Bespoke Shoes Unlaced – a shoemaker's blog

Friday, 18 November 2011

Handmade? 2

Greetings to all you shoemakers, apprentice shoemakers, self taught shoemakers, shoe lovers, and general footwear aficionados. And if that doesn't cover you, a special personal hello to you too.
Welcome back. Another action packed week in which we featured in London Time Out (a what's on magazine) in a feature on commissioning bespoke work. How to do it and not be intimidated. It's easy with us, we are friendly, down to earth and cuddly.

Also featured in Pomp magazine, a new publication about the luxury market in London, aimed at visitors to the city. Lovely article about trends in English shoemaking for men. Riding the wave.

Starting next Friday at 11am and continuing till Sunday at 6pm is the Cockpit Arts Open Studios weekend. We will be here in our studio along with 80 other designer/makers covering all craft disciplines, from jewellery to ceramics, furniture to weaving, it's all here. It is a fascinating visit and the perfect chance to buy those unique Christmas presents you struggle to find.

Continuing on from last week on the theme of handmade, something else we get asked a lot is "Why don't you use a machine to do that? It would be much quicker". Or "There is a machine to do that which would save you lots of time".
Well, the answer is this. Because we make shoes by hand, using the ancient and traditional techniques passed down from master to apprentice. The obvious part of this process is the handing down of the shoemaking skills and knowledge which generations of shoemakers have built up and developed - how to make a shoe. This is a fairly rigid set of skills, but each maker can adapt and alter them to his or her particular way of working. This is how small changes and adaptations can evolve, especially with the development of improved materials.

There is also another aspect to the process of learning like this however. When a master shoemaker teaches you how to make shoes, it is not simply one person handing on their own knowledge to you, but also the person who taught them and the person before that, building generation upon generation going back five hundred years or more. This is how we preserve the tradition, and we feel that we owe respect to previous generations of shoemakers by sticking to this tradition. We have been handed the standard and it is our decision to carry it faithfully and to pass it on. This is another reason why we stick so closely to our traditional skills, use our hand held tools, and avoid cutting corners by using machines.
The courses that carreducker runs is another way to express this responsibility that we have. And one day, we will take on  apprentices full time to continue the cycle.

This is a responsibility, but it also gives our work an authenticity and integrity which is important to our clients. Some argue that people are less concerned with these things nowadays, that price is the most important factor, but I disagree. Experience tells me that our clients care passionately about our craft and that they are willing to pay for it. This is a significant factor that drives the luxury market. After a certain level of income, price becomes less of a priority and other factors influence buying decisions, such as craftsmanship; authenticity; tradition; quality of materials; provenance; a personal relationship with the maker; personalisation/customisation; longevity. And working the way we do confers these things to our bespoke shoes.

There is also this to consider. If you put in the hours and perfect the skills you need, the time you spend doing one task is really not much longer than setting up a machine and using it to do the same step. I can build and shape a heel with a knife not as quickly as I could with a machine, but not far off. And with all the advantages that making by hand confers, I would always prefer to do it this way.
I have seen people spend time and money on machines, some of which work and some of which prove to be of no use at all. It can become a distraction from sitting down and making shoes.

Another advantage to just using hand tools is that, once you have assembled your tool kit (harder and harder these days, I know), you are set up for life. You can travel anywhere and set up a workshop in an hour, in a few square metres of space. If you become reliant on machines to make your shoes, if your circumstances change, or they break  and you can't use them, you have a problem.

For our practice, starting to use machines is a slippery slope. How far do you go? And, going back to last week's post, at what point does the shoe stop being handmade?

We describe ourselves as hardcore craftsmen, and you may think it rigid and dogmatic, but also consider that this way of working simplifies your life. You have a set of skills which work and can always be improved. And you don't have to worry about anything else. Simple.

I look forward to hearing what you think - always open to debate here!

Until next week, fellow shoe freaks, happy shoemaking!