At least for a minute, at least when they’re brand new, we tend to want our shoes and boots to be perfect. The truth, though, is that quality shoemakers execute by hand many of the processes they use to build your footwear. Which means: variability is a given, and mistakes will be made.
That said, with every pair of quality footwear, you’re the last in a very long line of people to see a shoe or boot. Every station at a factory has their own standards—and when mistakes are made, it’s each person’s job to fess up and let it be known. Most shoemakers have quality control people who lend an even closer eye—sometimes multiple rounds at multiple stages, and again at the finish line. And most knowledgeable retailers also inspect stock that comes in with another set of trained eyes, to head off issues before customers even get a chance to try anything on.
But again: mistakes will be made! Flaws will exist. If you look hard enough, you will find something that’s not 110% perfect. Sometimes, you’re totally right to care. Other times, it’s worthwhile to ask yourself some questions. Questions like: what’s the purpose of this footwear, for you? Is it a boot you’re going to hike in, or do heavy work? Well then you’re wasting your time fretting about a couple scuffs on the leather. But if you’re getting married in a pair of expensive black cap toe oxfords, then your purpose is different, and it should be considered. (Also: props to anyone getting married in their work or hiking boots.)
Another huge question: How much are you—or did you already—pay for it? If you’re buying Edward Greens for $1,500, you naturally deserve the opportunity to be pickier and expect more than you would out of $300 Red Wings. Playing off that one: what would you, yourself, pay for this shoe, with whatever issues—and upsides—it displays? Maybe you don’t care about perfect welt stitching, or how a toe cap looks, even if others might. In that case, the price may be just fine—for you.
And the last and perhaps most important question: What about the everything else? How does a shoe fit? How does it feel on your foot? How does it look when you’re staring at it, while wearing it—not when you’re taking photos for Instagram? (Sorry, that was more than one question.) If all those things add up, for you, a few minor cosmetic defects may fade into the background.
MORE FROM STITCHDOWN
But sometimes, the flaws can be just too much—so bad that you definitely deserve better. Where that line exists is a tough one indeed. While a complete, ironclad guide is an impossibility, this story’s purpose is to help you understand 1) what some of those flaws could potentially be, 2) whether or not they’re purely aesthetic or will create legitimate durability problems with a pair you just paid a bunch of money for specifically so they’d last a good long while, and 3) where you might have reason to not buy a specific pair, or to attempt to get a refund or exchange.
This is a living guide and one I plan to update frequently. So by all means, sound off in the comments or DM me on Instagram at @stitchdown—if there’s something I missed, or something you think I’m flat wrong about, I’d love to hear about it.
Slight Creasing in the Upper Leather is Often OK
Almost all leather shoes will crease over time. The two notable exceptions are shell cordovan, which “rolls” instead of creasing (one of the many reasons that people go so gaga for it), and suede/roughout leathers (the reverse side of the skin), which mask the creasing much better than, say, a smooth calf leather. Grained leather isn’t half bad at distracting from creasing either.
Given that it’s going to happen anyway, there’s often no need to panic about a little bit of creasing on a new shoe. Maybe someone else tried it on and walked around a bit—just like you’re about to, over and over. Maybe something went awry in shipping, putting a similar strain on the shoe. Maybe the hide was creased a touch but deemed acceptable by the factory. Generally speaking, none of those things mean that your shoe is going to look like Tommy Lee Jones’ face at any point soon. (Ed note: This applies to current Tommy Lee Jones, as well as all other eras of Tommy Lee Jones. His face has always looked like that.)
Don’t Freak Out About A Minuscule Difference Between Your Toe Caps
Owing to how they’re applied during the shoemaking process, toe caps are tough. It’s actually far more rare than you might think to see two completely identical toe caps, down to the millimeter. And if they are different, it’s likely zero sign that the rest of the shoe was constructed carelessly. A good rule of thumb is: a 1/8th of an inch variation in your toe caps is a-ok. If the difference is visible only when you’re straining to look at them, you can be pretty sure that nobody is going to notice—especially you, after a while, especially as your shoes get worn in and the entire leather upper evolves naturally in different and interesting ways.
But to check, Neil and Elliot recommend measuring from the edge of the toe cap to the first eyelet. If it’s within an 1/8th of an inch, you probably should just give up caring. If it’s more—well, then you may want to think about just not buying the shoe, and ask to see if the shop has any others in your size—or if you already bought the things, to open up discussion on a return.
That Slightly Imperfect Welt Join? Chances Are It’s Completely Fine.
Important thing first: no matter what it looks like, your welt is almost definitely not going to come loose, leaving you with a totally destroyed boot. The way quality shoes’ welts are constructed, it’s near impossible. Let’s have Neil say that in a slightly different way: “A sloppy welt joint will almost never compromise the integrity of a shoe.”
But that welt join—where the two ends of a welt come together—is a frequent cosmetic trouble spot, especially on shoes with a 360 degree welt that wraps all the way around. What you’ll tend to see is a slight gap, one end jumping up a little higher than the other, or (more rarely) a very small overlap. The above photo is from my Alden Roy boots, which are one of my most worn and most reliable pairs, and which are holding up juuuust fine.
As with most things (like U.S. Marshalls vs. The Fugitive), some of these examples are worse than others—sometimes significantly. If a welt join is TRULY bad, and you can’t bear to even look at it (like Men in Black III), don’t buy the shoe, or talk about a return (although, likely: good luck). But either way, chances are your shoe will be 100% fine, functionally.
Don’t Worry About Those Little Indentations Around the Toe Box Stitching
Sometimes you’ll notice slight marks ringing a toe box’s leather on shoes whose toes are machine-sewn. “It only tends to happen with shell or CXL leather,” says Curt, who sees it occasionally on Alden Indy boots. “Calfskin seems to avoid the problem.”
But there’s no need to worry: “Those marks will fade away as the shoe wears in.”
Sole Variability Is a Decent Name for a Hall & Oates Cover Band—But Typically A Bad Reason To Not Buy a Shoe
On most quality shoes, soles are also something that are shaped by hand. Which can sometimes result in “minor length/width disparity from heel to toe or side to side when comparing shoes,” according to Curt.
“Often times people hold up one shoe up to the other and expect everything to line up perfectly. Sometimes one welt can be a hair broader on one shoe compared to the next. Sometimes one shoe may appear a touch longer or shorter. These things do not mean a defective shoe necessarily. This is just a product of handmade work. Now if it’s drastic, there may be a problem.”
“But if you do not feel it when wearing the shoes, and you can only spot it by measuring, I would not worry about it. The important thing is the fit. Not that the sole is 1/16 of an inch different.”
A Loose Thread Should Not Equal Extreme Panic
Let’s say your stitching has some loose ends—but isn’t frayed, and you don’t have threads unraveling out of a series of holes. That’s generally ok! You’re not going to end up with a shoe that falls apart a little more with every step, or even every year. And these issues are quite fixable. Neil and Elliot have one possibly controversial but definitely effective approach they recommend: “Just take a lighter to it, and burn the end of the thread down to seal it. This works really well on dark leather.”
Curt concurs: “The lighter trick works well. We use it regularly with confidence. It often helps prevent the stitch to get worse since the thread had a little ball burnt at the end. But one stitch should not completely unravel.”
While not every shoemaker offers the same level of service/peace of mind, Alden has no issues taking care of threads you’re unhappy with—without a lighter. Curt says that “loose stitching can (most always) be repaired, fast and free of charge. We have them shipped back to Alden for repair. Either way, it should not affect the longevity of shoe.”
The main takeaway on this one: a single loose thread is rarely a cause for concern (if it is, you’ll have a very different spider-sense tingle), and if you feel you need one fixed, there are definitely ways.
If You’re Worried About Your Speed Hooks Shifting, You Can Easily Fix Those Yourself
Speed hooks on boots can sometimes move, especially if you manage to not get a lace all the way locked in, then crank them down really hard. That’s not a defect, and they can be turned back in to their original position with some finger pressure or a pair of needle-nose pliers. “If it were to come out, now that’s a different story,” says Curt—especially on a younger boot. And some shoemakers will fix that issue—or something similar with an eyelet—for you. Worst case, any decent cobbler can fix it for a couple bucks.
Squeaky Shoes Will Probably Become Normal, Non-Squeaky Shoes Very Quickly
While squeaky outsoles can be an ongoing issues, fresh leather insoles may also squeak at first, but will go away with break-in. If you are a chinchilla, you should consider looking inwardly—there’s a strong chance it’s not your shoes.
The Grey Zone
Welt Stitching Variability Is A Function of Quality Shoes Being Handmade—and Usually Not an Issue or Harbinger of Doom
Yes, it’s one of the major things—like those toe caps above—that you see when you look down at your feet. But a misguided welt stitch doesn’t mean that your boots are going to end up in multiple pieces as you walk your Pomeranian. Or even summit a fourteener, with your Pomeranian.
“Another one we get sometimes is the stitching on the welt being too close to the edge,” says Neil. “Unless something happens to the shoe as you wear it and it becomes a problem, you should not consider this defective—and should assume the shoes will live up to their high standard.”
Above you can see what looks like a disaster on my Wolverine 1000 Mile Prestwick boots. I got them for an incredible price, although they weren’t listed as seconds (they certainly may have been). When they showed up the thread wasn’t yet loose but the stitching was very close to the welt/sole edge. I definitely spent some days with deep concern, but ultimately didn’t send them back because they were the last pair. Over time, the stitch has become a bit frayed and undone, as you can see. But four years into some hard wear, they’re showing zero sign of getting to a point where something is truly wrong—and are nearing resole time anyway.
Always remember: you’re the one paying for these things. If you truly hate how it looks, don’t buy them, or get into that return conversation. But 50% or more of most welt stitches aren’t all that visible to you, the wearer—and you can be pretty sure nobody is going to storm out of a fancy dinner with you because yours isn’t 100% perfect.
This one’s in the grey zone because a welt stitch is often one of the defining characteristics of a shoe—if a hyper-clean stitch is a major part of why you want a shoe, then just don’t get ’em. Some companies will be more amenable with returns than others, but this can be a tricky one as far as getting an exchange or refund since in 99% of cases it won’t compromise integrity. Your best option for the perfect stitch: go to the store, look really carefully, and feel great about it before you buy.
“Loose Grain” Definitely Isn’t Good—But It Also Might Not Mean What You Think
“‘Loose grain’ has become this dog whistle for any folding or creasing of the leather,” says Neil, describing an issue that in its true form is defined as the grain level of the skin separating from the tissue of the hide. “It feels like air pockets and is very apparent on a cutting table,” says Jason. “It’s always easy to discover and by default cut around in production, and discard. It very rarely hides itself before a shoe is lasted, and it’s a rare mistake when it gets cut and used.”
“But true loose grain is not very common, and actually quite rare,” says Neil. “I’ve only seen it on a handful of pairs out of thousands.”
“We’re hearing a lot of ‘loose grain’ talk, which is often confused with grain break,” says Jason. “Grain break sounds bad, but isn’t—it’s a natural characteristic in the hide. Grain break is just where the grain goes from peak to the valley of a hide, and where it is breaking “off the plane” rather than being broken.”
As stated in an above section, creases or grain break in the leather of any non-shell cordovan shoe are just a fact of shoe life. Leather is the skin of an animal, and it wasn’t designed to look perfect on your shoes. And shoes can crease (often in places you might not want them to) for all sorts of reasons aside from leather quality—perhaps most notably, because you’re not wearing the proper size, and therefore, the way the shoe was designed doesn’t align with how it’s actually being worn. I’ve made the shout-loose-grain mistake myself before; I’ve also updated what I’ve written in the past after learning what I did while reporting this story.
“Loose grain will crack, as there is not the tissue below to support the grain, and definitely a quality issue,” Jason says. “However, these two terms are often confused and not nearly the same thing. I’ve seen literally thousands of boots at this level from well over a dozen tanneries, and I’ve probably seen maybe two pairs that passed QC from our makers that had loose grain.”
As with all of these issues, loose grain does indeed exist. But quality tanneries and shoemakers will both catch hides that display it, and do their best to ensure that it doesn’t end up on your shoes. If you’re certain you were unlucky enough to be on the receiving end of one of those instances, then you probably deserve a brand new pair of shoes. But do what you can to be sure you’re right—and be careful not to perpetuate the myth of loose grain just because you’re seeing some creases.
If Your Insole/Footbed Is Pulling Up Or Otherwise Very Inconsistent, You May Need to Get Yourself Some New Shoes
Another one that’s rare, but can happen. They might have been glued on crooked or otherwise imperfectly, or they could have bubbled up in an uncomfortable manner. There’s a decent chance that with some wear they will mold to your feet anyway and be just fine—but if you don’t want to risk that, you might have a shot at a claim if they’re really, really off.
It’s important to remember that Blake-stitched shoes, owing to the nature of their construction, are stitched through their footbeds. Which means that you’re going to be able to feel the stitching if you really try. But that’s the tradeoff for a sleeker shoe that doesn’t have an outsole jutting out from under it.
Eyelet Spacing: It All Depends On How Mis-Spaced They Are
If it’s blatant, and anyone can look at your shoes and tell that your eyelets display wildly inconsistent spacing—that’s a legitimate QC issue, and cause for concern. But if you have to get in there and measure with the millimeter side of your tape measure to prove your point, who can really notice?
If Your Wingtips Are Off-Center, It All Depends On How Much You Obsess About Wingtip Centering
This one is definitely similar to the toe-cap concern. Here’s a story from a shoe-friend of mine that pretty much sums it up—and the whole notion that QC so often lands in the eye of the beholder: “I sent back some shoes that I bought for my groomsmen to wear at my wedding. The wingtips were soooo crooked and uneven. They wouldn’t have cared, but it bothered me.” Another tip it’s probably too late for: try desperately to be a groomsman in his wedding.
Probably To Definitely Not Acceptable
If a Shoe’s Leather Looks Truly Bad Aesthetically—Just Don’t Get it
Elliot gives some good examples: “A big greasy thumbprint on a toebox. A sandpaper scuff on dark shell. Those are tricky.” More: Cuts or gouges in the leather. A big, extremely noticeable scratch. Punctured leather. Blotched finish/tanning. Those Tommy Lee Jones creases right out of the box.
If any of these issues are plaguing shoes you’re considering, and you hate them with a deep, seething passion, engage the reverse-Nike mantra—just don’t do it. If notice them when you get home, or buy them online, most of these will give you a claim to a new pair from reasonable shoemakers—especially the punctures and gouges. As you tick down the line, interpretation (and commitment to keeping customers happy, for that matter) comes into play. The best advice may be: if you’re going to make a stink about something, just be sure you understand what you’re stinking about.
The Fit is Perfect on One Shoe…and Just Flat Wrong on the Other
First off: always remember there’s basically zero chance that your feet are 100% the same size. But you’ve likely also owned at least one pair of shoes in your life, so you have some sense of how different they are.
Secondly: because of that this point doesn’t apply to, say, an instance in which one shoe fits pretty darn snugly, while the other fits even more snugly (and possibly uncomfortably) than that. Chances are, that’s the fault of your feet—and the tighter shoe may stretch to the point where it fits great after a few wears. But very rarely, one shoe will get lasted more tightly or loosely than a shoemaker had wished, resulting in two shoes that feel remarkably different. If you’re feeling pain (or alternately, are swimming around in one shoe to a crazy extent) and think you’ve got a legitimate claim, strike up that conversation.
Criss-Crossed Stitchdown Stitching Is Probably Something You Don’t Want
There are only a dutiful handful of makers focused on double-row stitchdown construction—Viberg, Wesco, White’s, and Truman among them. And as mentioned above, the unique look of that construction is a major reason that people gravitate towards that footwear.
It’s very hard to completely ace two rows being in perfect alignment—we’re talking two passes with a single-needle machine through many of layers of thick leather. But very rarely will one row step up on top of the other, and most of these companies won’t ship anything that’s truly bad. But as a consumer who’s not paying pennies, it’s well within your rights to say that one line of stitching that goes over the other line is, well…over the line. (Obvious exception: if something with this flaw is at a sample or factory seconds sale, in which case, such defects are far more acceptable, and the price you pay reflects it). These fall very much into the “no it’s not gonna fall apart, you just deserve better” category.
A Consistent Heel Stack Height Is Essential
One of the benefits of quality shoes is that they’re designed with your biomechanics in mind, and can help your entire body feel better—not just your feet. There’s arguably no part of a shoe that affects that more directly than the heels, and for your body to be aligned properly, they must be even.
“Even an 8th of an inch difference gets the boots sent back” from Standard & Strange, says Neil. If they look inconsistent, definitely go ahead and measure, to ensure it’s not some optical illusion (related: if you can see a sailboat in your shoes by crossing your eyes, please contact your doctor, or the big guy from Mallrats).
Nails in the Footbed Not Being Nailed Down all the Way: Bad!
I will spare you any further deep explanation on this one.