The Art of Shoemaking - Where It Began, Where It Is NowWritten by Gavin Humphreys
One of our Colombian shoemakers described shoemaking to me as un arte dispendioso.
This wonderful description doesn’t have a direct translation - but it encompasses the idea that shoemaking is an extravagant and lavish art. That it is sensational.
But how did the trade of making this humble utilitarian piece of clothing grow and expand to become the beautiful art that it is today?
Where does the passion come from?
Shoe fashion has grown and changed alongside the abilities and whims of these amazing artists who create the shoes.
It’s almost like somebody’s family tree - diverse origins that have come together to result in our modern range of footwear.
Let’s go back to the origins of this story.
The origins of shoes
Some 7000 odd years ago, an inhabitant of (what is today) Missouri wandered into a cave and lost their sandal - only for us to find many years later! This discovery proved that North Americans at that time were already making footwear from plant fibers, woven together.
At the same period in China, we know they also made shoes from woven and stitched straw.
To create leather shoes, we needed one of the biggest technological advances that our clothing has seen - tanning.
With the invention of leather tanning, it became possible to cut and mold the hides of animals and create (amongst other things) clothing and footwear. There is evidence of tanning in the middle east, from Pakistan through to Sumeria, from around 7000 years ago.
(Tanning is a process which is still advancing and transforming, to find out more read my blog on Gold-Rated Leather.)
Many would argue that this natural material still proves to be the best for our feet.
In 1991, the frozen remains of a traveler who died in the Alps around 3300BCE emerged from a glacier. He had shoes made from a deerskin upper and a bearskin sole. This already sounds quite a fancy shoe, but when did shoemaking become an art?
From very early on we see that the quality and style of your footwear denoted your class and status in society.
The art and skill of the shoemaker was quickly recognized and elevated.
By the time of the Ancient Greeks (around 800BCE), elaborate footwear was part of the outfit of a gentleman or lady. We can see this in the art and statues of the time.
Of course, in the warm climate of Greece the inhabitants mainly wore sandals - and often only for traveling or hunting, rather than the day-to-day.
By Roman times men were wearing lace-up boots to go into battle. Some of the boots we see in Roman statues and artwork have elaborate designs, adornments, and a variety of styles.
Across the World, many styles appeared - from wooden sandals in Japan, to Clogs in Denmark. From moccasins in North America, to Espadrilles in Spain.
But the majority of the shoes we wear today owe their existence to the invention of something called the last - and a little thing called the heel.
The beginning of the modern shoe
By the Middle Ages, roughly 1000 years ago, shoemakers started using a last to create comfortable shoes that were the perfect fit.
Lasts are molds that were modeled on the feet of the customer. Exact measurements were taken, and a last-maker would chisel a hard-wood sculpture of the foot. This way, the shoemaker could pull the leather tight, over the last, and tack it in place. By leaving it there over the course of several days, the leather took the shape of the foot.
This is why Cinderella’s glass slipper only fit her - a well-made shoe would fit one person alone.
For quality shoes, made with the best leather, lasting is still in practice today. All our shoes, boots, and sneakers benefit from spending a few days on a last that we designed ourselves.
Heels also became more commonplace around the Middle Ages, and became part of all footwear.
About this time, the split between shoes of the rich and powerful and that of the common folk diverged even further.
Bespoke shoemaking meant that the nobility and the wealthy could request shoes depending on their wishes - with prints, adornments, and any bells and whistles they could think of.
Then as we came into the modern era, however, shoes became much more universal, and more uniform.
The post-industrial era and the 20th Century
Fast-forward to the post-industrial era, and the mass production of the 20th Century, and things changed.
The second half of the 19th Century saw the growth of a middle-class and a boom in shoe production.
New inventions in soling - the Blake and Goodyear stitching - revolutionized the ways that shoemakers could construct shoes and make them comfortable and solid.
Then came the 20th Century, which saw the shoemaker’s art being simulated and replaced by mass-production in factories. Quality leather and natural materials were oftentimes discarded and replaced by cheaper (more easily manipulated) leather and synthetics.
Lasts were thrown out as too time-consuming. Instead, the factories produced using the Strobel method (also called force lasting) where the materials are heated up and pulled into place like a sock. It all happens in just a few minutes.
It became about cutting corners for quick, changeable fashion.
The development of vulcanized rubber (by the American, Charles Goodyear) meant rubber began to replace leather soles. That then, in turn, got replaced by oil-based materials. These soles were no longer stitched - instead, super-strong glues stuck the soles in place in seconds.
The 20th Century also saw the arrival of the sneaker. This transformed the art of the shoemaker.
The sports shoe became everyday wear. Not only used for exercise, people looking for comfort flocked to buy these ‘trainer shoes.’
Yet again, by the end of the 20th Century, most of these were mass-produced and from synthetic materials.
The end of the art?
Well-constructed shoes made by real artisans became a thing of rarity.
People stopped caring. If it’s cheap and does the job, that’s fine.
There was a big danger of the art becoming extinct, and confined to the history books and children’s stories.
Artisan-made footwear became more and more the preserve of the wealthy, and the traditionalist. It became almost hidden and unnoticed, in the shadows of big-brand footwear.
Yet, the art continued.
Pockets of artisans kept it alive. Passionate shoe-makers in the north of Italy. Little shops in the back-streets of London.
Here in Colombia (where we produce our shoes, boots, and sneakers), the shoemakers continued to pass their knowledge from generation to generation. One district, in particular, El Restrepo, thronged with shoemakers, leather merchants, and little shops.
Yet, unfortunately, people only wanted to buy cheap. It looked likely that the art was dying a very slow death.
Today - looking for a sustainable future
Then salvation for the old art came from the most unusual of places.
Firstly, people around the World slowly started to ask questions about unethical practices, and demand environmental responsibility. An awakening to climate change and the degradation of the environment, as well as poor treatment of workers, meant that people wanted shoes that met social standards.
Secondly, the internet gave them the power to know the facts - and find what the want. It also meant that the artisans could sell their products at a click.
As people push for change, and a more responsible, sustainable future, producers of footwear have had to answer some questions. The traditional art found itself much more aligned with modern values.
People are now rejecting the wasteful, fast-fashion ideology. People want classic styles that stand the test of time. Shoes that can last a generation or more.
Many people have signed up to the logic of owning fewer items, but better quality. Shoes produced by artists suddenly became desirable again - more expensive, but that feel better and last longer.
That’s where the internet comes in.
In the case of our made-to-order business model - people can buy now hand-crafted, quality footwear, made by skilled artisans in ethical working conditions, at an affordable price. We have the skillset here in Colombia, and the market exists in the USA - and the internet joins the two!
In our model, we give center stage to the art of the craft. We raise the shoemakers and leather workers to the light. We promote the continuing of the art for the future.
Artisans make all our shoes, boots, and sneakers by hand - using quality leather and age-old skills.
Every day, our shoemakers pass their skills and knowledge on from person to person.
As our designer, Giovanni, told me - “I went to study with the best shoemakers from Spain and Italy, but it was when I got my hands dirty with the artisans in the studio, stitching pieces and hammering in tacks, that I really learned what it means to make shoes”.
The knowledge that each of our artisans has, has been passed down from generation to generation over hundreds of years - make that thousands. We can’t afford to lose this.
The evolving art
The art of shoemaking is now adapting to a world that is awake and looking for something better than we have received in these previous decades.
Every purchase from Beckett Simonon goes some way to keeping the art of shoemaking alive, and revitalizing it, so that it can thrive in a responsible, sustainable future.
If you want to find out more about how our shoes are made - using traditional materials and techniques, combined with some modern twists, check out the Craftsmanship section of our website.
You can also browse our other articles on shoemaking, leather, and general men’s fashion.
If you have a specific question about how our artisans create the shoes, boots, and sneakers in their ateliers, leave me a comment below, and I will get back to you. We also have a team on hand ready to chat - just click on the Contact tab above.