Types of shoe sole materials

Updated February 21, 2017

The soles of a shoe can play a major part in your decision to buy one pair over another. A plethora of shoe-sole material exists in the industry, and manufacturers choose the materials they use carefully. Where you, the consumer, will wear your shoes, what you do in them and even how the materials are acquired may sway the manufacturer toward one material or another, just as it will ultimately influence your decision to buy.

Rubber Soles

Many traditional canvas sneakers and high-tops, such as Converse All Stars and British plimsolls, feature rubber soles. Rubber soles may be moulded from rubber alone, or they may be mixed with other materials. Some synthetic compounds also simulate the flexibility and protection of rubber, and they are used alone or with other materials to compose the soles and bodies of footwear designed for use at beaches. Waterproof shoes and boots, such as Wellington boots, may be made entirely of rubber, or they may feature a mix of rubber and polyvinyl chloride in their design. Thin rubber is a common sole material for toddlers, as it provides protection and skid-resistance while they run, jump and play.

Leather Soles

Leather made from top-grade cowhide is often used to prevent slips on hardwood, tile and other smooth surfaces. Double-layer flexible leather soles also offer the same resistance to slippage and create a slightly thicker sole for more foot protection. Suede leather, which is very soft, allows for more flexibility and sensory input to the feet. Suede is often used for indoor shoes, such as slippers or moccasins, which do not need to provide protection from weather or debris. Suede can also be double-layered to provide additional warmth and protection.

Synthetic Materials

Many synthetic materials are used in shoe-sole design and construction. In addition to polyvinyl chloride, polyurethane and neoprene are sometimes used to provide a flexible sole with much greater protection than other flexible materials. Neoprene is used not only for human shoes, but also in bootees for search-and-rescue dogs, which utilise the material's flexibility while they climb or run while relying on its toughness to protect them from hazards.

Recycled Materials

More recent trends in shoe construction have seen the introduction of recycled materials in shoe construction. Three notable footwear companies make use of recycled tires to construct their soles. The Timberland Earthkeeper brand features soles made from a mix of 42 per cent recycled tire rubber and virgin rubber. Blackspot Unswooshers feature soles cut directly from the tread of recycled tires, and they leave a distinctive tire tread pattern on snow or soft ground. Earth Footwear uses 70 per cent recycled materials in the footbeds of their shoes.

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About the Author

Rob Callahan lives in Minneapolis, where he covers style, culture and the arts for Vita.MN and "l'├ętoile Magazine." His work has earned awards in the fields of journalism, social media and the arts. Callahan graduated from Saint Cloud State University in 2001 with a Bachelor's degree in philosophy.