Friday, March 26, 2010

Bristle Fashion

This week started with a trip to Thom Sweeney to deliver three of our beautiful bespoke shoes as samples to have in their shop. The perfect place for that 'head to toe' marriage between tailoring and bespoke shoes. Let's hope it is a fruitful collaboration.

And what a great shop it is. In the heart of Mayfair, it has four public rooms, which is a fantastic layout, as it feels like a gentleman's club. There is a vestibule with sofa, chairs and drinks cabinet; a showroom with a huge gilt mirror; a cutting room; and a sitting room where you can peruse fabrics. It has great wallpaper made from multiple images of the coolest style icons of the '60s and '70s, when English tailoring was at its hippest. It gives the place a feel of tradition matched with design... exactly what we bring to our work.

Which brings me to the second event of the week, a workshop as part of the Crafted programme we are involved in. And the subject? Branding. Initially quite a diffuse thing, the public's response to you and how you can affect it. It requires a deep look into the personality of your business which I find excruciating, but it is worthwhile. Especially when you see some well executed examples of it (see Thom Sweeney). Food for thought indeed. It requires long, laborious work which has to be distilled into a concise, clear message, both in words and images. Not an easy task.

The other thing I find challenging is to have that thinking at the forefront of your mind in every business situation you find yourself in. In a small business like ours, basically we encapsulate that thinking. It's how we speak, dress, communicate in the various media. We are the face (or interface) of carreducker (heaven help us!).

Yesterday we took possession of the latest batch of Winkers which included three new designs using fabrics from Eloise Grey (a fellow Crafted member). Using beautiful organic Scottish tweeds, they are a new direction for the Winkers, but we are really pleased with them. It goes with our ethos of collaborating with other companies to create specific models, furthering the offer.

Now, back to threads and bristles. We left it last week at the point where we attach the bristles to the threads. This is a vital stage, because if they are not attached well, the bristles come off and you spend forever trying to re-attach them. So best to get it right the first time.

Having keyed the bristle with fine sandpaper. You must twist the tapered ends of the threads which have no wax on them

Without letting go of your twist, gently pull the thread end over a piece of tar. It's the tar which will stick the thread and bristle together. I get my tar from people who are fixing the streets. Just ask them for a piece. They ask you why; you explain; they look at you strangely; and then generally give you a massive lump.
Be careful of the tapered ends. Carefully coat both of them.

Do the same with the bristles. These are more robust, so pull harder and get a thick coat of tar on them. Put tar on the keyed section, leaving the smooth section clean.

This is the critical bit. While the tar is still warm, get the finest end of the taper and lay it on the bristle. Pinch between thumb and forefinger and twist forwards once. This will attach the end.

Holding the thread in your left hand and feeding it through, twist the thread onto the bristle so that the twists sit just behind the previous ones. It is important to get it on tight, so make sure you keep tension on the thread with your left hand while you twist with the right.

When you reach the full thickness of the thread, you have finished.

The last task is the 'lock' the twist. Take your welting awl or a nail and make a hole through the thread.

Then pass the tip of the bristle through this hole and pull it. The thread passes through the hole till the end and locks it in place so that it doesn't pull off during stitching.

Put the tips of the bristles on the table and cut the end off at a bevelled angle so that they are pointed. This helps to let them pass if they meet in the middle of a hole while stitching or welting.

The last thing is to put a curve on the bristle to match your awl curve. Do this by running your nail down the tip like you would do to a ribbon while packing. But be gentle to get a perfect curve.

And that, as they say, is that. It's worth practicing this a few times. There is nothing more frustrating than your bristles coming off mid welt.

Good luck and happy shoemaking.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Nice Threads

One place left on the London course, which is great. We usually fill up in the last few months, but there has been a run this year. Probably the change from 3 to 2 weeks; seems to be more manageable for people.
We are preparing for New York, making lists; checking supplies; making packs for students. We have booked our flights and I am getting excited. It will be May before we know it.

Now then, threads. Essential to a strong construction. They must be sturdy and water resistant. Many people use ready-made threads, which are fine. I prefer to use hemp cords which I twist into threads. The main advantage to this is that you can make them to the length you want and also the thickness. For a welt you need 5 cords of the hemp. For the sole, you need 3. You can also use linen which is thinner, so you need 5 and 8 cords respectively. The other big advantage is that the wax we use heats up and melts when you pull the thread. When it sets again, it forms a plug which acts like glue, holding the thread in place. Particularly good on the soles. Have you seen how the threads show through the channel of the sole edge when the shoes are worn? Well the wax plug stops the sole coming off.
The other main element of the thread is the wax you use to coat it and make it waterproof. This you can make yourself using beeswax and either tar or colophony. But that is another post I think.

The first thing to think about when making your thread is the length you want. Most makers make 1 thread for each job, so to welt a pair of shoes you make 2 shorter threads. I prefer to make 1 longer one to do 2 welts in one. This has the disadvantage of taking longer to pull the threads through, but the advantage of only having to make 1 thread.
For 2 welts on an average sized mans shoe, I use 3 arms lengths of hemp cord.

The second thing to remember is that you need to attach a bristle to each end of the thread and to do this you need a thin tapered end because if you try to attach a full 5 cord thickness thread to a bristle which has to pass through a thin hole with another bristle coming the other way, then you will fail miserably.
So you need to break the cord each time in the following way. Hold with one hand and then roll forward down your leg with the other looking closely at the cord. You need to untwist it until all the fibres are in line and untwisted. At this point, the cord will break in a long beautiful taper.

You need to break each end in this way. With the second cord, hold the first and the second together and pull through till you get to the other end. The second cord needs to be about 1-2cm longer than the first with a tapered end.
Do a third cord.

Cord 4 and 5 are the same except that the taper must be longer, about 6-8cm. You end up with 5 cords like the picture below.

Next, you need to twist the thread. You will need a hook in a wall. Place the thread over the hook and then stand away till the 2 tapered ends are even. Put one leg up on a chair. Hold one thread in your mouth and then, holding the other in your left hand, roll it away from you down your leg with your right hand. Quickly grab it, making sure you don't lose the twist you have just imparted to it and repeat the twisting procedure. The twist will pass along the thread. Enough is judged like this. Move towards the hook. The thread relaxes and if it twists up on itself, you have done too much. This will cause problems when you are welting.
Now swap the ends and do the same thing. Now you have a fully twisted thread.

Now you are ready to put on the wax. Be sure not to let go of the thread, as the twist will unravel and you will have to start again.
Holding both ends with your left hand with your little finger holding them slightly apart, rub the wax along the thread on the top and then on the bottom so that all surfaces are covered.

With a good covering of wax, you must now burnish it. This heats the wax up so that it penetrates the middle of the thread, making it more durable and less prone to rotting.
You do this with a piece of scrap upper leather which you fold over the threads and rub a up and down in short fast movements. You will see it go glossy.

The last thing is to put a light coating of beeswax to help lubricate the threads. Not too much though.

You must protect the 2 ends with your life. They are easily damaged, but essential, so be careful.

Bristles. Originally they were hogs bristles from the neck of a boar, long and strong. They are hard to get and sometimes break. So I use nylon bristles. You can buy them from Algeos, or you can use fishing line (10 - 15 lb). The advantage of bristles over needles is that they are flexible, so that when they meet going in opposite directions through a hole, they neatly move past each other. Needles can just hit and get stuck. Also you can curve the end to match your awl.

You will have seen a little bit of sand paper in my box. The bristles are smooth and you need to key the surface so that the threads don't slide off when in use. To do this, gently rub the bristles with the very fine sand paper (above 220 grit). Only do about 2 thirds of the bristle.

You are now ready to attach the bristle to the thread. We will do that next week folks. It seems quite tricky, but it's ok once you get the hang of it.

Until then, happy shoemaking.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Those Rough Edges

Well, well, well. Another week. The Other One has posted about the Independent Shoemakers Conference, so check that out!

We now only have two places left on the London course, so if you are thinking of doing it, then you need to move quick. We had two students sign up from Cordwainers/LCF this week who said it was a major aspect of their curriculum that they missed. Lucky we are here then!

We are really looking forward to New York. We booked out flights this week and lots of the stuff I ordered last week has arrived, so we have a growing pile of grindery clogging up the workshop.
We love teaching shoemaking to people!

Now, I have had a request for info on thread making and attaching the bristles, so that will come next week and The Other One has more to post after her visit to MICAM last week.

This week, I am going to look at finishing the edges. This is a really important task, as it gives the final look to the shoes. It's what people see and judge the shoes by. So you need to get it right.

After glassing, rasping and sanding the heels and edges (see post Super Natural) you are ready to start. The appearance is rough and unfinished.

The sanding process produces a lip on the welt edge which you must cut off with the plough. A knife also does the job. Don't worry if it appears to cut off the fudge marks.

Wet the welt with water using a toothbrush.

Heat the fudge wheel again to a point where a bit of spit on your finger sizzles. But dont go mad with the heat because you will singe the leather. Run the wheel along the welt making sure it goes into the existing marks. Otherwise you will have multiple marks which looks bad (called having babies!). Press quite hard to get nice sharp marks.

Now we look at the underside. The lower edge will appear with a lip too. Take a light rasp and starting at one end, gently rasp, in a forward direction all the way round. Then turn the shoe round and go back the other way.

You will be left with a fluffy lip again but this time at 90 degrees to the edge. You need to pick off with your fingers the majority of this material, but you must leave a little of it because this will fit into the edge iron to produce a defined line.

Now we are ready to use the edge iron. This has 2 edges, one with 2 lips and the other with 1, with a domed smooth piece of metal between.

Heat the iron on your burner. Again, wet your finger with spit and when it fizzes, the iron is hot enough. Again, not too hot as you will burn the leather.

Wet the edges again with water, and run a piece of regular hand soap along the edges. This acts as a lubricant to help the iron slide around the edges, to produce a glassy edge.

There are various ways to set the edges. Some people do it all in one go, top and bottom at the same time. My preferred method is to set the top edge first, then the bottom edge. The double lipped side is for the top edge. Place it on the fudge marks and pressing in and down at the same time, run the iron round the shoe, backwards and forwards in small motions. You should end up with 2 tiny lines, one on the edge itself, and the other on the fudge marks. It will look very smart.

Do the same on the bottom edge, again producing a clean lipped edge.

Keep the iron hot in the burner through all this.
Now fill in the gap between the top and bottom edges. It will now look darker, uniform and shiny.

You are left with the bevelled waist to finish.

Wet the waist with water; run the soap along; and heat your waist iron. You need to press in very hard inwards and downwards with the iron. And try to fold the top edge down. The iron will do this naturally for you if you press hard enough.

The last thing is to blend the edge with the waist. Go over the join with the edge iron until it looks seemless.
At this point you can do a natural or a coloured finish.

Hope this makes sense. Let me know if you have any questions.

Until next week, happy shoemaking.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Standing on the shoulders of giants

It's only when we're amongst fellow shoe folk that we really start to appreciate that it takes quite an extraordinary person to pursue this specialist craft...and what young upstarts we are in such a venerable trade!

So it was with much anticipation and some dread that we pitched up to the rather imposing Latimer Place in Chesham, for the 12th Annual Independent Shoemakers Conference. We joined about 50 fellow shoemakers, cobblers and repairers in leafy Bucks to discuss all things shoe related and having located a good coffee machine and snaffled some breakfast, things started to look up.
Kindly hosted this year by Peter Schweiger of James Taylor & Son, it was in fact a fantastic day and literally flew by. We began by each introducing our favourite shoe (in our case the Half Cut and ladies brogue) and this was Mr. Schweiger's - his shoe when he was a very well-shod little boy! Leather upper, sole and heels and hand stitched...I only hope our children aren't reading this!

We met the amazing shoe historian June Swann (she of the Northampton Museum); we sat in awe at the resourceful, skillful and expert orthopaedic shoemakers who work miracles to help improve their customers' mobility and wellbeing; and we met shoemaking legend Bill Bird - sorry Bill, but it was a delight to finally meet you and congratulations on the Worshipful Company of Pattenmakers acceptance!

We dis
covered something of the history of the Conference (it was our first visit); enjoyed a riotous dying demo by Arty Achilleos;
had a go at hand-stitching as demonstrated by Dominic Casey (pictured below with June Swann);

and saw how height is built into a trainer by Andrew Twigg - the fastest knife in the north!

As you can see James couldn't resist having a go at the hand stitching but wasn't ready to try the trainers!

By 5pm with new contacts and friends made we wearily headed home - leaving the stalwarts to swim, watch Hobson's Choice ( a David Lean comedy starring John Mills, about a bootmaker and his unruly eldest daughter) and generally make merry into the early hours!

So, until next year fellow repairers, cobblers and shoemakers (or Snobs as we were once known!)!

Friday, March 5, 2010


Well, after a week of bright sunny weather, I am feeling much more positive and optimistic. It's crazy how much the weather affects your mood, but months of cloud, snow, freezing rain and darkness takes its toll. Onwards and upwards!

We had a very interesting workshop with Crafted last week. It was about copyright, trademarking, design right etc. Stuff I knew very little about and it seems that other companies will brazenly try to copy your designs, so, unless you protect your intellectual property, you have little protection. It was very sobering, but there are things you can do, so consult a specialist law firm.
We also had a discussion about developing your company, specifically choosing the direction you want to take and what you eventually want to become. The focus was on pricing, which seems to be an elastic area. Again, a lot of this was new to me. When you start a business, you develop very much according to your personality, and as time passes, you learn on the job. But it is so helpful to gain the insights of people further down the line from you. Anyone can get there in the end, but get any kind of helping hand you can. So thank you to Lulu, Adam and Alistair.

As it happens, Crafted have made a video to promote the programme. It is very interesting, so have a look. I cringed in the obvious places, but you will enjoy it. Does I really sound like that? Ugh!

Crafted from Arts & Business on Vimeo.

Our new York course is now full which is great. This morning I ordered all the tools and leather we will need. It all took a while but it is a satisfying process. I think we are on course - famous last words. I have contacted that German supplier Minke I mentioned last week to see if they can supply us with some awl blades. We have not ordered from them before so I will let you know how I get on.
New York in May, should be fantastic. I am really excited. I love the teaching and being there is always a buzz. So it's Billyberg here we come!

Well, that's me done for this week. The Other One is going to post about the Independent Shoemakers Conference we went to at the weekend so watch this space.

So, until next week, happy shoemaking.