The Ask Lucy series offers tips and tricks about life as a ballet dancer.
When I was twelve, an older dancer showed me how she sewed the ribbons and elastics on her pointe shoes. After years of dancing in companies, through hundreds of pairs of pointe shoes, I still sew my shoes in the same way. And now, I want to share my technique with you.
Every professional dancer has her own way of sewing her shoes. This is just my way. I like it because it’s very quick, sturdy, reliable, and doesn’t require a lot of supplies. It’s also simple, because the stitches are big and go all the way through the material, so a student learning to sew for the first time shouldn’t have too much trouble, with a little practice. Up close the stitches are visible; but from a few feet away, they blend in completely with the shoe. This method is suitable for both class and stage performance.
I haven’t actually timed myself. I’ll try to make a video to show whether or not it’s really possible to sew my shoes in twenty minutes. My claim comes from times when there were only twenty minutes left before class started, and a performance had ended too late the night before to sew shoes before bed–so ready, set, go! I wouldn’t recommend this though, because it’s pretty stressful.
Please keep in mind, the process is exceptionally fast for me because I’ve been doing it for years. Always sew carefully and take your time, especially while you’re learning. Try not to prick your finger, because that hurts (but I did hear once that a drop of blood on the shoe brings good luck). If you’re not allowed to use a lighter yourself, ask an adult to help you with that part.
What you’ll need: pointe shoes, ribbons, elastics (3/4″ to 1″ thick), scissors (mine are nail scissors), dental floss, needle, lighter (optional, but you might regret not doing it if your ribbons fray in your bag. The word “singe” looks strange in print, so I’ll say “burn” instead).
To prepare: cut the ribbon into four equal sections, each about 18″ long. You will adjust the lengths later once the ribbons are tied around the ankle. Cut the elastic into two pieces, each the length from the tip of your middle finger to the base of your hand (where your palm meets your wrist). Burn the ends of the ribbons by running each edge back and forth against the flame for a few seconds.
Thread the needle so that the thread is about the length of your arm on both ends. I use dental floss because it is sturdy and waxed just like the more expensive pointe shoe thread, and it usually has a nice minty smell. I tie a knot by making a loop around my pointer finger (picture) and threading the needle through 3 times in the same direction, then releasing the finger from the loop and pulling the string tightly.
Step 1, Elastics:
Sew the elastics first so that the ribbons aren’t in your way. Any pink ballet shoe elastic is fine; the one I use is “invisible.” If you are using normal elastic, you can burn the ends with the lighter. Since I don’t burn the invisible elastic, I fold it under one time instead (see picture). Then, place the elastic on the outside of the shoe (so the stitches won’t rub against your heel). The nearest end of the elastic should be a bit more than a centimeter from the inside seam of the heel. This will keep your Achilles tendon free from pressure, but will still keep the shoe on your heel.
You should sew along the canvas casing that holds the drawstring. The stitches go from the bottom, where the satin meets the casing, to just at the top, where the casing begins. Be careful to not sew through the drawstring; you can feel if you went through it because it will be harder to push the needle through. But as long as you stay along the edge of the casing, you shouldn’t have a problem with the drawstring.
The stitches run: bottom inside, top outside, bottom inside, top outside. I’m left handed, so it makes sense for me to start on the left inside and finish on the right inside. But choose whichever direction works for you.
It takes five or six stitches to get from one side to the other. To secure the thread, run the needle through the very edge of the casing, and push it halfway through. Loop the thread around the needle, and pull the needle all the way through. Then, tie a normal knot at the base of your first knot (same principle as the knot you made at the beginning–looping around finger and threading the needle through–but this time you only need to thread through once) and pull it tight. Cut off the thread, and tie again for the next elastic. Repeat this process four times.
Note on criss-crossed elastics: lots of dancers like to criss-cross their elastics instead of having just one around the ankle. That never worked for me; it pulls me too far back in the shoe. But if you want to criss-cross your elastics, you can still use this technique in the same way; just start with two slightly longer elastics and cut them into four equal-length sections. Sew the back two sections, keeping the same distance from the center seam as I described. Position the front elastic with the ribbon stacked on top of it so that the elastic is hidden. You’ll be sewing through both the ribbon and front elastic at the same time. Follow the directions for sewing ribbons.
So, now you’ve sewn this little ladder of stitches to secure all your back elastics. You’re halfway there! Now it’s time for ribbons (and layered elastics, if you’re criss-crossing). You’ll probably need to re-thread your needle.
Step 2, Ribbons:
Complete this step on the inside of the shoe. Place the ribbon about 3/4’’ to an inch away from where your elastic ends. Even though I burn the ends of the ribbons, I like to fold the satin twice to make the fabric more sturdy before sewing.
Then I follow the width of that folded part when I make the stitches. The placement of the ribbons is, again, a personal preference. I don’t like it when the ribbon covers too much of my foot, so I keep it a bit farther back from the center of the arch (about an inch away from the inside-arch seam). Point the ribbon in a slight diagonal line coming forward, so it will be smooth on both sides when you wrap it around your ankle. The stitching and tying methods are exactly the same as they were for the elastic. If you are crisscrossing the elastics, you’ll have to navigate the needle underneath the crossed elastic, which might add a few seconds to your time.
Once you’ve sewn on all four ribbons, you’re finished! Two fresh, beautifully sewn pointe shoes! Sadly, these shoes aren’t ready for dancing yet. But just like my sewing methods, my shoe preparation methods are also simple and effective. Stay tuned for another post on how I break-in my pointe shoes.
I hope this is helpful! Let me know if you try to sew your shoes this way, and how it turns out for you. I’ll be sharing other Ask Lucy topics soon, so leave a comment if there’s anything else you’d like to know about being a dancer!