The Extinction of a Craft

Let’s just state this right away: I am not trying to be dramatic here. I am not implying anything at all. The sole purpose of this post to start a conversation within professional circles. Where are we? What did we do so far to avoid losing our traditions? What can our generation, we, you and I do more, better?

How does it even happens? How a craft disappears? We all have seen numerous articles about the “last master of this and that”. Most of the time that is exaggerating. Magazine authors sometimes don’t have time to do the right research, and a title like that should just generate clicks or good old fashion offline readers. The extinction doesn’t start with magazine articles. Here is my opinion:

1. Lack of education

Any craft needs continuous replenishment for easy reasons: many will leave the craft, some will not teach and only a few percent will be passing down the knowledge. A few outstanding masters/craftsmen might make the impression that the craft is happily alive, but it is like a few dozen blue whales – it seem like a great mass, but might not be enough for the survival of the species. This is kind of true for where we are with shoemaking. We have superstars in this field. They post mind blowing, outstanding, precise work, they charge thousands of dollars for a pair, have trunk shows, etc, etc. Do they teach? Not many of them? Even they do – all the techniques? All the patterns? Even the boring ones? Those what we once in 10 years? Or just the ones which make the money?

2. Less and less formally educated craftsmen will practice in the trade

..and as the consequence of that, the formal education will not be very much appreciated. Why it would be? We all know self taught piano players, dancers, chefs… etc. They do it well. It must be OK. The problem is – where it leads. People who don’t have the whole package, don’t carry the whole package to the next generation. We do have a solutions for that though – a journey. Traditionally a master journey is for get different methods, techniques and aspects. With less choices, the whole journey class disappears, practitioners will be “masters” straight away. That is plain wrong. Not because they skip many years of practice and exams, but the very meaning of being a master: prepare for teaching. Many believes the title “Master” is an equivalent thing of a black belt, but that is not quite true – more like a teacher’s degree.

3. The diversity of the technics are disappearing

That is where we get, when there is no education. People will practice the basics. Customers will not recognise the difference – they can still order their basic welted shoes, the lining pattern might not be that fancy, but hey… the finishing will look still awesome and the shoe fits well. What more do we need?

A good example for this – look into crafts which were disappeared already. Some of them did not disappear completely. Some unique parts have gone. Some techniques. It is not like we can’t make those objects… just not that level. We forgot the tricks and those, sophisticated methods they used.

4. Demand and appreciation for the products are disappearing

..which is perfectly reasonable for some products. Like coaches. I mean.. we don’t really need a lot of them. We certainly don’t need a maker in every village. That doesn’t mean that we have to forgot the tradition, but one thing for sure – the market mechanisms will not guarantee the survival of the trade. How does this apply for the footwear traditions? One word. Appreciation. Customers are less and less educated. They believe factory made products are handmade and equivalent to fine handcrafted shoes and boots. Most of them at least. Even they buy fancy, bespoke suits, they might just match it with a 100% machine made shoes, which smells like plastic, solvents and oil, hardened with thermoplastics and have a paper insole. If that is considered to be the same – we can’t compete.

5. Traditions get watered down

This is probably the most painful thing to watch. The problem is not with the enthusiastic amateurs – they what they do, post for some like-hunting, then go back to their garage to do it. There is nothing wrong with that. The problem is – when they step up their game without further education. As a practitioner of a craft, one has responsibility. That responsibility is to represent the craft. Crafting stuff for fun is not the same than selling them. It doesn’t matter how many years or decades is behind someone’s back – it matters more how did one spent that. I have seen people crafting shoes in a mind-blowing level after 3 years and others making junk after decades.

When the crowd start to have a bad idea, how a hand-crafted shoe should look like, we can have compliment to our work, like “wow, that looks like factory made!” – and they mean it well. That doesn’t sound well though.

Self taught craftsmen don’t need to pay attention to tradition – that would mean a lot more investment into tools, materials and courses, consultations, etc. Doesn’t make much sense, when “you can figure it out… trial and error”. That sounds so likeable and true. The problem is – it took several hundred years and hundreds of  thousands of makers’ trial and error to get here. One person, few years – that is… well. A joke. Not enough. Don’t bother.

6. Too late to bring it back – knowledge is gone

At this point any effort will go vain. Luckily it doesn’t seem very close, but we are definitely around 4-5. Some countries still have schools and thanks to that a mentionable amount of independent makers. Some others have no education for decades. The old masters are still around, but there is no next generation to learn the trade.

—– end of part one —–

6 thoughts on “The Extinction of a Craft”

  1. very interesting article.
    In my case I learned from a master shoemaker in Barcelona, ​​then I had to return to my country and it has been difficult and almost impossible to find a teacher who will continue my training. So and everything from time to time I lead with great teachers by mail, instsgram, I also buy videos of courses and treatment … I always try to try to improve myself.
    I am aware that I need a deeper formation but it is what I have now.
    I would love to have a teacher to teach me to put the body to cut better, sharpen my blade better, to teach me how to choose the best leather, and many more things.
    It is what it is…
    Perhaps the most recognized teachers could come down from their pedestal and tell their secrets, because at last one ends up discovering them.

  2. Yours is a valid concern for many crafts.
    You speak of the lack of the next generation of students for these crafts, which is also so true.
    there may not be a big crowd but a sizeable amount people (around the world) will want to learn the craft of bespoke shoemaking, but like you said the customer appreciation is a problem.

    And I’m glad that there are people who are worried about the extinction of shoemaking

  3. Hello Marcell,

    What an inspiring post.

    I’m introducing you to someone who could have a valuable perspective on the conversation,

    Jim Linnell, a retired Tandy Executive who is doing great things with his online retirement business.

    I’ve cc’d you on an invitation for him to contact you about possibly speaking at the Symposium, or just being supportive.

    I hope something is of value.

    With regards,

    Paul

    ________________________________

  4. I’ve been making footwear for myself for a couple of years because I haven’t been able to buy what I need. So I suppose I am one of the “enthusiastic amateurs” you refer to. Some immediate thoughts about the points you raise.

    1. Lack of education
    There is a dearth of accessible educational material on shoemaking craft: books, decent videos, affordable courses — all few and far between. Having said that, thanks to the internet, there’s probably more around now than a few decades ago. If we don’t want the craft to disappear, we need to make far more and better educational materials — especially ones that can be used for self-teaching, without in-person instruction.

    2. Fewer craftspeople in the trade
    When no one is willing to pay for decent footwear (a problem related to 4 below), is it any surprise that no one is willing to learn the craft of making said footwear? I’ve been racking my brain about how I could make my hobby into my profession, but I can’t see how I can afford to do it. No one will pay enough. There are very few avenues for me to learn from someone else in person — I need to dedicate serious time and money to doing courses (in other parts of the country or even elsewhere in the world!) — which is no small barrier to developing my skills. Another major barrier for me is obtaining and learning to use relevant tools: many tools are not cheap, and require considerable practice to use effectively.

    3. Diversity of techniques disappearing
    Many shoemaking techniques probably started disappearing over a hundred years ago, as handmade shoes started being edged out by cheaper, factory-produced footwear. And were the techniques ever well documented? Or were they closely guarded secrets, as in a (protectionist) guild, and only passed down to initiates by person-to-person instruction? The less something is written down, the more likely to disappear.

    Techniques *will* change, e.g. as newer materials and tools become available — and that’s not always a bad thing. But what’s key to the survival of a technique in future will be robust documentation. (Something to consider: how robust is posting a video online today? Writing a blog post?)

    4. Demand/appreciation disappearing
    This is key. If someone doesn’t understand how your product is better, they won’t pay for it. A real challenge for shoemakers is how to convince people to pay for the added value of handmade shoes. Maybe the types of shoes we make need to change, to better suit particular niche markets.

    5. Traditions get watered down
    While I think I understand where you’re coming from here, I also think it’s a losing battle. If something has traditionally been done a particular way, but now there’s a different way that meets the users’ needs faster or more cheaply, history tells us which will win out. I keep returning to the first point here, which is the need to document the traditional way as extensively as possible, so that even if something dies out, it can be revived without having to reinvent it from scratch.

    6. Too late to bring it back
    Yes, we are nearly at or even past that point. So what can we do to make sure that present skills don’t die out completely and can be revived in future? I return to the need to create robust documentation that can be used by future people to teach themselves.

    In summary, much as I’d like to be wrong, I don’t see the demand for beautifully handmade shoes increasing greatly in the future, so I think the preservation and development of the craft will sit more and more in the hands of “amateurs” who can afford to do it as a hobby, together with a very few professionals who corner the remaining market for handmade “bought” footwear. Perhaps professsional shoemakers can turn the teaching of amateurs into more of an income stream than at present — not only with in-person courses (great though those are) but also with better materials that can be used by amateurs to teach themselves… today, tomorrow, and decades hence.

    In other words, it’s important to think how to involve the hobbyists of today and tomorrow — because without us, handmade shoemaking will go the way of the dodo.

    1. First of all – thank you for your comment! You put a serious amount of time into this, so I am going to answer.

      1. true. There are materials for education. I myself published a lot of those. None of the can replace a good teacher and a hands on practice.
      2. Well, there are customers out there… very picky ones. That surely pay… but.. They have very high expectations. Without the mid range – that level of the market will shrink then disappear too.
      3. Not quite true. In my students/journeyman years I learned about 16 different techniques to make shoes. That certainly was not that long ago. Now outstanding makers practice 2-3 and probably don’t teach more neither. This is an exponentially speeding process. Documenting? Why? High level techniques should be taught one on one. That is how you can learn them otherwise you just abuse a technique and I perfectly understand masters who don’t want to share those precious techniques with any random person. It is not being selfish, just practical. Putting those in to an archive is a different story, that should certainly happen.
      4. Well… this is when government can step up and support crafts, like they do in some countries with really good results. Trusting only craftsmen and market mechanisms, will not end well.
      5. Are you talking about bringing factory ways to workshops? The how will we be different/better? That competition will be lost for sure. We must preserve our traditions to distinguish ourselves from cheap shoes.
      6. Again: education doesn’t work that way. Shoemakers do teach amateurs, but not like a school. You wouldn’t not be able to afford that.

      We DO involve hobbyist, but they will not and can’t carry on our legacy. I will talk about this next time.

      1. Thanks for taking the time to reply. In answer to the questions you posed in the reply.

        3. “Documenting? Why?” If it’s not documented, when the experts die out (sorry to be blunt), the knowledge will be lost. In an ideal world we would pass things on one-on-one, but at the moment this does not seem realistic. Maybe as you suggest in 4, this is a good role for governments or perhaps some big charities (such as museums) to undertake. Documentation can take many forms: it could be videos, for example — not quite as good as in-person one-on-one instruction, but if the person explaining is careful and detailed, still pretty good. Maybe as technology advances, we could use holograms, or programs for 3D printing to make documentation even better. One of the worries I have about existing web-based documentation is that it is already difficult to find, and as technology platforms change, could easily become totally lost. (E.g. what happens if YouTube or FaceBook change their algorithms or even disappear totally?)

        5. “Are you talking about bringing factory ways to workshops?” Absolutely not! I was trying to make the point that if people making shoes by hand try to compete with mass market shoes, failure is almost certain. The handmade shoe maker needs to identify niches that mass-market shoes are not satisfying, and go after those. But, this could involve not only “preserving” old techniques but perhaps also inventing new ones for making footwear to satisfy these “niche” requirements.

        Cheers

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