I blame the rise of the “maker” movement. Suddenly, do-it-yourself classes are everywhere, from “Gluten-free Baking” to “How to Beat Your Child at Chess”. But shoemaking? Really? Doesn’t that require both talent and time?
You would think so. Yet workshops and courses are cropping up across London. At I Can Make Shoes, for example, Amanda-Luisa Overs shows how to make everything from ballet pumps to a season’s worth of heels. At Prescott & Mackay you can make gladiator sandals in a day. And Carréducker’s James Ducker and Deborah Carré – who otherwise specialise in bespoke shoes for Gieves & Hawkes – run shoemaking classes in Bloomsbury.
“Human beings are naturally programmed to create,” says Carré. “Shoemaking isn’t the easiest thing to take on but it feeds the soul in every which way.” I decide to have a go.
I dip in at the halfway point of Carréducker’s intensive 12-day course. Inside the small studio, seven students – including a London lawyer, a commodities broker from Singapore and a farmer from Dorset – are crafting men’s calfskin Derbies. The 96-hour course, which also runs at Carréducker’s New York studio, costs £1,930.
“There are 200 stages involved in making a pair of shoes,” says Carré, before asking if I would like to have a go at “lasting the toe”. This involves pulling the lining, toe stiffener and upper leather over the toe and stretching and tugging each layer under the shoe using lasting pliers; this is then tacked in place using a hammer and nails. It’s much harder than it looks. The last is gripped between my knees, cobbler-style, and my arms tremble with each tap.
Next, I am instructed to trim off any excess material and stitch a strip of leather (the welt) around the edge of the shoe, through the layers of the upper and into the insole. This welted construction has been used since the 1500s and is what makes English hand-sewn shoes so durable.
Using an awl and welting threads, I try to stitch on the welt through evenly marked holes in the insole. The nubby threads, made from waxed and twisted hemp yarn, have to be inserted from opposite directions and then pulled as tightly as possible. Nothing has prepared me for the brute force that’s required, or the blisters that start to bubble up on my fingers. Or the enthusiasm among my fellow students.
“I needed to take a break and do something creative,” says Martin Price, a systems analyst for a Luxembourg-based bank. “Working with my hands to create something that should look amazing has been so satisfying.”
Thomas Rowe, a Canada-born shoemaker, private teacher and entrepreneur, believes it is now possible for anyone to become shoemaker. “It can be a hobby for some but, with the right support, you can go it alone once the evening classes are over.”
Amanda-Luisa Overs has definitely given some emerging shoemakers the skills to start their own lines. One student was so enamoured with her new hobby that she took voluntary redundancy from a career in risk management and set up her own label.
Inspired, I decide to investigate Overs’ one-day “Ballet Pumps for Beginners” tutorial. My dream looks something like a pair of gold leather Lanvin flats from spring/summer 2014. Overs has already stitched the leather upper for me and we measure my foot alongside the plastic last. I then trace around it on to a sheet of memory foam for my insole and cut along the line with scissors. “Chuck any excess material on the floor rather than clutter your work surface,” says Overs cheerily – so I do, before I pleat and stick folds of leather upper underneath the toe and, a few stages later, apply an even layer of granulated cork to the base, add a topcoat of glue and stick it to the leather outer sole.
Overs later remarks on the surge of interest in her 10-day “Mastering Footwear” course. Here, for £3,200, students get to make their own shoe collection, including both high heels and flats. She is convinced that the course’s popularity is a result of an unsteady economic climate. “We get a lot of fashion-conscious women who love their Louboutins but are now saying to themselves, ‘Hang on a minute, if I make an initial investment in a course, I’ll be able to make my own heels and save money in the long run.’”
So what do established designers think of the DIY trend?
“If anyone has a hidden passion, they should explore it,” says designer Tracey Neuls. “The fact these are private courses suggests to me that what they offer is more of a hobby exploration than a preparation for starting a business . . . But, that said, access to a closed industry like shoemaking should be a good thing.”