Shoelast makers

Shoelast makers made shoelasts or shoe trees, on which shoes were built. A completed pair of shoes were placed on the shoelasts, and the shoes’ uppers were dressed to form a finished product.1 Shoelasts were made of wooden bases or moulds and carved into different sizes, styles and fits. They were mostly used by shoe manufactures and cobblers.2 Some shoelast makers were Chinese Hakka and their workshops could be found along Middle Road.3

In the shoemaking process, the shoelast is of paramount importance, as it dictates the shape of the shoe. The making of shoelasts is a specialised job, requiring experience and research. Each last must resemble the shape of the human foot as closely as possible, but yet provide the shoes with a distinctive look.4

The golden age of this industry was in the 1970s when there were many shops along Middle Road.5 This was because there were many shoemaking factories in Singapore then and the demand for shoelasts was high.6 However, most shoelast makers eventually resettled along Malay Street.7

During the Japanese Occupation, shoelast makers such as the Sek brothers served Japanese customers, as well as the Imperial Army.8 The price of shoe trees doubled after World War II, costing about S$20 a pair. The high demand for shoelasts was due to the increased production of shoes by local shoemaking companies that made shoes similar in design to those imported from Hong Kong and other foreign countries.9

The shoemaking industry in Singapore developed rapidly in the 1970s. Many shoe factories mass produced shoes of different designs and exported them overseas. Due to changes in fashion trends, the designs of shoes kept changing, increasing the demand for shoelasts. However, in 1983, the shoelast industry was badly affected by the world economic recession.10

Shoelast makers also catered to individual needs. Customers with foot issues or feet of different sizes often ordered custom-made shoelasts. These customers would then hand the shoelasts over to their shoemakers to make shoes for them.11

Manufacturing process
The process of making shoelasts or shoe trees was mostly manually. The outline of the feet was traced out on paper and a block of Chengai wood cut and sawn to fit the specifications of the outline. This formed a raw shoelast. A piece of iron was then cut according to the size of the sole and moulded onto the sole of the shoelast. The iron served as a barrier when the shoelasts were manufactured into shoes.12

Nails had to be hammered into the shoelast during the process of making it into a shoe. The iron prevented the nails from extending into the insides of the shoes’ soles. Iron was used until rubber soles were introduced in the 1970s. Rubber soles made the use of nails unnecessary, and omitted the need to mount iron plates onto the shoelast soles.13

Finally, the shoelast was sanded down with sandpaper and polished with waxed. This arduous process was made easier with the introduction of machines that sawed and planed the wood. Machines also helped to cut the rough moulds into the desired shapes. When done manually, it would take some four men to produce three or four pairs of shoes daily. With machinery, however, 30 pairs could be produced daily.14

The shoelast industry faced a bleak future with the growing trend to purchase branded imported shoes, which were once considered luxury goods. As affluence grew, more and more Singaporeans opted to buy branded imported shoes rather than the local imitations; the preference for sports shoes increased as well.15

Furthermore, shoelast makers did not want their children to continue their laborious  trade.16 Eventually, with the growing popularity of branded footwear, the demand for shoelasts inevitably dwindled, making shoelast production an extinct trade in Singapore today.

Naidu Ratnala Thulaja

1. Lo-Ang Siew Ghim and Chua Chee Huan, eds., Vanishing Trades of Singapore (Singapore: Oral History Department, 1992), 71. (Call no. RSING 338.642095957 VAN)
2. Margaret Sullivan, ‘Can Survive, La’ Cottage Industries in High-Rise Singapore (Singapore: Graham Brash, 1993), 88. (Call no. RCLOS 338.634095957 SUL)
3. Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 71.
4. “Factory Makes Shoes on Conveyor Belt System,” Straits Times, 9 April 1964, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 71.
6. Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 73.
7. Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 71.
8. Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 72.
9. Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 72.
10. Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 73.
11. Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 73.
12. Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 71–72.
13. Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 71–72.
14. Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 72.
15. “In Step with the Times,” New Nation, 10 November 1980, 12–13. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 74; Sullivan, ‘Can Survive, La’, 89.

The information in this article is valid as at September 2020 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Vanishing trade
Skilled labor--Singapore