Bespoke Shoes Unlaced – a shoemaker's blog

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Day 6 - shoemaking course

What a week it has been! I've loved teaching this summer's group and have been so impressed with the camaraderie (although I did have to get a little 'school marmy' today to calm them all down as a shoe debate heated up!)

Ian skiving his shank...

Alex smoothing his sole...

Matt straightening up sole edges...

Simon cutting his channel...

A couple of students have proven particularly adept and worked with speed AND accuracy. As they have shown their ability we have increased the challenge, with '11 to the inch' fudge wheels to stitch their soles.

But Alex has already finished his first shoe and Simon is well on his way (and that's despite some left vs right handed stitching technique confusion!)

But it's unfair to imply that it has been plain sailing or wrong to measure them against each other. They are all well on target and, as we say with every course, for some lasting is their forte, for others it's the skiving and for others the stitching. Yes, some do just have a practical aptitude but with anyone, a moment's lapse in concentration can lead to disaster in these later stages of the making process.

Some great, straight stitches!

So who is to say how next week goes? All I hope is that the energy levels stay high (Roberto's constant supplies of cherries, cookies and sweets is helping), they stay enthused, that we encourage their passion for handsewn shoemaking and that they come away feeling that James and I have taught them something new and wonderful...

I dearly hope that, under Mr Ducker's exacting eye, they put in the time and effort to create beautifully finished shoes they are proud to wear.

Sadly I won't be here for the final day as August is proving a very busy month. After three weeks of teaching (including two weeks lecturing in accessories design and marketing at University of the Arts) I am taking a shoemaking break, sneaking off on holiday and to move house!

Friday, 12 August 2011

Day 5 - shoemaking course

Today saw lasted shoes begin to turn into shoes that you could actually think about wearing as the welts were sewn on and cut to shape.

It is a good stage to learn from mistakes - why it matters that the bevel and channel on the welt are even, why you need to follow the edge of the last as you welt and to keep the welt taught as you work.

When you learn something new for the first time it is sometimes difficult to pick it up again the next day. A night away from the threads had previously adept welters tying themselves in knots this morning as bristles came off, twists came on done and threads were snapped. In fact threads were snapped quite a lot as some of the guys had to re-learn their sensitive touch!

One of the students today made an interesting comment about the pictures we had posted of previous classes. He was amazed that he was actually making something that he could wear and which would look like a proper pair of shoes...and said that the pictures we have blogged and on the website don't really do justice to the standard of the shoes that the students make.

(Dick Turpin aka Ian - an unusual look for a shoemaker)

We promise to rectify that from this course onwards and will try to post close ups of the finished shoes (as we did for the New York crew) showing just how excellent the finished work is.

So soling tomorrow. Alex already has one sole on (a first for the courses at this stage) so for him it will now be about making sure that his work continues to be excellent - difficult as tiredness and information overload sets in.

Until tomorrow and my last day with a great bunch of blokes...and of course, the valiant Sue who has kept Morph on track all week.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Day 4 - shoemaking course

After yesterday's great lasting success we started the day with most shoes looking like these..lasted over and ready to welt.

It seems that this shoemaking malarkey brings on quite an appetite and the guys have had a steady supply of biscuits, sweets and coffee to get them through what is, in effect, quite a workout - especially for certain dormant muscles. I know I suggested a small 1" shoemakers tummy was a handy thing to have - to tuck your apron under and your shoe into as you work on it - but I think that they've taken getting one a bit too literally. Any partners reading this, I apologise for any unseemly weight gain!

Talking of weight, today we discussed the merits of the course as an alternative boot certainly tones the areas men's magazines are always banging on about. Just think if we measured triceps, biceps, six packs and forearms before and after the two weeks, I wonder what the impact would be?

But in fact today has not seen too much banter. The levels of concentration needed when you tackle welting for the first time cannot be underestimated; making sure that your welt sits on the edge of the last, your threads don't knot, the bristles go through smoothly, your last doesn't slip etc.

The results of such great concentration are very pleasing (see above) and two students have already welted both shoes! Unheard of in the many years we have been doing the course.

A couple of the guys found it a little more of a challenge and have taken their first shoe home to finish, but I expect that they will all be ready to fit shanks and cork before we start tackling the soles ready for Saturday.

Exciting times tomorrow. (Please note that other brands of chocolate are favoured by shoemakers and that inclusion of the above image should not be seen as an endorsement of any kind. I actually prefer Lindt 70% so there!)

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Day 3 - shoemaking course

This is going to be short and sweet, middle of the week! (And a bit rhyming).

All of the guys are lasted or finishing lasting the upper so we turn to welting tomorrow.

Welts have been prepared and threads are being made in anticipation. Ian, whose wife did the course with us earlier in the year, has been sharing the downside of welting - snapped threads, stuck bristles, knots and the like - but I actually have to confess that I love it.

The perfect combination of skill, strength and when it goes well, rhythm - on a good day it's almost hypnotic.

We shall see whether our students share my enthusiasm tomorrow - bristles at the ready guys!

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Day 2 - shoemaking course

Well, it may have been rather lively for our students in London last night but, despite the best efforts of a whole bunch of feckless thugs, they all made it in to the studio safe and sound today. Shoemakers are resilient creatures.

We are embarrassed that London has nothing better to offer our overseas guests - perhaps it is time to introduce compulsory shoemaking would soon sort the men from the boys!

Talking of men, the guys cracked on in class today and all have started lasting their uppers (one or two are nearly finished!)

There were some accusations that the shoe knife fairy had been wreaking vengeance first thing, as sharp knives were found blunt this morning. But I have no real explanation. Unfortunately a couple of students' knives never quite returned to their former sharpness so, although there were some beautifully crafted holdfasts carefully cut and skived today, some left much to be desired. (Comparisons with the Grand Canyon were not beyond exaggeration being craggy and deep!)

But lessons have been learned and the value of a truly sharp knife is now appreciated by one and all. There is no point struggling on with a blunt knife - it is dangerous (you are more likely to slip and damage either you or your shoe) and demoralising - when a few minutes on a strop can make all the difference. Anyway, there will be some studious sharpening tomorrow morning me thinks.

Gradually, as we go through the different stages in the handsewn process each student is finding their own pace and learning their capabilities with the various hand tools that we use. Ian is still getting to grips with the lasting pliers whilst keeping Roberto's knife sharp is an ongoing challenge! I will have to spend some more time watching him sharpen it to see where it's going wrong. Fortunately, creating a strong holdfast and lasting seem to be his forte (see picture).

So some are faster and more accurate with a knife, others are fantastic at lasting or using an awl...

Welting tomorrow will be another test of patience, dexterity and skill for everybody...luckily the air fan will help to keep them cool as they battle with threads and bristles. Alex's shoes below, ready for toe puffs, mark the end of a very good second day.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Day 1 - shoemaking course

So it's the end of day one of the course and our seven students have made great progress. Knives have been sharpened, toe puffs and stiffeners have been skived and insoles have been blocked ready for tomorrow.

The first morning is always something of a challenge - spending hours to get your knife sharp may seem excessive but as any shoemakers knows - and as our students found out this afternoon - if your knife isn't as sharp as it could be, every other step is a struggle. There has been some mutinous talk of skiving machines, grinding wheels and even elfin staff but so far the students have all stayed on course. The reason we don't use machines is that they are very expensive and so we try to teach how to make beautiful shoes with as few tools as possible. We think that a skilfully handled tool is just as fast and accurate as a machine and sometimes is better!

That said, we do actually start the knives off by putting them on a grinding wheel, but then they are finessed on a strop with sharpening paper on one side and jewellers rouge on the other. Our students worked really hard this morning learning just how much was the right amount of pressure to put on the knife blade to get rid of any burrs and to create a smooth bevel, parallel with the blade edge.

Sharpening the knife helps the students to become familiar with the knife, how to hold it safely and effectively and how to use it confidently. Today's only hiccup was that we have two left handed students so the bevelled edge has to be made on the other side and somehow one poor left-handed student ended up with a right handed knife. Thankfully nothing a swift five minutes on the strop couldn't sort out.

We soaked all of the leather we were working with today, but the hot weather (and the fan) really played havoc with it. Even though we bagged it as soon as it was soaked and tried to work on it fast, we still needed to keep applying more water so it could be worked easily. Unfortunately August is set to stay sunny - the forecast for the week is even more heat - so I think we will be bringing in another fan to keep leather, glue and students cool. ..especially when the welting starts. It could get very hot otherwise!

What I love most about our courses is just how diverse the students are - backgrounds, countries and capabilities - and how, given something totally new to learn (in many cases), they seize the challenge and get on with it, helping each other and encouraging each other along the way. One student on this course is profoundly deaf and his mother is helping him to do the course by signing and taking notes through what is a challenge in so many ways. But he is very determined, keen to learn and is really enjoying the experience...a great example of going after what you want. We really hope that he does well, as shoemaking would be such a good job for him...

Anyway, tomorrow we will be preparing the insole, creating the hold fast and look out for the next installment.