A last is simply a model of the foot for which the shoe is intended. The last on the left is a 19th-century wooden on, while the Loake Loafers on the right are being finished off while still on their plastic lasts. A pair of plastic lasts is shown at the bottom. Lasts used to be made by a specialist last-maker – carved from wood to match the exact dimensions of the feet of the future owner of shoes made on that last. So – the last was peculiar to the person for whom it was made. This is still the case in custom-made shoe workshops across the globe. There have been periods in history when there were no left and right lasts – and shoes were symmetric. This meant that breaking them in was rather more painful than it is now! Happily, lasts are now made left and right, slim and chunky, wide and narrow fitting etc, etc.
A shoe – welted or cemented – spends much of its time during manufacturing, on its last. Only once the entire shoe is in place with all of its structural components stitched and/or glued in place, is the last eased gently out and sent back to the last dormitory to rest and await its next tour of duty. Have a look at any Loake shoe specification (see here for examples – the robust Otterburn and more slinky Kruger) and you will see the name of the last used -“024” and “Ridge” respectively in these cases.
The last influences the shape of the shoe dramatically and its worth noting lasts that you like – as shoes made on the same last will feel similar. All of my Loakes are size 7 and predominantly normal (F) fitting. The shoes from different lasts certainly feel slightly different, but they all fit very well. I even have a couple of pairs in a wide (G) fitting, which fit just fine with a good-quality insole, and one pair in narrow (F) which is very snug, but still comfortable, as the shoes (Stowe – a now-deleted design) have moulded themselves to my foot.
Note that you’ll occasionally find adverts on(say) eBay offering to sell you a “shoe last” when it’s actually either a shoe tree or a metal think that shoe-repairers use to put a shoe on when re-soling (or otherwise working on) it.