Hardy to Zone 6

The Cobbler's Children

Perhaps the time to start learning is now, because if shoe-making is any indication, the ramp-up time for these skills may be uncomfortably long, and our leisure to learn them is surprisingly short.

By Jason Allen
Published February 23, 2011

We need to start re-skilling. Now.

Not five years from now, once the price of gas has doubled, or a UK Bond Default has left the economy reeling, and the urge to repair vs. replace, and quality over quantity finally takes hold in North American markets. Now.

For many years, I have had a bit of a shoe fetish. Not an 'Imelda Marcos' kind of acquisition fetish, but a fascination with footwear: how it was designed, how it was made, and how it was repaired.

It probably came from the five years or so after university where the only job I could seem to find was in shoe sales, but the curiosity has stayed with me for some time.

So for the first time ever, I finally had the convergence of time and resources needed to give shoemaking a try first-hand.

Shoemaking with Robert Land

The teacher in question was none other than Robert Land. An institution if you're at all into the historical re-enactment scene, he's been making Civil War / War of 1812 reproduction shoes in his workshop near Guelph for years. His shipping terms are no-nonsense, but his commitment to quality is well known.

I made it to the workshop for just after 9 o'clock on a Saturday morning, and without even pausing for me to take my jacket off, Robert launched into a brief description of how we would be spending the day. Then we were off to his shed looking for lasts, the moulds shoes are based on.

Over the course of the next eight hours I stopped three times: twice to pee and once to eat a muffin. The rest of the time I was moving non-stop: cutting leather, sewing the uppers, gluing the uppers to the midsole, nailing, stretching, grinding and polishing.

In that time, I made one pair.

To be fair, Robert tells me that once he gets going, he and his helper can complete 15 pairs a day each - pretty good turnout for a small operation.

Heavy Machinery

Here's the catch: Robert is not an old fashioned 'Pinocchio' cobbler bent over his workbench with nothing but a sharp knife and pair of needles. No, he has what would probably be $250,000 worth of industrial equipment at his disposal.

That is to say, it would cost that much if he were to buy it new, and not at close-out auctions as shoemaker after shoemaker in Ontario systematically fell under the weight of cheap overseas imports flooding the market.

With all of that equipment and an unlimited supply of propane and electricity, Robert's two person shop can turn out 30 pairs a day. One piece of equipment in his workshop was rated for 400 pairs a day, but was so fiddly that neither of us could imagine such a high rate of production while using it.

Now imagine what it would be like if that equipment wasn't there, or if it was prohibitively expensive to run, or if the parts simply weren't available?

Finished Product

After a day of steep learning curves, the finished product you can see for yourself, and I like to think I took to it fairly well.

The finished product
The finished product

Not bad handiwork, considering it was the first time I had used a sewing machine, much less a double-needled machine sewing through leather.

Also, to be perfectly honest, he completed several of the most difficult tasks, including grinding the heel, and stitching on the sole using a McKay Stitcher - a large sewing machine that looked like something my Junior High Shop Teacher would have called 'the widow maker'.

Shoes by Hand?

I asked him, based on what he had seen me do, if he thought it would be possible for me to sew a pair of shoes entirely by hand. No machinery.

His reply was no, he didn't think so, because I (or at least most people) would give up in frustration.

"It's possible, in theory, to make a pair of shoes with no tools other than a knife and some leather needles," Robert explained. "The question is, would it look anything like what we currently think of as a 'shoe'?"

So now, of course, my next challenge is to sew a pair entirely by hand. I'm going to start with a nice easy pair of moccasin style shoes (like a Topsider style), and work my way up from there.

Return Manufacturing to Hamilton

In the meantime, I will repeat my call for an increased return in Hamilton to learning those skills we will need in the near future - not in a hobbyist's context, although that is an important first step, but an industrial one.

If some enterprising handyperson who had a good knowledge of bicycles were to combine Kenneth Moyle's article about the pleasures of commuting on a Dutch style Bicycle with Undustrial's ideas about making those bikes right here in Hamilton, some pretty exciting things might just happen.

I nominate Sean Burak.

Unfortunately, if Robert's experience is one to judge by, governments and banks won't exactly be beating down the doors to help these new manufacturers get underway.

That is a serious oversight that needs to be remedied while capital is still (relatively) abundant. Securing local sources of financing and expertise will be crucial to helping Hamilton find it's feet quickly should the ground underneath the global economy start to tremble.

Learn Now

As for you, is there an 'old fashioned' skill you have always been curious about?

Have you jumped on the knitting bandwagon yet, or maybe even something more esoteric like spinning your own yarn, or marquetry, or herbal remedies?

Perhaps the time to start learning is now, because if shoe-making is any indication, the ramp-up time for these skills may be uncomfortably long, and our leisure to learn them is surprisingly short.

Originally published on Jason's website

Jason Allen is a chronic hive whacker in the Kirkendall Neighbourhood.


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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted February 23, 2011 at 09:01:02

I would never, ever discourage anyone from exploring our arts and crafts heritage. I think the ability to make and create is incredibly valuable not just as cultural history but for being able to identify value and quality, as you suggest.

However, I really think that inventing some apocalyptic fantasy of economic meltdown and needing to make shoes by hand is a bit much. Again; I'm not against handmade shoes, but the pretense that we'll all need handmade shoes because we're headed back to the nineteenth century isn't sensible or necessary.

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By Veganline.com (anonymous) | Posted March 01, 2011 at 05:22:43 in reply to Comment 60184

Agree that a 300-a-month workshop makes more sense than a cobbler.

Need no.1 is for those who are interested to construct a free wiki page or such of nearby workshops. I've done something more for small wholesale buyers (12-100 pairs per style and colour) in the UK.

Need no.2 is already happening here: a pendulem swing in somepeoples' tastes towards the available shoes made in Canada, rather than the fashionable advertised well-distributed shoes made in China.

Need no.3 is sadly for a much lower rate of exchange between western countries and eastern.

Need no.4 is beginning to happen in Libya: a practice of setting tariffs against the countries that bully their workforces and have no human or welfare rights, rather than just buying more of their products as we do now.

I didn't know I was going to get-up to 4!

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted February 23, 2011 at 09:56:59

If you are interested in handmade shoes or any other olde item try looking up a group called SCA( Society for Creative Anachronism). This group deals with the six to sixteen hundreds. While there are many who deal with it in a very casual way happily using modern items with a historic feel or look there are also others who actually work in the historic manner. There are (at least there were) people who make virtually anything including shoes, spinning yarn, weaving cloth, woodworking, leather working, armouring, sword and knife making and a whole lot more.

Any of these pursuits is noble pursuit and can certainly be a lot of fun while resulting is some surprisingly wonderful results but necessary is another animal altogether unless you see a doomsday nuclear war or something similar.

Good luck with your endeavor, I hope your shoes turn out wonderfully. I do not know if you are familiar with Tundra Leather on King St. they would be a good source of both materials and knowledge if you need either.

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By Zot (anonymous) | Posted February 23, 2011 at 11:09:37

Looks like you did a wonderful job on those shoes, but they don't strike me as particularly practical DIY "Mad Max" footwear for common folk. Way too complicated and dependant on expert skills and exotic tooling.

I'd be more inclined to consider something like Caligae as a first project, the hob nail sandals that were the "army boots" of ancient Rome.

A website with good instructions on building them is here:

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By BeulahAve (registered) | Posted February 23, 2011 at 11:18:35

Fascinating read, Jason! The prices are not nearly as high as I would have expected ($100 to $150 range). Did you get a discount for making your own shoes? And have you been wearing your new shoes?!

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted February 23, 2011 at 11:59:02

Ahh leatherwork - my other love. I tried my hand at cobbling a while ago, but didn't do the math quite right on the seam allowances, so ended up with a pair of leather socks (fit like glove - but no room for anything underneath). Decided against putting souls on them and shelved them until warmer weather comes.

Do we need an apocalypse to learn these things? No. The shoemaking apocalypse has already come and gone. Don't believe me? Go to Payless. Shoes are increasingly made of incredibly flimsy material (I've found cardboard cutting 'em up), so that it will hold together with glue and bottom-rate sweatshop sewing machine work, rather than the kind of intense machinery and hand work described above. They fall apart in months and cannot be repaired.

The economics of leather make it very difficult to commercially produce high-quality products. So much so that your best bet is usually yourself, a friend or a craft fair. That's why traditional leatherworking - country and western, First Nations etc - is often some of the only decent stuff you can still buy. They do it all themselves - hunting, tanning, sewing, etc - and the results are stunning.

If you're interested, I really can't recommend Tundra Leather enough.

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By jasonaallen (registered) - website | Posted February 23, 2011 at 13:44:32

@Undustrial - Tundra leather has been tireless with the advice and suggestions. I sewed a pair of mocassin slippers with their help last year, so the next step is to figure out how to attach the sole. I think I've got a better idea now. My main challenge is coming up with soles I can play with that won't break the bank. So far, ebay seems to be my best bet.

Also - having spent many years in the high-end shoe business, I can't agree with you more about the disaster that most footwear products have become. Robert was telling me that while it takes him about 8 hours to do 15 pairs (roughly a pair every 30 minutes - because of the way he batches the work) the offshore companies have giant industrial machines that do most of the work. Average amount of labour spent on each shoe? About 12 minutes, and man, does it show.

@BuelahAve - His prices are quite reasonable - I ended up paying slightly more than I would have had I just bought them from him, but the knowledge I gained was invaluable. I wore them non stop the week after I made them, and again to a celebration dinner on Saturday night. They are quite comfy!

@MrMeister - I was loosely aquainted with the SCA when I lived in the States (I was near Lake Tahoe - which is the home of a massive Rennaisance fair!). It may be an idea to look them up again.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted February 23, 2011 at 16:52:40 in reply to Comment 60195

I can't agree with you more about the disaster that most footwear products have become


Dear, departed Dack's Shoes went from Made in Canada to Made Here & There when they were purchased by an international conglomerate in the 90s. The first pair of Not-Made-in-Canada Dack's which I bought gave me problems almost from the get-go: I had to have them reheeled almost immediately and the sole wore out very, very quickly.

I'm told that Allen Edmonds- available from Miller's downtown - is the pretty much only properly made traditional men's shoe left in the market (without getting into a pair of $800 Church's, that is).

Though I look at that picture of the shoes you made, and I stoke my chin, purse my lips and go 'Hmmmm' ....

Comment edited by moylek on 2011-02-23 16:53:45

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By JasonAAllen (registered) - website | Posted February 23, 2011 at 21:22:18 in reply to Comment 60199

Kenneth - my first pair of 'serious' dress shoes were Allen Edmonds- about 13 years ago at the shoe store where I worked. If they hadn't been half price it never would have been an option. I still wear them regularly, they're on their third or fourth sole, and more heels than that.

As for Dacks...funny you should mention that. The shoes you see in the picture above are on the Dacks 'Royal' Last. Robert has all the Dacks lasts - he bought them when the Canadian factory closed.

If you are ordering shoes from Robert, you may even be able to specify the Dacks last, if you know the name of the one you want (not always the name of the shoe, in fact usually not). Either way, he's got them all.

Comment edited by JasonAAllen on 2011-02-23 21:23:40

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted February 24, 2011 at 17:54:20 in reply to Comment 60201

Now I really want to order a pair of shoes from Robert, which is, come to think of it, a darned good idea anyway.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted February 23, 2011 at 15:54:48

I haven't tried it yet, but I've been meaning to try cutting up car tires for use as soles. With a sander and some construction adhesive, it ought to be the cheapest, most durable option.

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted February 23, 2011 at 17:30:45

I agree with the Mad Max comments. Things will get more expensive, hopefully the quality will rise as we get craftsmen making things again, but as long as the internet is around and people need accountants, I should be alright. :)

For the local SCA chapter here's a good start: http://www.ealdormere.ca/Welcome.htm

I've got a good friend in it if you need more info.

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted February 23, 2011 at 21:23:17

SCA's good stuff. The St. Catharines chapter does a lot of interesting things too.

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By LoveIt (anonymous) | Posted February 24, 2011 at 11:14:55

I would love to see more unique high quality crafsman's shops and craftsman shows in Hamilton, as I do prefer quality over quantity.

Some nice wood carving things, like newels, porch corbels are hard to find in good quality now. But such a business can be set in one's garage with a few power tools.

BTW, may be some remember a story of the US lady who started a million dollar business just making hair clips with bows for school girls. She was just really good at that doing it for years for her several grand kids. Ended up employing her husband, then neighbours.
All started from her home/garage.

I beleave that any craftsmen will be successful, if they make quality and useful things.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted February 24, 2011 at 11:45:16

Interesting read. I too have lamented the poor quality of shoes that seem to be made in places like China. I think that we need to get back to quality over quantity.

Is this a business? Does it turn a profit?

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By hammy (anonymous) | Posted February 24, 2011 at 12:28:55

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By missingmods (anonymous) | Posted February 24, 2011 at 12:35:41 in reply to Comment 60212

Dear mods, the RTH discussion guidelines say users who keep violating the rules will be "warned first, and then have their accounts revoked if the violations don't stop." How much more does "hammy" have to keep insulting everyone and violating the rules before you ban his ass?

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted February 24, 2011 at 12:55:36 in reply to Comment 60213

Seconded, hammy's posts are pure poison, there's no real opinion, only hammy hating and insulting everyone on RTH. If Ryan won't ban him, at least let me ban him from the comments I see. Maybe we need another "throttle" bookmarklet like adrian made for turbo aka allan taylor aka say what.

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By adrian (registered) | Posted February 24, 2011 at 20:45:24 in reply to Comment 60214

Maybe we need another "throttle" bookmarklet like adrian made for turbo aka allan taylor aka say what.

Ask and ye shall receive - I updated my post and made a new bookmarklet. This one is called Whammy

(Look at the end of the post for the new bookmarklet.)


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By z jones (registered) | Posted February 24, 2011 at 21:02:30 in reply to Comment 60219

You sir are a gentleman and a scholar.

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By say what (anonymous) | Posted February 24, 2011 at 17:20:48 in reply to Comment 60214

Although I agree with your assessment of Hammy what you propose is a clear violation of the forum guidelines and has already been criticized by Ryan. Besides that whats the point. If you hate him that much you don't have to read his posts

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By z jones (registered) | Posted February 24, 2011 at 21:03:15 in reply to Comment 60216

You would know, wouldn't you Allan?

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By say what (anonymous) | Posted February 24, 2011 at 21:28:09 in reply to Comment 60221

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By not ham (anonymous) | Posted February 24, 2011 at 15:12:25

hammy exposed--see so-called cartoon in Thurs Spectator

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By hammy (anonymous) | Posted February 25, 2011 at 00:03:08

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By drb (registered) - website | Posted February 25, 2011 at 00:38:17

Land's shoes are also available at Spencer's Mercantile on Locke South. It's a cool store for re-enacters, or anyone in the market for a blunderbuss or a bayonet. They have excellent period headgear as well.

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