To observe the process of fabrication of espadrilles is to understand the history of a geographical area in detail, its tradition and craftsmanship. The raw materials and the inspiration for the design have strong ties to La Rioja. This is the kind of footwear in which natural fibres are used, especially jute, being the most important material, mainly because certain brands from La Rioja are specialised in its care. Nonetheless, in each shoe there is something non-material: the wisdom given after years making espadrilles for men and women.
However, when you add footwear technology to the tradition and the expertise, what we get is a comfortable, fresh and natural shoe, able to adapt to any style and lifestyle.
The origins of the making of the espadrille in Spain date back to the 13th century, when the soldiers of the king of Aragón wore them. The name “espadrille” comes from the word “esparto”, a sort of jute originally used to make its soles. Naturally, jute is a vegetable fibre used to make all espadrilles nowadays, handmade or not. It came to use over fifty years ago, and it is much softer, more delicate on the hands, and it looks more similar to the hemp, the original raw material. Murcia, Aragón, Navarra, Castellón, and La Rioja are the areas where this material grows, and also the areas where the espadrille is still a bigger tradition, above all in the latter two.
Particularly, we must highlight the history of footwear in the town of Arnedo (La Rioja), where it is located the Footwear Technology Centre of La Rioja. It dates back to the 19th century, when by needs of farmers there was a large base of shoemakers, who made a kind of shoe strong enough to help them endure the daily work on the fields; these were the espadrilles, which were made with jute or even with rubber from the wheels of trucks.
Its use has been wide: in the Civil War, the army included them en the uniform of their soldiers, as it was more comfortable to walk with them in battle. The war left the country in poverty, so jute reached fame in the 40s and 50s for its low cost, and espadrilles became the only affordable footwear. However, at the end of the 50s, many farmers started to move to the city and to work on factories, changing the comfort of (the) jute espadrilles for hard leather boots with soles of rubber, as a consequence, closing many factories of espadrilles, forcing shoemakers to take their work to their homes. This is how espadrilles became a typical handmade Spanish product for visitors.
Actors and intellectuals of the international scene discovering this footwear made of jute caught the attention of prestigious designers, who started to include it in their haute couture collections, turning espadrilles in a fashion item. From the traditional ones, simple and of a single colour, to more sophisticated designs, these shoes have had an overwhelming reception, above all during the Spring/Summer season. Even their name has change to the Anglicised form “Espadrilles” (in Spanish “Alpargatas”).
There are numerous high-end brands that sell them, and there are also low cost alternatives. Some of them have (a) thick soles, a high platform, or really bold high heels. There is also a replica of the usual male shoe with laces. All of these are made of a wide variety of materials, with leather of special fabrics that add audacity, or with an all-over print and colour blocks…
But, what process do they follow? Since time immemorial, traditional espadrilles are made in Cervera del Río Alhama (La Rioja). The raw material is exclusively jute: % natural and organic, it allows the skin to perspire and is softer to the touch. They have also a longer lifespan expectancy.
After the plait is made of these fibres, it comes the weaving of the jute, that consist on wrapping it until it takes the form of a sole. This part is still handmade one by one, changing the different sizes by moving the fastening nails.
Then, the sole is stitched from one side to the other until it is consistent.
In the olden days, the outsole did not have a protection, but nowadays it is used a rubber base –through vulcanisation– to extend its duration.
What remains is to stitch the cloth to the sole and the espadrille is finished.