Friday, February 24, 2012

The Customer Is Always Right (Sticker Soles)

Greetings again to all of you shoe people. Makers, menders, and those of you who aspire. And if you don't fit into one of those categories, greetings to you too.

Firstly a big thank you to Finch's Quarterly Review (a very excellent read) for including us in their piece on looking after your shoes. The advice was very sound and well worth adhering to. The layout was cool too.

Another week another small shoemaking story.

They say that the customer is always right. Controversial.

I must say that this has always struck me as lunacy. What I think it means is that they get what they want. Which is a wholly different thing.

Just take these rather lovely Derby shoes. Unremarkable in many ways, but appealing in their own special way.

Burgundy Horween cordovan which I like very much - thick yet supple, it lasts beautifully and has a unique finish all its own.

Solid and unremarkable, but very wearable.

5/16" sole and bevelled waist, brown finish on the edges. So far so good.

Traced and punched toe cap (it's one piece of leather, cap is false).

Unusual dog ear back seam with extended trace stitching. A small detail that gives a bespoke shoe some class.

So what could go wrong you ask?

Plenty. Take a look at this.

A sticker sole right to the heel breast. Doesn't that look nice?

No, not really.

Isn't it practical though?

No, not really

I can fully see why someone would ask for a leather sole and then put a sticker sole on the forepart. You get part of the breathability benefits of the leather sole, but none of the slipping issues.

What I don't understand is having it all the way to the heel breast. You might as well have a synthetic sole and be done.

The problem is sticking the sole on well. We use very strong contact adhesive and leave it a good while. Then revive it with heat so that the bond is very strong. But even with this, it will begin to unstick from the sole over time. It is inevitable with the flexion of the foot inside the shoe. This creates a lot of stress on the glue.

The problem is made even worse by having a bevelled waist because you have to make a paper pattern to fit the waist exactly which is not easy and then you have to bevel the sticker sole too. Again this is not easy and does not look good.

But the customer was adamant. He has had this before and the sole comes away and he is constantly having repairs to it. And as he lives in Russia, we cannot help with this.

When we do a sticker sole, we overcome the unsticking issue by putting in metal tacks. These add durability and we think they give a great retro look to the sole.

I think this actually looks pretty good. And the waist is still breathable.

But at the end of the day, you have to do what the customer wants. After all, they are paying for a service and it is our duty as honest shoemakers to give them that service - even if we don't agree with them. The customer is always right!

And don't worry about him reading this. We had this discussion at the time and I said his punishment would be a blog post all about it. He laughed and said he felt honoured to be featured. This one's for you Valeriy!

Until next week, happy shoemaking!

Friday, February 17, 2012


The past few weeks have been anything but routine for us with the opportunity to do a bit of acting - not a normal part of any shoemaker's life. Our workshops were transformed into even more 'shoemakery' versions of themselves and we spent two days shooting a film - but I don't think Daniel Craig or Julie-Ann Moore need worry!

We've done a bit of stuff in front of the odd camera before, but this was on a totally different scale. The whole of the top floor corridor of Cockpit was full of equipment, there was lighting on the roof, monitors on every corner, hair and make up, some impressive sound and editing equipment and even a stylist - all on site. Then there were the six trucks outside including a catering truck and who knows what more? It was slightly pared back for Gieves - just a crew of 30 or so and three vans....all just to film little old us! Who would have thought it eh? Let's just say it was a trial by fire, absolutely exhausting and obviously, a lot of fun!

Here are a few shots that we took to document some of the experience.

Film, camera, action!

It's all very hush hush and we can't say who it was for, but unfortunately it's not the next Bond!

We'll post more about the film when it is released, but until then a MASSIVE thanks to everyone at Cockpit and Gieves & Hawkes for putting up with our new super-ego red carpet selves, especially Adrian and Carlos!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Gum Tragacanth

Another week , another exciting slice of shoemaking life.

It started off brilliantly with a great Eclectibles page in  How To Spend It in the Weekend Financial Times which featured our brown, Go Faster Stripe lizard shoes. They looked fantastic and we're included on the Contents page and website as well. So a great big thank you to Philippa Clark who puts the feature together

And so to shoemaking, specifically finishing the soles and top pieces. With a black finish, there is no ambiguity - you simply apply black ink, polish, burnish.

But if you want a natural finish, then you have to work a bit harder.

When we were apprentices, our master, Paul Wilson, used to use a solution what he called Gum Dragon. This was applied directly to the sanded sole before you applied the polish. It has the effect of hardening the sole, so that when you apply the polish, it does not go smeary and uneven. After we finished our apprenticeships, we did not have the recipe to make it, so we simply used water instead. This has a similar, but inferior effect.

So I decided to sort it out and get some Gum Tragacanth, as it is more correctly called. And where did I find it? Our good friends at Cornelissen of course, where else?

But buying the stuff was the easy bit. Next I had to find a way to prepare the solution, so I turned to one of our shoemaking bibles, The Shoe Finishers' Guide by W D John, a marvellous book published in 1934.

And here is what it said about Gum Tragacanth.

It is a gummy mass which exudes from a shrub found in Greece, Turkey, Syria, Iran and Kurdistan. The stems are cut and the gum comes out and hardens into flakes or lumps. This is then collected 3 to 4 days later and sorted into grades. The type of cut on the stems determines the kind of gum collected.

It is chiefly used in the manufacture of confectionery and medicines, but just a little is available for the likes of us.

It resembles dry horn or nail and comes in dull off-white contorted flakes which tend to powder over time.

When it comes into contact with water, it swells enormously and absorbs forty times its weight in water. The resulting mucilage is fairly revolting and consists of two parts - a slimy opaque jelly like liquid and a solid part called bassorin which can be filtered out.

The recipe we used was the following

3ozs gum tragacanth to 1 UK gallon of water, mixed and left over the weekend. Filtered and finished with 7ml of 40% formaldehyde. A word of warning though. Formaldehyde is nasty toxic stuff, so you must wear protective gloves and use it outside to avoid breathing it in. DANGER!

1 UK gallon of water

The resulting mixture separates into two parts, the liquid on the bottom and the solid bassorin on the top.

We then filtered out the bassorin.

We added the formaldehyde outside with gloves on using a syringe, and stored it. We have enough for a lot of shoes. I have a feeling it might be a bit thick, so I will test it out and might have to dilute it a bit with water.

And that is that. We have not tried it yet, but are expecting natural soles with the cleanest, smoothest, most even finish you can hope for.

When we have a newly finished sole to compare with an old one, I will post some pictures - I got a bit excited about this, so had to share it with you before having a 'before and after' shot to show you. But it will be here shortly, never fear.

And that, as they say, is a wrap.

Guess what we are going to write about in next week's post? Let's just say that Johnny Depp will be looking over his shoulder soon enough.

Until next week, happy shoemaking!

Friday, February 3, 2012

New Shoemaking Course For October 2012

Welcome to one and all. Another week another shoe.

Exciting news fellow shoe people, especially those who live in or around London.

Having done our handsewn shoemaking courses for 5 years now, we are really thrilled at their popularity. But we have consistently had requests for a regular, weekly shoemaking class from those who cannot find two weeks to do an intensive one.

Going back a long time, this was the kind of course that we taught at Cordwainers College in Hackney and then later at the London College of Fashion. A three hour class once a week for three ten-week terms. This ends up at the magic 90 hours teaching, which should be enough to finish a pair of shoes.

So we have decided to do such a class again, starting in October this year, at our studio in Holborn, Central London.

This is going to be a modular course which means that students pay for 1 term at a time and can work on their shoes at their own pace. We imagine that it will take an average of three terms to complete a pair of hand stitched shoes. But, with lots of homework or some experience, it could take as few as two. Or, for those who prefer to work at a more relaxed pace, it might take four terms to finish.

The format is the same as the intensive courses. At the start of the course, we provide each student with a pair of lasts in a standard UK size; a pair of plain derby calf uppers to fit the lasts; a making pack with all the leather you need to make the shoes; and a basic tool kit to keep.
At the end of the course, you also have the shoes to keep and wear.

The course is aimed at complete beginners or those with a little previous experience of shoemaking.

There will be a maximum of 7 students per class so that we can give the one to one tuition that handsewn shoemaking requires.

We imagine that the course will appeal to those who wish to learn a new skill for pleasure; those who want to begin a lifelong hobby; students of footwear who wish to increase their skill base and knowledge of shoe construction; and those who want to follow a career in bespoke shoemaking.

The details of the course are as follows

DATES: Monday 1st October until Monday 10th December (with 1 week half-term)

TIME: 6pm until 9pm

LOCATION: Cockpit Arts, Bloomsbury, London

COST: £450 per term

If you are interested and wish to sign up, please email us at

And please feel free to ask any questions you might have. We imagine the places will go quickly and it will be first come first serve. So don't hang about!

We look forward to hearing from you.

Until next week, happy shoemaking