Women’s embroidered shoes for bound feet


In 2018 Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood wrote and illustrated an exhibit on the TRC website about bound foot shoes from China.
The article below covers the main points related to embroidery. To read the full article, click here.

All photos are from the collection of the Textile Research Center in Leiden. The shoes presented here all date from the beginning of the 20th century.

The content of this site is free and is not damaged by un-welcomed publicity. I do this work with love and passion but it requires a lot of time. I would like to continue to offer a wider market to our artists, to show how embroidery is a wonderful art. But I do need a little bit of help. If you feel like it, you can participate with a little donation to help me continue. I will be so grateful! Thank you! Claire

The tradition of foot binding in China dates back to the 10th century and did not die out until the middle of the 20th century. Reserved at first for the elite, this practice gradually spread to all social classes. It was believed that having the feet bound, in the shape of a lotus, ensured girls a good marriage. If the idea was to make the feet as small as possible (gold Lotuses should not exceed 7 cm in length; silver Lotuses no more than 9 cm), there was no single type foot shape. The shoes sewn for them adapted to their shapes, to fashion, to the region and to the customs of the women who wore them. Only the tip of the foot was placed in the shoe, the heel was supported by bandages, or even bamboo rods. The heel was always hidden by strips of silk or cotton, tights and pants.

© TRC 2010.0351 a-b


Wedding shoes, South China © TRC 2013.0057 a-b

The future bride often had to send her future in-laws a copy of the shoes she embroidered for herself. Very small shoes, decorated with taste and skill demonstrated her patience, her courage in extreme situations, her creativity too and her talents as a housewife.

The shoes had to highlight these tiny feet by being sewn and embroidered with great care. Other elements, such as tights, socks, etc., also had to be delicately embroidered. Women could either embroider and sew their shoes or buy them. The last factory closed in 1998.

Embroidered socks © TRC 2012.0364 a-b
Shoes from Jiangsu and Zheijiang © TRC 2013.0050 a-b


Livre de modèles © TRC 2014.0030


The realization of these shoes was quite complex. The soles were created from several layers of cotton covered with a paste of rice or wheat flour, then glued together. A paper template was then placed on these layers which had to be perfectly cut. Everything was then sewn around the edges.

The soles were covered with very small dots to decorate them. As women with bound feet often entertained while reclining on kang (a kind of short bed), the soles of their shoes became visible and must have been pleasing to the eye.

To create the top of the shoe, 2.5 cm wide strips of cotton or wool were needed. These strips were glued together to create the internal structure of the shoe. The visible and embroidered part was most often made of silk. The embroideries were done before the assembly of the shoe. Pattern books were available, but women also copied old shoes or even invented designs that matched local customs or a particular event.

Shoes from the North-East © TRC 2013.0049 a-b



Night shoes (soft soles) © TRC 2011.0048 a-b

In China, there are 5 major symbolic colors: red (pink), yellow, blue (green), black and white. Red is associated with celebrations (wedding or New Year), certain shades of yellow were reserved for the Emperor and his family and white marked mourning.
From there, women had a wide choice of patterns to decorate their shoes: symbols, objects, plants, animals. Several of them represented luck, health, longevity, etc.

Mourning shoes, white, without decorations © TRC 2013.0058 a-b

These patterns could also decorate shoes planned for such and such events (season, festival). Spring shoes wore plum blossoms, summer shoes peonies; the lotuses were used for the fall and the chrysanthemums for the winter. But there are also peaches, bamboo stalks, pines. The favorite birds were the crane and the phoenix. Cats, bats, butterflies, turtles and monkeys were embroidered. A very Chinese type of symbol is called the Five Poisons: toads, snakes, lizards, centipedes and scorpions. Their images served as amulets against the Evil One.

Street walking shoes (worn over indoor shoes) © TRC 2014.0133 a-b
Embroidered edges before sewing © TRC 2012.0365 a-d
Mao style shoes, 1950 © TRC 2013.0055 a-b

In the 19th century, shoes adapted somewhat to European fashion (colors, materials). In 1912, the communist government banned this practice and women often had to hide their feet in discreet shoes. Today, only a few very old women still have their feet bound and their shoes end up in museums.