Friday, November 25, 2011

Fiddle Waist

So, dear shoemakers of the world, another week goes by. Today sees the start of the twice yearly Cockpit Arts Open Studios. The public's chance to see our working studios and either buy or commission work from the over 90 designer/makers who work here. So if you are in Central London this weekend, why not pop in and see us. It is a great visit and you could buy some of those tricky Christmas presents

Opening times are

Friday 26 November 11am till 9pm
Saturday 27 November 11am till 6pm
Sunday 28 November 11am till 6pm

£5 in.

And so to shoemaking. We have seen recently the rise of the fiddle waist in high end men's shoes, and of course we are not immune to it. Our recent Mayfair Collection features them, and rather beautiful they are too

But I have been wondering about the origin and purpose of them. The internet did not throw up very much useful information (maybe the old fiddle is too arcane), so I went to visit my old friends at John Lobb to see what they had to say on the subject.
There were a few disagreements about the finer points, but this is what I learned.

The essential elements seem to be a pulled in waist and the Y shaped ridge up the middle (some thought this was not essential, but the consensus was that it was).
Most seemed to think that the origin was on women's shoes with high heels where the waist becomes very important for the integrity of the shoe.
Most also thought that it was basically a decorative addition without much structural significance, but that the Y shaped ridge adds strength to the waist, because the higher the heel and the more pulled in it is, the more strength you need to support the weight of the wearer.
Most also thought that they were not generally used in men's shoes. However, if the main use is aesthetics, then they are permitted in any shoes, men's included.
One person said they thought they were used in equestrian boots and cowboy boots, but was not entirely sure.
Any feedback about this would be greatly appreciated.
As for the name, it is because the waist looks like a violin (fiddle), but, frankly, I don't see it. Ho hum.

And here's how you do it.

Start with a welted shoe with a shank and cork filler. Welt trimmed and ready to prepare the sole. You can do this with a square waist or a bevelled waist in this case.

I like to draw the line of the Y shaped ridge.

Usually you would make the fiddle with leather for strength and durability, but as these are sample shoes and will never be worn in anger, I did it with cork.
Cut out a piece of cork to cover the whole area and glue both surfaces (contact adhesive or rubber solution).

Let it dry and glue it in place.

Skive the edges down with your knife. I forgot to say that the cork/leather should extend back behind the heel mark so that the finished ridge disappears in to the heel.

Make another piece of cork but narrower this time to start building up the ridge. Glue both surfaces and let them dry.

Glue it in place.

Again, skive the edges to build up the ridge.

Repeat the process with a third piece of cork, but narrower again.

This is my final piece, but for a bigger, bolder ridge add a fourth piece of cork.
Start to rasp the cork into shape. If you use leather, use your knife to shape the ridge.

You should be aiming for a sharp pointed ridge all the way along which splits to form the Y shape.

At the joint, there will be a big raised platform of cork. You have to blend this into the fiddle waist with your knife.

Then rasp it into shape.

And then the fun bit starts. You have to make the other one and they have to look the same! I do each process on both shoes at the same time s that I can match each stage to make a pair.

This is how I would normally prepare my sole on a normal shoe.

 But on a fiddle waist, you want the Y shape to be accentuated, so I always skive away right across the waist area like this. This thins the sole and when you glue it on, it is easier to get a nice ridge.

Once the sole is glued into place with rubber solution, you have to use your hammer to shape the waist. Gently tap the leather along the contours of the Y shaped ridge. Be gentle, tap it rather than bash it. This really helps define the shape because the leather is still mellow (a little wet) and is easy to shape with the hammer.

The results can be lovely. I like the fiddle waist a lot.

And that, as they say, is that. For this week at least. We wish you all a good week, especially our US friends who have a big holiday right now.

Until next week, happy shoemaking!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Handmade? 2

Greetings to all you shoemakers, apprentice shoemakers, self taught shoemakers, shoe lovers, and general footwear aficionados. And if that doesn't cover you, a special personal hello to you too.
Welcome back. Another action packed week in which we featured in London Time Out (a what's on magazine) in a feature on commissioning bespoke work. How to do it and not be intimidated. It's easy with us, we are friendly, down to earth and cuddly.

Also featured in Pomp magazine, a new publication about the luxury market in London, aimed at visitors to the city. Lovely article about trends in English shoemaking for men. Riding the wave.

Starting next Friday at 11am and continuing till Sunday at 6pm is the Cockpit Arts Open Studios weekend. We will be here in our studio along with 80 other designer/makers covering all craft disciplines, from jewellery to ceramics, furniture to weaving, it's all here. It is a fascinating visit and the perfect chance to buy those unique Christmas presents you struggle to find.

Continuing on from last week on the theme of handmade, something else we get asked a lot is "Why don't you use a machine to do that? It would be much quicker". Or "There is a machine to do that which would save you lots of time".
Well, the answer is this. Because we make shoes by hand, using the ancient and traditional techniques passed down from master to apprentice. The obvious part of this process is the handing down of the shoemaking skills and knowledge which generations of shoemakers have built up and developed - how to make a shoe. This is a fairly rigid set of skills, but each maker can adapt and alter them to his or her particular way of working. This is how small changes and adaptations can evolve, especially with the development of improved materials.

There is also another aspect to the process of learning like this however. When a master shoemaker teaches you how to make shoes, it is not simply one person handing on their own knowledge to you, but also the person who taught them and the person before that, building generation upon generation going back five hundred years or more. This is how we preserve the tradition, and we feel that we owe respect to previous generations of shoemakers by sticking to this tradition. We have been handed the standard and it is our decision to carry it faithfully and to pass it on. This is another reason why we stick so closely to our traditional skills, use our hand held tools, and avoid cutting corners by using machines.
The courses that carreducker runs is another way to express this responsibility that we have. And one day, we will take on  apprentices full time to continue the cycle.

This is a responsibility, but it also gives our work an authenticity and integrity which is important to our clients. Some argue that people are less concerned with these things nowadays, that price is the most important factor, but I disagree. Experience tells me that our clients care passionately about our craft and that they are willing to pay for it. This is a significant factor that drives the luxury market. After a certain level of income, price becomes less of a priority and other factors influence buying decisions, such as craftsmanship; authenticity; tradition; quality of materials; provenance; a personal relationship with the maker; personalisation/customisation; longevity. And working the way we do confers these things to our bespoke shoes.

There is also this to consider. If you put in the hours and perfect the skills you need, the time you spend doing one task is really not much longer than setting up a machine and using it to do the same step. I can build and shape a heel with a knife not as quickly as I could with a machine, but not far off. And with all the advantages that making by hand confers, I would always prefer to do it this way.
I have seen people spend time and money on machines, some of which work and some of which prove to be of no use at all. It can become a distraction from sitting down and making shoes.

Another advantage to just using hand tools is that, once you have assembled your tool kit (harder and harder these days, I know), you are set up for life. You can travel anywhere and set up a workshop in an hour, in a few square metres of space. If you become reliant on machines to make your shoes, if your circumstances change, or they break  and you can't use them, you have a problem.

For our practice, starting to use machines is a slippery slope. How far do you go? And, going back to last week's post, at what point does the shoe stop being handmade?

We describe ourselves as hardcore craftsmen, and you may think it rigid and dogmatic, but also consider that this way of working simplifies your life. You have a set of skills which work and can always be improved. And you don't have to worry about anything else. Simple.

I look forward to hearing what you think - always open to debate here!

Until next week, fellow shoe freaks, happy shoemaking!

Friday, November 11, 2011


"So, James, what do you do?"

"I'm a bespoke shoemaker."

"Really, that's amazing. Handmade shoes then."

Yes and no. Handmade is a murky term. You see it applied to cemented shoes from China; Blake stitched shoes from Italy; and Goodyear welted shoes from Northampton. What makes them handmade? The fact that they have been touched by a human hand? That's not quite enough in my eyes.
At what point do factory made shoes become handmade? How mechanised does the process have to be in order to drop the 'handmade' label? A shadowy area indeed.

I think my favourite ready to wear shoes are Edward Green. We visited the factory in Northampton a couple of years ago and were mightily impressed at the skill of the workforce; the quality of the materials; and the dedication of the MD to improve the manufacture. They are the most manually constructed factory shoes I have ever seen, but they are still made on industrial machines. By very skilled workers, it must be said, but are they handmade?

Not in my eyes. If you look at what we do at carr├ęducker (and the other West End shoemakers in London), this is handmade. We make the shoes at a bench, with hand held tools from start to finish, no machines. There is a simplicity to this, a clarity, no blurred edges.
When people ask us are they handmade, we can say, with all honesty, that they are.
The only thing that is done on a machine is the closing, and even then, there is often an element of hand work, like the stitching on the lake/apron of a loafer, or the stay stitches on a Derby.

We steer clear of the term handmade for these reasons, preferring handsewn or hand stitched. Handmade is too much of a blanket word. It is so widely used that it has lost its meaning, so ubiquitous that the spectrum which it covers is virtually any shoe, made anywhere in the world, using any construction method you like.

But back to shoes. Very interesting piece in the Financial Chronicle online about the link between luxury brands and craft based companies like carr├ęducker, using the collaboration between  us a Gieves and Hawkes as an example. Worth a read.

I was sent this image of a pair of shoes that I just love. Very James Bond villain, a beautiful, semi-aquatic one. Excellent in their madness nonetheless.

It has to be the orange pair, don't you think?

This video was posted to me on Facebook and it made me chuckle. Do I want a pair? Not if I have to dance like that in them. And listen to that terrible music all the time (yikes, I sound like my Dad!).

Starting the final pair of our Mayfair Collection, the Derby. Black again, with the pulled in fiddle waist. Very elegant, conservative and cool (is that possible in one shoe? You better believe it!).

So, until next week, happy shoemaking!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Making movies

No red carpet or flashing bulbs...but we starred in two new mini movies last week. The first was our own little production showing something of the making process.- the film played on a loop on a '70s style TV during our in-window experience in Vigo street - and the second was created by photographer Nick Hands - he of the beautifully detailed photography for the Balvenie Award nominees - as part of his 'smallworks' series.

Our own movie is a snapshot of the many stages of shoemaking and can now be seen on You Tube. Editing it has whetted our appetite for producing our own shoemaking DVD.

So, fellow shoemakers and shoemaking fans what do you think? Would you be interested in a DVD that takes you through each stage in making a shoe and shows you how to hold each tool and use it to maximum effect? Please let us know whether you think it would be helpful...perhaps to supplement the intensive courses we run or, for those unable to make it to New York or London, to replace it...distance learning for shoemakers? Why not? We could even do specific masterclasses for certain techniques like a bevel waist, blind welt or storm welt.

So many of our students say how much easier it is to learn to make shoes by watching us and then doing it for themselves that perhaps this is the ideal way - a virtual one-to-one - and then we could provide support via Skype or email....hmmmmm food for thought. What do you think?

artisan images

Nick Hand's photofilms (see above) feature a variety of craftspeople from across the country including yours truly. The images and interviews were collected over a period of time as Nick travelled around the British coast by bicycle (see the pics above) and, more recently, as part of his commission for Balvenie to capture the nominees for the 2011 Masters of Craft.

Masters of craft: Deborah Carre

The images he captured on his bike tour form a wonderful photo exhibition and highlights from the people he met are now available as soundslides on his website and in a wonderful book entitled Conversations on the Coast. My personal favourites are the tools series of images - unsurprisingly there is craftsmanship in the tools themselves - and the photofilm of Will Brown Outfitters in Norfolk...a lovely business producing simple, beautifully made clothing...and somewhere I would like to visit.

Fear not... we will be catching up on a few shoemaking projects next week so until then, happy shoemaking!