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Shoes and Craft

A shoemaker's blog about shoemaking

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 —–

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