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Bespoke shoemaking visit: seeing it in action

post #1 of 19
Thread Starter 
On my recent trip to London, I had the good fortune to spend a fair amount of time investigating the bespoke shoemaking trade, including spending two days with one of the country's finest "˜makers,' a day with an outstanding "˜closer,' some time with a lastmaker, and conversations with some others in the business, plus my visit to E Green in Northampton. Here are some of my observations about what I saw and heard. Overall State of the Bespoke Business I think the bespoke business in London is at significant risk of a decline in both business volume and quality. Regarding the former, the strength of the Pound relative to the Dollar is making bespoke shoes an even more expensive proposition for the American customer base that provides so much business to Lobb and Cleverley. Regarding the latter, many of the best people still in the business are getting a bit on in years and nearing retirement. For example, Terry Moore and Foster & Sons/Henry Maxwell and George Glasgow at Cleverley are either nearly retired or may well be soon. These are two gentlemen who are truly knowledgeable about all aspects of the shoemaking business, and thereby ensure the quality of the products that leave their workshops. The development of a next generation of people with their broad knowledge of the trade may well be absent. My impression is that Foster may soon be rate-limited in its ability to deliver new lasts as Mr. Moore continues to reduce his time in the trade. One criticism I heard of Lobb is that they lack a true shoemaker at the head of the company, and as such complaints regarding quality or fit may be met with indifference or ignorance as to what could be done differently/better. The training of craftsmen is also quite weak in London. Because the bespoke firms rely so much on outworkers, they seem to invest little in training people to become closers or makers. In the past, the Cordwainers College provided some of this training, but today the College is really all about design and industrial production, not about the bespoke craft. My impression is that business is varying quite dramatically across the different firms. From what I heard, Cleverley is doing well, largely because of their good fortune in getting named by the Robb Report as the best bespoke shoemaker (this was apparently a fairly serendipitous occurrence). Foster & Sons, not dependent on the American customer and with a loyal customer base, is steady, but the future without Terry Moore may be a challenge. Lobb is apparently quite slow; this may be a result of: their premium pricing; sometimes high-minded attitude toward customers; variable levels of customer service; debatable quality; or all of the above. THE SHOEMAKING CRAFT Having seen the "˜clicking/closing' and "˜making' of shoes, I was somewhat shocked at how (relatively) simple the "˜closing' is, and how difficult and time-consuming the "˜making' is. For the sake of reference, a closer can click and close a pair of uppers in as little as 1 hour (for a simple pattern), whereas the maker I visited took literally 18 hours to make a single pair of shoes. Going into my visits, I would have thought there was a lot more to the construction of the upper, but they are really pretty simple. Also, the availability of sewing machines, skiving machines, gimping attachments, etc. makes the "˜closing' a pretty straightforward (albeit skilled) process. On the other hand, the maker I visited used no automated tools whatsoever; what he did was probably no different from what a maker might have done 50 or 100 years ago. Here is how the 18 hours broke down (more or less): "¢\tPreparing the insoles/attaching them to the lasts/trimming to size: ¾ hour "¢\tCutting/skiving/hammering toe caps/toe puff & heel counters (from leather nearly ½ inch thick.): 1 hour "¢\tCutting/skiving welts: ¼ hour "¢\tSkiving feather/holdfast on insoles: ½ hour "¢\tLasting uppers (sequentially, the linings, the toe cap/toe puff, and the outer): 1 hour "¢\tPreparing and waxing linen thread/cord, and adding "bristles" for attaching welts: 1 hour "¢\tAttaching/sewing the welts: 2 ½ hours "¢\tTrimming the uppers: ¼ hour "¢\tAdding leather shank and cork filler: ½ hour "¢\tShaping/skiving shank and filler: ½ hour "¢\tPreparing and gluing on outsoles: ½ hour "¢\tPreparing and waxing linen thread/cord, and adding the "bristles" for outsoling: 1 hour "¢\tSewing on outsoles (with beveled waist): 2 hours "¢\tBuilding heels: 2 ½ hours "¢\tFiling/sanding/refining bottom of heel and sole: 1 hour "¢\tTrimming, skiving, and refining sole and heel edges: 1 ½ hours "¢\tStaining/waxing and burnishing the edges of the soles: ¾ hour "¢\tStaining/waxing and burnishing the bottom of the soles: ¾ hour In reviewing the breakdown of the maker's time, it is amazing how much time he spent on the heels and finishing the sole and sole edges. This guy is known for his attention to detail and quality, and it was readily apparent as he worked on the shoes; he repeatedly made certain that the shoes not only looked good, but also that they were as similar to each other as possible, given differences in the 2 lasts. I guess there are some makers who can "make" 4 or 5 pairs a week, but their quality is below that of the best, largely because of a lack of attention to detail. It was a pretty impressive experience to see a beautiful three-dimensional product emerge from such simple materials, through the application of lots of hard work and skill. I now have a much greater appreciation for what goes into a bespoke shoe, and I hope that the skills involved can survive, though I have my worries about that.
post #2 of 19
Great post. Should go in the FAQ. Thanks
post #3 of 19
An impressive post shoefan. Thanks so much for sharing it, as well as the great post on EG. This would make a great HOF post. This illustrates why I love these forums. Where else could we benefit so quickly and thoroughly from the firsthand knowledge of a true aficionado? If this trend continues I think we could see some real changes in the general education level of men when it comes to sartorial knowledge...
post #4 of 19
Quote:
The training of craftsmen is also quite weak in London. Because the bespoke firms rely so much on outworkers, they seem to invest little in training people to become closers or makers. In the past, the Cordwainers College provided some of this training, but today the College is really all about design and industrial production, not about the bespoke craft.
This is very unfortunate. If press coverage is any indication, there is more interest in bespoke shoes now than there has been for many years, at least in the US. Without proper training of the next generation of cordwainers, this interest is destined to be short-lived. Thanks for your comprehensive report. It's fascinating, particularly the time breakdown for the different individual tasks in making.
post #5 of 19
Thank you Shoefan...Quite informative
post #6 of 19
post #7 of 19
Quote:
Originally Posted by navysuede View Post
Thank you Shoefan...Quite informative

Even if you missed the date surely the line, pretty early on, about the strong pound let you know this was not something written recently.
post #8 of 19
good post.
post #9 of 19
Excellent post shoefan.

You mentioned something quite interesting that is prevalent in womans high-grade shoes. That is, the Cordwainers College puts more emphasis on design and industrial production than the art and craft of shoe making. As mentioned I see this all the time with women and their shoes. For instance, A woman will come in and say "these shoes cost me $400.00 and I can't wear them. Their must be something wrong with my feet". I'll take the shoe, put it on a flat surface at eye level and can clearly see defects in the way the shoe is made. For example their is no toe spring or the heel kicks out. I then explain to the customer their is nothing wrong with your feet it's the way the shoe was designed--that's the problem. I have speculated for quite some time that the makers are more interested in making shoes that will sell (appearance/style) than making them right. They emphasize styles and colors over important factors such as proper fit and balance. If a shoe brand is mentioned in a popular TV show, women will go out and buy them because their "in". For example very few knew what Jimmy Choo's were until they were mentioned on Sex and the City. Soon after they became a style icon regardless of how they were made. From my experience, shoemakers do not design their shoes designers do. The shoemaker merely gets stuck with the task of using his skills to make the shoe fit as well as possible in spite of a poor design from his standpoint. It's like a carpenter framing a house on a foundation that was built out of square. He has to use his talents to correct the sins.

I hope we're not trending that way in mens shoes.
post #10 of 19
Isn't the pound relatively weak against the dollar these days?
post #11 of 19
Quote:
Originally Posted by mafoofan View Post
Isn't the pound relatively weak against the dollar these days?

Yes it is today, but look at the date when shoefan's contribution was posted:
'March 2004' - five years ago, things were different.
post #12 of 19
Wow, this is from 5 years ago... ha. Great post. Can someone explain what 'clicking/closing' vs. 'making' is, please?
post #13 of 19
Clicking is the process of cutting the uppers. Gimping is the process of creating diagonal ridges along a seam. That's what I know!
post #14 of 19
Quote:
Originally Posted by Mr. Moo View Post
Can someone explain what 'clicking/closing' vs. 'making' is, please?

"˜Clicking' is cutting the pieces for a pair of shoes out of a skin. The clicker must look out for imperfections and cut "˜around' them. He must also take into account the "˜stretch' of the leather (calf stretches more in one way than in the other way). The English rule is "˜tight to toe'.

The "˜closer' uses a sewing machine to stitch the leather pieces together to make the "˜upper'. He also applies decorations like brouging, gimping or medallions as well as decorative hand stitches (if this is requested).

The "˜maker' pulls the upper over the last and does all the bottom work. He attaches insole, welt, outer sole and heel.
post #15 of 19
It would be interesting to evaluate how accurate the OP's predictions are after 5 years.
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