Cobbler stick to your last? The convoluted world of shoe sizes...

Posted by:
Claudia Ebbers
January 21, 2021

To provide feet with thermal and mechanical protection, footwear has become a natural part of overall clothing in most modern cultures. They must fit well so that the feet do not become ill as well as additionally limited in their functionality and performance.

In the past, every cobbler had his own last: that's the name of the moldings used to make a shoe. There was a separate last for each foot. But then came industrialization and brought mass production. Suddenly, uniform shoe sizes were in demand.

How is the shoe size defined?

Shoe size is the size of a shoe or foot. The length of the foot is the most commonly used measurement to determine shoe size.

Source: Wikipedia

Because the foot pushes forward at the moment of rolling, the inner sole length in the shoe must be dimensioned in such a way that there is a certain amount of free space in front of the toes in addition to the pure sole length of the foot: This allowance, as the technical term goes, is about 15 millimeters and should be taken into account when choosing the right shoe length, but it depends heavily on the shoe shape and heel height.

In addition to the length of the foot, the width of the foot is increasingly being taken into account in the form of the ball of the foot measurement. For this purpose, the circumference of the foot is measured at its widest point, the ball line (imaginary line between the ball of the big and small toes).

In addition to the measurements, the shape of the foot is also decisive for whether a shoe fits. This circumstance is not taken into account in almost any shoe size system.

Mostly, however, it limits the shoe size only to the indication of the length expressed with a number, because shoes are usually produced only in one width.

But, unfortunately, to this day there is still no uniform measure of length for shoes.

How does that actually happen?

Historical development of shoe measurements

Before and partly during the Bronze Age (2200 - 800 BC) existed, for example, shoes woven from birch bast, in the manufacture of which no distinction was made between right and left shoe. Shoes were initially a privilege of the richer population.

With the production "in stock", solid footwear then became more affordable even for the poorer population and the demand for shoes took its historical course and the first size systems were already created.

Unfortunately, the growing shoe manufacturers failed to agree on a measurement system. And even these are different from manufacturer to manufacturer, since one considers the inside foot length as decisive, the other the inside shoe length and still others also take into account the width of the foot/shoe.

Thus, there are still today - essentially - three measures: the French, the British and the American.


England: Barley Corn / "Size" shoe size

If you believe the tradition, the origins of shoe sizes go back to the year 1324 (Middle Ages). The inventor was King Edward II of England, who introduced a uniform measure of length. "One inch is three barley grains" (25.4mm), the king established at that time as the valid standard measure (Barley Corn). The inch measure (inch = 2.54 cm) was divided into three equal parts and one such part was called a "size". The sizelength is thus 8.46 mm. In the middle of the 19th century, the division into half sizelengths was made (4.23 mm) to improve the fit.

The size shoe measurement starts after 10.16 cm (4 inches or 15 1/2 stitch). From 0-13 Size (10.16 - 21.16 cm) go the English children's sizes. The adult sizes 1-14 Size (22-23 cm) follow.


France: Paris stitch

This dimensional stitch, which was established in France around 1800, is used to sew the sole and the upper part of the shoe together. A Paris stitch is always 0.6666 centimeters long. The last length is usually 1.5 to 2 centimeters longer than the foot length. The Paris stitch is the basis of the European measurement

USA: Boston Foot Sizing System

In North America, the English system of measurement is also used. The American system of measurement differs from the English in that it starts one twelfth of an inch earlier (3 11/12 inches). This small difference serves to get in line with the French and metric systems. The American system of measurement of size 0 begins exactly at 15 stitch.

The length increment is 2.43 mm (6.66 mm - 4.23 mm = 2.43 mm) smaller than with the stitch gauge and the fit is therefore better.

However, a wider range of lasts, more punching knives, etc. is also necessary.

USA: Brannock Size

A slightly different sizing method is based on the Brannock device, a measuring instrument invented by Charles F. Brannock in 1925 and now found in many shoe stores. The formula used by the Brannock device assumes a foot length that is 1.7 cm less than the length of the last; thus, men's size 1 corresponds to a foot length of 19.47 cm.The device also measures the length of the arch, or the distance between the heel and the ball (metatarsal head) of the foot. For this measurement, the device has a shorter scale on the instep of the foot with an indicator that can be slid into position. If this scale indicates a larger size, this is taken instead of the foot length to ensure the correct fit.


Over the centuries, the different systems developed, which one tries to master until today via corresponding conversion tables.

Shoe size guide per designer (for those interested) :

The International Organization for Standardization, ISO, Geneva, with 87 member countries, wanted to introduce a standardization of shoe measurements in 1991, but this was only partially successful.

Mondo system (ISO 9407)

The new shoe measurement - called Mondopoint (Mondo: world) - was to be gradually introduced universally. In the Mondopoint system, the foot length is measured standing up and not the last length. Therefore, the normal lace allowances (10 - 15 mm) must be subtracted first when converting stitch or size to Mondopoint.

The Mondopoint shoe length system is used primarily in the sports industry for sizing athletic shoes, ski boots, ice skates, and pointe ballet shoes, but has not succeeded in being used as a uniform system. However, it has also been adopted as the primary shoe sizing system in the Soviet Union, Russia, East Germany, China, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, and as an optional system in the United Kingdom, India, Mexico, and European countries. The Mondopoint system is also used by NATO and other military services.

Thus, there are still several different, coexisting, historically evolved shoe size systems, some with national emphases. They differ in the reference size, the unit of measurement or the scale zero point. Only some of the systems include the foot width in addition to the foot length, so that non-standardized, manufacturer-specific designations are often in use for this.

For the right shoe, by the way, not only the shoe size itself is important.

The time of purchase is also crucial, because a foot expands during the day. In length by a few millimeters, in width even up to one centimeter. Therefore, it is advisable to put the shoe purchase in the afternoon or evening.

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