C.I.A. Lacing

C.I.A. Lacing

Taught to C.I.A. officers during the Cold War, one or more “signal” crossovers is placed between straight segments for covert signalling. (From: Robert Wallace)

NOTE: I've used slightly different color-coding on these diagrams, with only the visible crossover(s) that form the basis of the covert “signals” highlighted in yellow.

Diagram for 6 pairs of eyelets, variation 1

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Lacing Technique – Variation 1 – Low visible X above one straight segment

• Begin straight across on the outside and in through the bottom eyelets.

• Cross the ends on the inside and feed out through the next higher set of eyelets.

• Cross the ends on the outside and feed in through the next higher set of eyelets. This forms the “signal” crossover (shown in yellow).

• The left end crosses diagonally on the inside, then straight across on the outside.

• The right end crosses diagonally on the inside at a steeper angle, then straight across on the outside.

• Alternate running the left and right ends diagonally until lacing is completed.


Covert signalling

Best on dress shoes

Messy on sneakers

2% shorter ends (approx.)


• This set of seven methods was originally included in the secret manual “Recognition Signals”, one of two instructional manuals produced for the C.I.A. by noted magician John Mulholland in 1953. Both manuals were declassified in 2007, while in 2009 a book about them was released.

• I have attempted to faithfully recreate the seven diagrams kindly supplied to me by author Robert Wallace from his “copy-of-a-copy” of the original manuscripts. The originals were for shoes with six pairs of eyelets, but can easily be adapted for different numbers (as I have done with the variations for 3, 4 or 5 pairs).

• Note that there is no fixed meaning attached to any particular variation. The signals would typically have been agreed upon in advance. For example, it might be agreed that an officer would use Variation 1 to signal “concealed package” or Variation 2 to signal “empty handed”.

• These methods are designed mainly for use on the types of shoes that C.I.A. officers would have worn in the 1950s, typically Oxfords (Balmorals) where the sides of the shoes meet in the middle (as seen in the first photo below). On such shoes, the underlying mess of laces is hidden on the inside, with only the horizontals plus “signal” crossovers visible on the outside.

C.I.A. Lacing Theory

Although these techniques appear to be complicated for anyone (even a secret agent!) to memorize, the logic behind them is quite simple. Each technique is only a slight variation of Straight European Lacing, which was likely the “standard” way of lacing agents' shoes and thus one with which they were already familiar.

The theory was that an agent could fairly quickly and easily un-lace their shoe up to a particular point, lace in a visible crossover (where there were previously horizontals), then continue lacing the rest of the shoe with the “standard” lacing.

Shoelace Lengths for C.I.A. Lacing

Pairs of eyelets: 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Length needed: (N/A) 81 cm
32 inch
92 cm
36 inch
102 cm
40 inch
113 cm
45 inch
124 cm
49 inch
135 cm
53 inch
Lengths available: 36" 36" 40" 45" 45" 54"

NOTE: These are approximate shoelace lengths for using this lacing on an average sized sneaker. For more accurate lengths, use the Shoelace Length Calculator.

Comparative Length

Longer shoelaces needed than those for basic Criss Cross Lacing.

Shorter ends if existing shoelaces are re-used (−2% on average).

More details.

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This page last updated: 06-May-2021. Copyright © 2014-2021 by Ian W. Fieggen. All rights reserved.

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