How to Pick Sneaker Materials

The footwear materials you select for your sneaker are what make your kicks come to life! You will find the design pattern is not the critical or special feature; the sneaker materials are! Learning how to specify sneaker materials is critical when you want to make shoes. If you want to learn how to become a sneaker designer, you must know how to specify footwear materials. You have an infinite menu of material choices and colors to create your sneaker masterpiece.  Rich leathers, silky mesh, or high-tech synthetics, take your pick.

see inside the Nike Kobe Elite XI, How are shoes constructed? Types of shoe construction
see inside the Nike Kobe Elite XI

The sneaker designer must take great care to pick the right materials that can stand up to the demands of production. The demands for sneaker performance and manufacturing must be met. A beautiful material that rips during the lasting operation or fades in sunlight can’t be used!  So let’s learn how to select the right materials for your sneaker design.

Factors for Sneaker Design Materials:

When you select sneaker materials for your design project, the design brief should help guide your choices. The design brief defines the type of  sneaker you are making. Kicks for basketball, trainers for chilling?  Are these going to be inexpensive or premium sneakers?  With your design brief in hand and some background knowledge, you can select the right materials suitable for your sneaker.
The most common materials for modern sneakers are leathers, textiles, synthetics, rubber, foam, and plastic. Each has its specific uses in footwear.  Depending on your design, each material will have a place in your sneaker.  Material selection is one of the fundamentals of shoe design. Let’s take a quick tour of these common materials.

Leather for Sneakers

Air Jordan 5 Suede
Air Jordan 5 with drum dyed Blue suede

Cow leather is the most common material used for making sneakers. It is durable, flexible, stretchable, and is available in many styles, colors, and price points. It is a great material choice, and with cow hide leather, you can make beautiful, functional, and fashionable sneakers.

Real leather is alive! Not really, but the character of leather changes as it wears.  A fine leather sneaker breathes and conforms like no other shoe. But, leather does have some drawbacks. It can be heavy, hot, and susceptible to water absorption and damage if not treated. Water-resistant and water-proof treatments add cost. Leather is a relatively expensive material when

Leather Duty Men's shoe 8.5% What is the Duty on a leather shoe

compared to fabric or other human-made materials and must be treated with care during shoe manufacturing.
Because leather hides are from individual animals, each is a different size, and each will have scars, imperfections, even brands that must be avoided when cutting. This uncut and unusable material is called cutting loss. For leather, the cutting loss is at best 5% of a hide. When making the highest quality shoes, shoe leather cutting loss can be 15%. That’s 15% of the material cost being thrown away.

The smooth white leather on many basketball shoes is actually suede that has been coated with a thin layer of PU plastic. This leather is called Action Leather. It is inexpensive, durable, easy to clean, and looks just like “real” full-grain leather.

Textiles for Sneakers

Textiles for shoes come in a huge variety of colors, weaves, knits, fibers, and deniers. Denier is how thread weight is measured. 1 denier = 1 gram per 9000 meters of thread. Typical denier is 110D for very lightweight fabric, 420D and 600D are common thread weights for shoe fabrics. Footwear textiles come in many fiber types including cotton, wool, nylon, polyester, polypropylene, rayon, lycra, and more. Each has its own look and physical properties.

Authentic Vans sk8 quality inspection
What are athletic shoes made of?

Textiles are a miracle material for shoes. With an infinite variety of weaves, colors, patterns, and unique features, textiles have a special place in footwear design. You will find textiles inside, outside, and even on the bottoms of some sneakers. Human-made polymer fibers such as nylon and polyester are lightweight and durable. Lycra is stretchable, and cotton canvas, with a look all its own, is a must for vulcanized construction.

Depending on the import rules for your country, textiles often come with a high duty rate. Shoes made with 51% textile surface area often fall into a 20% duty rate.  A textile shoe that costs less than $12.50 may be categorized as 20% +.90 duty! (Depending on the country of origin.) However, there is a trick; by molding textiles on the sole of the shoe, you can avoid the high duty rates!  Textiles will be reviewed in-depth in their own article.

Synthetics for Sneakers

Nike Air Foamposite is molded synthetic leather with foam backing

Whatever you call it, synthetic, synthetic leather, PU leather, or just PU, this material is another must-have for modern sports shoes. This class of material offers the shoe designer a huge variety of colors, textures, and features at a wide range of prices. PU leather was once considered cheap junk and not suitable for high-quality shoes, times have changed! These human-made materials are often a composite made of two layers. A backing layer, made of woven or non-woven polyester fibers. Combined with an external surface layer by “dry” lamination process or by liquid “wet” processes. Many of the least expensive synthetics have a fibrous woven backing with PVC skin made by a wet process. The surface on these may not be 100% smooth, and the shoe will show wrinkles and creases. This material is the cheap stuff found on inexpensive shoes.

High-end Leather for Sneakers

High-end leather starts with a water-resistant microfiber PU backing. This backing has a smooth surface, cuts cleanly, and can be dyed to match the surface materials. A microfiber style backing can be ordered in .5 to 2.00mm thicknesses, has some stretch, and can have a water-resistant treatment. On top of this backing, the skin can be applied.

Polyurethane plastic film .2 to .5mm thick is made in a separate operation, and the two layers are then rolled together with heat and pressure. PU outer skin is then printed, embossed, scuffed, or polished to create one of the millions of surface options. The largest PU maker has hundreds of different embossing patterns that can be applied to hundreds of different surfaces. If you can meet the order volume required, you can pick any color you want! Synthetics will be reviewed in-depth in their own article.

Foam for Sneakers

There are many types of foam used to make shoes, here we are going to review the types of foam found in the uppers of shoes. Generally, foam is divided into two types, “Open Cell” and “Closed Cell” foam. Open cell is exactly what it sounds like; the plastic compound that makes up the foam cells is open. Air and water are free to enter and exit the foam, just like a dishwashing sponge. Closed-cell foam is exactly that; individual cells are closed or sealed, not allowing the foam’s internal gas to escape.

Shoe Material Design Guide

Open-cell Foam for Sneaker Uppers

Open-cell foam is generally softer; these foams are made of Polyurethane plastic. This type of foam is commonly known as “KF or KFF” foam. Open-cell foam is available in different densities and in almost any thickness and color. Open-cell foam is used in the tongues and collars of shoes. Thin sheets of PU foam are used to back fabric in most shoe uppers. PU foam allows the stitches to sink in and gives mesh some extra support while reducing wrinkles.

Reticulated foam is the most open style of foam. This type is often used for ventilation features.

Closed-cell Foam for Sneaker Midsoles

Closed-cell foam is generally denser. Midsoles of shoes are all made from closed cell foam. Midsole foam is covered in the article Outsole Design. Common closed-cell foams include EVA (ethyl vinyl acetate), PE (Polyethylene), SBR (Styrene-butadiene rubber), PU (Polyurethane), Latex, and Neoprene. Each has its own properties. EVA foam is used for backing mesh materials, and 2mm sheet EVA will make fabric waterproof. Neoprene and SBR are used when elastic properties are required. Latex is common for collar linings. PE foam is very light but not too durable, so its use is limited.

When working with foam, it is important to know which foam is appropriate for the shoe upper and which is appropriate for cushioning the shoe outsoleLearn more here.

What is the Best Material for Sneakers?

There is no one best material for shoes. What is best for Air Jordan 5 is not the best for the Nike Foamposite. The sneaker designer, footwear developer, and product manager must work together to pick materials based on the price, performance, durability, duty rates, comfort, and styling. Every shoe will have a different material requirement.

Sneaker Material Design Guide

Shoe material design Guide shoemaking book

Do you want to be a professional shoe designer? You must learn how to select and specify footwear materials correctly. Do you want to learn material engineering for Sneakers? The Shoe Material Design Guide details all the shoe materials you will need to make modern athletic, classic casuals and high fashion footwear.

Each chapter covers a specific shoe material type. You will learn how each material is made, the options available to you, and how to specify the material correctly. Inside you will find chapters on leather, textiles, synthetics, laces, glue, reinforcements, hardware, logos, midsoles, outsoles, and more.

See exactly how each material is used inside real production shoes.  We have included annotated cross-sections of over 30 different shoe types. Look inside basketball shoes, running shoes, track spikes, hiking boots, work boots, high heels, cowboy boots and many more!

You will also find information on topics such as material testing, sustainable production, and exotic materials. Written as a companion to our best selling How Shoes Are Made, The Shoe Material Design Guide digs deeper into the world of footwear materials and design. Softcover, 330 color photos,  28 chapters, 195 pages.

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