so you can re-attach the zipper pull easily later. Sewing will likely become difficult to impossible around the heel; I ended up finishing the bottom by hand, so don’t worry about it if at first you have a hole right near the heel. This is actually a good thing, as you will see.
For security, ease and aesthetics, I first attached the zipper to the lining/boot right sides together, then trimmed down the excess suede/lining fabric and topstitched. Stabilizing the zipper with a strip of interfacing is optional; the leather should be pretty stable already.
7. Now re-attach your zipper pull. Note: There’s two ways you can do this. The first boot that I made, I slipped the zipper pull off completely by accident. I hadn’t left any extra room at the bottom, and when I reattached the pull at the top, suddenly my boot zipped down instead of up. The upside is that it’s easier to pull the shoe on (remember that the boot wasn’t designed with a zipper in mind, and when the zipper is open with the pull at the heel, the zipper’s open length is effectively reduced by the length of the pull). The downsides are that most commercial boots zip upwards, and when I walk I can faintly hear the zipper pull slapping against the heel. For some reason this isn’t an issue with the pull at the top.
Finishing Up: You now have one fitted boot. Try it on to make sure that it fits snugly around the calf and that there aren’t any stray threads jamming up the zipper.
Take your hand needle and a length of thread, as well as a thimble — you’ll probably need it. Any places where the leather was too thick for the machine, take a couple of stitches to secure. I had to do this at the heel, closing up the hole I took the zipper through. I also had to do this at the cuff, where the top of the zipper was hanging free. I managed this by wiggling the hand needle through just one layer of leather, then the next, slowly.
I had a raw edge at the top of my zipper. If yours ends up like that, you’ll want to take a piece of bias tape and hand sew it over the top of the zipper to keep it from fraying and to keep the pull from coming loose. Other sealants include super glue, and commercial anti-fraying agents may work as well. I would also suggest hand sewing several stitches straight over the zipper teeth themselves; multiple methods of security are best.
Do the same for the bottom of the zipper; unzip your zipper so you can easily reach into your boot, and cut your excess zipper length to as short as you like. Attach bias tape or go over the edges with a lighter like you did at the cuff. The bias tape is less structurally important here; at the top, I preferred bias tape due to all of the pulling up and down, so it wouldn’t pull away from the rest of the boot. At the bottom, this function is filled by the bottom of the boot itself.
I used superglue as well as hand stitching at the bottom to keep the zipper flush against the back of the heel and close the hole. With a sufficiently strong will/sewing machine/needle and thimble, you could probably hand stitch straight through the heel, but I was physically unable to do so.
Alternately, you could take a piece of the suede that you trimmed from the top and glue or stitch a small rectangle in place over the hole, for added reinforcement. I haven’t tried that, though, so I’m not 100% sure how it looks.
That was a long tutorial! Thanks for sticking with if you’ve made it this far, and I hope your boot-craft goes well. Have you made a pair? Let me know about it, I’m always excited to hear how things turn out for other people.