Bespoke Shoes Unlaced – a shoemaker's blog

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Making is good for you...Heritage Craft Association Conference 2019

Welcome back good shoe folk far and wide and this week's blog takes us to good ol' Camden Town and the wonderful building that is home to The English Folk Dance and Song Society. 

Now, I have to admit that folk dance isn't really my thing, but if it meant sitting in the wonderful oak panelled dance room at the Society, then I'd certainly be tempted.

A very solid brick building, almost a true square on the outside, inside gives way to a wonderful main hall, as I said oak-panelled, and with the enormous picture windows you can see on the frontage set high up on three sides.

And it was to the Society that over 300 crafters, enthusiasts and makers came last weekend for the annual Heritage Craft Association conference 'Making is good for you'; something we've seen proof of time and time again on our courses and classes.

(If you're not familiar with the HCA, nor a member, then I heartily recommend finding out more and joining). 

It was a packed schedule, so my apologies I don't have photos of everybody, but to be honest I did what I went there to do, which was to listen! 

Here are three of the highlights for me:

The Conference leaped into action with the enigmatic Jay Blades of the BBC's programme Repair Shop and Money for Nothing. As I'm besotted with upcycling and chairs, I've followed him for a while on Instagram where his work with Jay & Co can be seen. (His signature is bold contrast paint and textiles, often just a single colour on the leg of a chair).

Jay told us of his journey into craft from East London ne'r-do-well to traditionally trained furniture restorer and social entrepreneur via the High Wycombe College of Art and Technology. (High Wycombe was once home to 80% of chair production in the UK with Ercol and Parker Knoll both located there). Jay's charity work involves teaching at-risk youngsters how to use their energy and creative skills to restore furniture and to make money from it.

Orange Shoelaces hotmail ufo by Celia PymNorwegian SweaterHope’s Sweater, 1951 by Celia PymSweater made without a pattern, from photograph and in pieces by Celia Pym

Next was a very moving talk by knitwear artist Celia Pym. She explained the emotional connection she feels with knitwear and it's previous owners, how evocative it can be and the responsibility she feels when she repairs it in her signature contrast colour or texture to tell the story of the wearer (see images of Celia's work above). She described the similarities between her work and that of students of anatomy who have a relationship and duty of care for the bodies and to the families of donors.  

We heard about UK Men's Sheds from social entrepreneur Mike Jenn and how this community workshop movement helps people who feel isolated or who have mental health issues offering a routine, place and people to make alongside and to talk to.

HCA Trustee Robin Wood hosted a Q&A between the three morning speakers before the HCA's Daniel Carpenter presented the latest edit of the Red list, which perhaps unsurprisingly has grown in number as more 'endagered' and 'at risk' crafts are discovered.

For me, the highlight of a wonderful afternoon of conversation - which included textile artist Rachael Matthews; William Beharrell of Prince of Wales' charity Turquoise Mountain where making traditional crafts is helping people in mental distress - he spoke particularly of the charity's work in Afghanistan; and woodcarver, EJ Osborne of Hatchet & Bear who hosts 'escape-from-the-rat-race' woodworking courses and workshops - was the film and in-conversation with chair maker Lawrence Neal. 

Lawrence is the fourth generation of ladder-back chair maker after his father, but he had no one to pass his skills on to. Through the HCA, he now is training two apprentices who will continue to make traditional ladder-back chairs and eventually take over his business. It was wonderful to see the three of them in conversation already with shared body language, mannerisms and a certain reticence to being in the limelight. We talked afterwards and I shared with them how lucky I thought they were to find such a good fit with one another. 

That's it for this week. Until next week  may your shoe making make you happy!

Saturday, 2 March 2019

Independent Shoemakers Conference 2019

Image result for harrogate
The Royal Pump room

Welcome back good shoe makers and shoe making enthusiasts. It's a long post this week as we cover the wonderful Independent Shoemakers Conference from last week!

The conference takes place annually and is organised by a different shoemaker every year.  This year we were up in beautiful Harrogate, in Yorkshire under the great care of Tony and Jane Slinger. Tony is one of the 'fastest makers 'in the west' - if you've ever seen the film of him welting you'll know what I mean - and a specialist orthopaedic bespoke shoemaker ...and if you haven't, watch it!

Bill Bird, orthopaedic shoemaker and bio mechanics specialist, and co-founder of the conference opened up with details of the student competition that is held at the conference every year. It was set up in memory of David Xavier and 's a great opportunity for aspiring shoemakers to show their ideas, designs and making; entries are voted on by the conference delegates and there's a cash prize for the winner!

The Conference kicked off with undisputed shoemaking maestro, Jim McCormack; both one of the best shoemakers and nicest guys in the business. (He'll blush at that!)

Front to back: Adele from R.E. Trickers, Sebastian Tarek, James Ducker, pattern cutter and lecturer Fiona Campbell and Brooklyn's Marika Verploegh Chasse

Carreducker student Sabina and cowboy boot maker Lisa Sorrell watching closely

A full hour of eager delegates

Jim explaining how he preps the insole

Finest sole stitching
Describing keeping the thicknesses light and flexible
Making the holes in the sole before it goes on

Dampening the sole

This is how thin the pump sole is

Pump still life

Stitching the sole on using a running stitch that pulls the sole in tight

The slim edge irons Jim uses for pumps

Top tip from Jim - match the thickness of your thread to your awl i.e. don't try to squeeze a thick thread through a hole made by a smaller awl, just make the thread one core lighter to fit. 

Then it was on to one of my favourite parts of shoemaking, finishing with Mariano, a bespoke shoemaker based at Cockpit in Deptford.

Marioano sharing his finishing techniques
Mariano uses French rasps, which are a great investment if you are going to take up shoemaking for good; otherwise the Japanese rasps are great and once they wear out a little can be used for other jobs such as smoothing the cork infill or shaping last fittings

He is also a fan of the scraper instead of glass for smoothing edges and the sole. I've never tried them and there are pros and cons to both them and broken glass. Personally I love breaking glass and have it down to a fine art, but always keen to try new things, we've ordered a scraper to try it out. I only hope I can remember how to shape and sharpen it :)

One further great tip Mariano had, was to make a shoe protector to use whilst finishing. He suggested using a strip of soft kid or lining leather with a piece of elastic joining the two ends that could be stretched around the shoe just above the welt. It helps to protect the upper from ink, wax and tool marks when finishing. Might be worth trying for sole stitching too, I wonder?

Next up, from over the pond, one of America's best cowboy bootmakers, the dynamic Lisa Sorrell on "How to be a great teacher". I won't lie, I started her talk thinking, but I love teaching students and passing on our knowledge and I've been teaching for over 20 years...what can I learn? 

For students they need to know the rules before they break them; be true to tradition but change is OK; and most important, making mistakes doesn't make you a bad shoemakers. We all make mistakes, but it's how you solve them that is important, so share your mistakes with your students.
Well, let me tell you I came out of it humbled and reminded we always have something to learn from one another, whether teachers or shoemakers. In this case, a reminder to share the knowledge when the student is ready and not to let the day to day of running a business dampen the passion, joy and enthusiasm for your craft; after all, your students are at a different place in their journey.  

There are only two lastmaking companies in the UK as far as we know, Spring Line and Lastmakers' House. It was great to have Steve Lowe talking us through his approach to measuring, last and tree making and to see the shapely results. 

Steve won extra Kudos for bringing a whole beam of wood all the way from Eastbourne!

Then Daniel Wegan from Gaziano & Girling gave us a talk on 'Range'. Now if you're not familiar with the term then nor were we, but apparently it comes from a turn of the 20th century book.


Essentially we decided it was about aesthetics; a combination of clean style lines, not overly decorative, a good flow of line from the heel through to the toe in making, a clean and straight welt and well balanced and proportioned heels.

It's easy to see the good flow on these shoes by Daniel (below) from last year's shoemaking competition, they are beautiful. But it would have been nice to have seen the same skills and range demonstrated on a number of  different toe shapes and styles to truly illustrate the concept; and to discuss how to avoid bad range, for instance by under or over welting or not having a well prepared insole. 

Daniel made the point that by getting each stage of making right, it helps the next and it is a good one. It's something I'm mindful of with every pair of shoes I make, but after 20 years making, I'm also confident in the knowledge that if something does mess up, I've the skills to put it right. So for students the more we can share with them about why it's important to do something right and accurately the better; so they know how an what to aspire to when they're making and to achieve it with practise.  

It was lovely to see Neus, also from Gaziano, back to share her patina skills once more this time on exotic skins. As you can see below she drew a crowd as always. 

And then Phil Taylor talked to us about managing customers expectations and how important it is to the outcome of a commission; so true! Phil is extremely knowledgeable and it was good to hear about the fantastic team he is growing at The Cordwainer, bringing on new apprentices in his orthopaedic workshop and building links with the NHS to deliver better care to orthopaedic customers.

The conference ended on a high with Jayne West from the British Footwear Association outlining the great job that she and the BFA are doing, driving training in the industry forward and linking up the manufacturers, training providers and apprentices. It's no mean feat, but Jayne is a fantastic champion and her enthusiasm and energy is infectious.

We look forward to hearing great things as the BFA continues to build bridges and relationships; it's so important that training is relevant to the industry, with clear career paths, so it is an attractive option for students; the next generation in whatever aspect of the industry they choose to train.

And that was that...a fantastic line up and always something to bring away. It just leaves us to say a huge congratulations to the students who entered their work for the Xavier award and to George Paish from Bill Bird, who was this year's recipient. We'll be getting details of how to enter for next year if any of our students would like to submit their work!

That's it for this week. What a marathon post. Until next week, happy shoemaking!