Reviving the Craft of Bespoke Shoemaking

It’s not frequently today that you will find people walking around in bespoke, handmade shoes. Consumerism has led to an overwhelming selection of shoes which are easily available at our closest shopping center or simply at a click-of-a-button through our favourite online shop. Like many crafts in Australia, large-scale production has caused a decrease in the demand for bespoke women’s shoes. While factory-made shoes are accessible and convenient, they are frequently made abroad, and, like most mass-produced goods, come with ecological effects; furthermore, mass-produced women’s shoes lack what handmade shoes may provide: character, tailored dimensions, bespoke designs and understanding precisely who made your shoes and what they’re made from. Though finding a local shoemaker might appear difficult today in comparison with the ease of buying a mass-produced shoe, Australian shoemakers are reviving the traditional craft of shoemaking through local companies that thrive on providing the benefits of handmade.

Bangalow-based shoemaker Rachel Ayland is just one Australian shoemaker that has successfully established an artisanal shoemaking business. Honing her craft over the past 32 years, Rachel’s practice is driven by a dedication to making bespoke footwear tailored to the patient. With a strong focus on design making, Rachel’s practice is driven by a dedication to making beautiful footwear tailored to each client’s individual requirements. But while Rachel can generate a viable income from her craft it has not been without challenges.

We recently caught up with Rachel to relive her journey as a shoemaker and the challenges she has faced along the way.

Traditionally, shoemaking apprentices were trained by masters in workshops. Does this route still exist?

My craft was traditionally learned from apprenticeships from a “Master”, within the surroundings of a commercially run workshop, such as my own. It’s rare to discover a Master Shoemaker to learn from now. They are absolutely dying as a craft or are retired and are seldom replaced in most western nations. Modern shoemakers, like myself, might opt to accept an apprentice. However, we’ve had business coaches search for government or other financial support for the endeavour, but this does not exist, which makes it hard for shoemakers to warrant the expense while attempting to keep our companies afloat.

How did you learn the theory and techniques behind your craft?

I learned the techniques and concept of my craft from a tiny workers cooperative in the early 1980’s, in the United Kingdom, which consisted of five traditional shoemakers who coached at one of their previous college courses in London at the moment. This group took me on and educated me in the craft for five decades, sharing everything they knew. Later in my career I met Master Shoemaker and instructor, George Koleff from Bulgaria, and I became his pupil for a couple of years. In this moment, he helped me build my techniques and get equipment and tools. A few of the tools I still use today were produced by George!

What has been some of the primary challenges in acquiring your understanding and abilities in shoemaking?

Some of the key challenges I faced while learning how to become a shoemaker include attempting to survive financially while working my craft as I needed to buy many expensive materials. I also found it tough to find a suitable workshop space. The aggressive costs of manufactured goods, usually purchased by large companies selling shoes online, played a significant part in these challenges.

Have you established your shoemaking company as a viable living? If so how long did this take? How hard do you think it is for other people to achieve this now?

I have been making a living from my company for the past 15 years; however, I’m not raising a family and have reasonably cheap overheads. It took fifteen years to become self sufficient, during which time I got a tiny government small business support and enlisted myself in a small business coach training course. I’d say it would be quite challenging to accomplish this sufficiency now, which explains the reason why there are so few making a living in Australia today.

Have you had any mentors? Or have the skills of your trade dissipated and had to be learned again?

Yes, other shoemakers whom I’ve met along the way have been of excellent support. Other shoemakers and all of the famous ones, have been inspirational to me. Some shoemakers have written books, which are an invaluable asset to shoemakers worldwide.

What do you believe that an apprenticeship for shoemaking might seem like that provides manufacturers the skills they will need to establish themselves now?

I think more government subsidies for establishing small business and wage subsidy for traineeships would make a substantial difference. Furthermore, there has to be a valid modern apprenticeship for shoemaking that is modelled around hands on learning under the guidance of a professional teacher master. I believe training in up-to-date business skills and specific computer skills (i.e. pattern making and images etc.) should also be a fundamental part of future apprenticeship models for shoemakers.

Obviously, shoes are mass produced on a massive scale. What has this meant for the design and quality of the goods?

Shoes are produced on a massive scale for mass consumption, even more so for online shoes stores. And while mass-produced shoes can be a fantastic product they also come with flaws; they can be tough to repair because of short sighted manufacturing procedures and they might not match the customer well. These are value added to the possible customer encounter by a revival in artisans in today’s world.

How has today’s market, with abundant mass production, influenced what you create and how you make it?

The pressures of modern manufacturing have led to tight competition in the industry that the few bespoke shoemakers that did survive from the trade were frequently left offering orthopaedic shoe making services that are tough to replace by machine! Higher material costs and workshop running costs also have influenced the bespoke shoemaking business; as a consequence, our numbers got smaller, particularly over past 50 years.

Is there a revival of the traditional way of production in shoemaking now, and if so why do you think that is? Are manufacturers creating new value in conventional production procedures or is the customer now simply perceiving value in it?

For ethical reasons there’s an increasing demand for handmade goods with a low effect on the environment.

A young generation of shoemakers with style awareness and ethical stance are offering a unique and intriguing assortment of products for market customers; the item is contemporary, made to measure, and less conservative than previous techniques and styles. Likewise, customers are actively looking for shoes which are made from environmentally sound glues and materials providing gentler foot care than cheaply manufactured, synthetic products.

As a modern craftsperson, how are you making this craft relevant and shaping it for the long run?

I am continually changing my layouts to keep up with fashion trends. I’ve increased publicity for renovation and repair service, as customers are increasingly aware of the need to buy less and appreciate good design. I also offer courses, giving individuals a creative encounter in my workshop; this is an increasing trend that’s reasonably rewarding for creatives.

Additionally, so as to respond to an increasing demand for vegan, cruelty free fashion, I’ve recently experimented with completely vegan shoes with hemp canvas upper. The public reaction to this is extremely positive and I am busy exploring this further, the main market for this is in women’s boots.