Bespoke Shoes Unlaced – a shoemaker's blog

Friday, 10 April 2015

Doing It Right

Greetings once more, dear readers

W9 (our new home) is just about done. We are finding homes for the last few bits and bobs. It's looking good! And we have our first Evening Class here on Monday, so will be able to road test our studio design.

We are currently doing a 1:1 training with a jeweller called Chin Teo, who is with us for 12 days to make a pair of hand welted shoes. He is doing it over a period of 6 weeks, 2 days a week to suit his schedule. But this week he has been off because he has had an exhibition at Craft Central, just down the road from here.

Last night we went to the private view and we came away really inspired.

We are surrounded by jewellers here at Cockpit Arts, so we see a lot of jewellery. But Chin's work is cool, fresh and aesthetically right up our street. Oxidised metals; innovative materials; great surface design and plenty of body parts, specially skulls. Loved it and thoroughly recommend a visit.

Recently, we had a comment from our friend and colleague DW Frommer II which revisits a topic much discussed in previous posts. Here it is:

Was going through some old entries and ran across this, referencing metal shanks:

"Being modern shoemakers, we are always keen to examine our practice and explore new ways of working. My feeling is that most of what we are taught as apprentices is the accumulation of generations of shoemaking knowledge and that most things have been tried. This means that what we are taught by our masters is probably the best way of doing something and we change it at our peril with what seems (at the time) a great new way to do something but which, over time, you come to realise that maybe they were right all along."

Agree 100%. 

I thought I would add a few stray observations...

Trouble is when we get fixated on "modern" and "efficient," it is all too easy to lose our way.

I tell my students "Sure, you can use an Exacto knife (drill press, staple gun, etc.), but what you lose in the process is so much more than you gain. For instance, just learning to sharpen a knife properly creates skills and control that you can't get by using disposable blades. Skills that affect and enhance other techniques. Such as clicking, inseaming, channeling...the list is endless."

And, in my opinion, that's true across the board. Mastering traditional techniques makes us better makers all around...each skill amplifying other skills...and results in something that is unique and exceptional. Looking for quick or easy alternatives most often leaves us with the commonplace, despite our best efforts.

No one is going to applaud, or by extension, be attracted to work that doesn't differ substantially from what is readily available on the a fifth of the cost. There are almost an unlimited number of shoes or boots being made today with paperboard or synthetic insoles; virtually all RTW is GY welted; few or none that don't use celastic (or something similar) for the toe and heel stiffeners. All this is commonplace.

How many times and how many "makers" and how many variables...that, at bottom, amount to you have to see before all the RTW and factory shoes begin to "run together?"

What recommends a well-made and/or bespoke shoe...what makes it attractive in the eye of the customer and gives it a cachet that distinguishes it in an International the quality of the materials used and the skill of the maker in applying techniques that can't be duplicated by machines.

As bespoke makers the worst thing we can do is to adopt or emulate factory work. Simply...yes, simply...because it is so commonplace and so easily done(relatively). We cannot compete on that level--it's a fool's game. Nor should we even my opinion.

What we learned from our masters is far too valuable and unique.

So there you have it. Agree or disagree, it is certainly one way in which our work as hand makers stands out. When you pick up one of our shoes, it is imbued with the hours of skill and dedication which we put into it. It has an essence which a machine made shoe simply does not have.

I have described these as tiny imperfections in the past and been criticised for it. Maybe the marks of the craftsman is a better term. Our shoes are not uniformly perfect, but they have life; they stand out; they are different. And even within our small world of bespoke shoes, some makers stand out more than others, an example being the legendary Jim McCormack, who is the finest maker I have ever seen. But even his shoes, which reach as near to perfection as is possible in our trade, share this special hand crafted quality which factory made shoes do not.

And going back to the quote above, there is another aspect to this drive to find "easier" ways of doing things. When you are learning to make shoes, it is difficult and challenging and sometimes it is easier to find a way to do something which might not be how you are being taught. And it might work. And it might achieve the same result. But what you are doing is what I call fire fighting, and the result will take you much longer. So if you want to make shoes and earn a living, you need to perfect not only the best, but also the quickest way to do it. This means putting the hours in; repeating the task again and again; and finally getting it right.

And so we get back to the initial comment which was that our forebears arrived at the best way of doing things by the accumulated knowledge of generations of shoemakers before us. And it is actually quite comforting to feel them looking approvingly over our shoulders as we work - as long as you do it right, of course!

Until next week, happy shoemaking!