Tuesday, March 29, 2011

My Cobbler Friends:

I am a custom shoemaker with a pretty good reputation, even if I say so myself, but the truth is I wouldn't have lasted in business if I did not make quality, durable and well fitted designs. Shoe making is relatively straight forward, but crafting a pair to fit is a completely different matter. It takes a high degree of intelligence, (yeah I know- the arrogance, but stiff! Ask Jimmy Choo :-)) and an ability to visualise at the outset how all the various components and variables will come together for the desired end result-  a comfortable smart looking product. I am often asked to make for extremely difficult challenges. It is a very demanding craft to be successful in these days, and to earn a living, given that cheap Asian-made footwear has flooded the market. But I not only survive- I prosper. Not so much monetarily, but in the sense of fulfilment I gain from working with my own hands and mind, and for myself. To tell someone I am a custom shoemaker often elicits an appreciatively interested response. We are respected. Shoes are dear to everyone's hearts after all. Ask Imelda!

So wherever we travel, I will always look for and show an interest in how other craftsmen shoemakers or repairers are faring, the work they undertake, the tools they use, the shoes or sandals they make or are repairing. I'll stop and chat, ask for a photo, and leave a few dollars because I know that in the undeveloped countries we travel, their life is a hard one, their earnings meagre; the craft perhaps only just keeping their family fed and clothed. Often their social position is at the bottom of the heap, as in India, where leatherworkers or shoemakers will be the work of Dalits or Untouchables. It was their lot in life to deal with dead animals: skinning, disposal and tanning. But I have the greatest respect for them, because they are making a living from their hands and their skill. Using their ingenuity to create an income, however little.

They are me- in another lifetime, another society, another age.

My shoe repairer friend in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Crippled, he works on the street outside the entrance to Holy Trinity Church. Wife and child begging. But their family dog looks in good condition. Note the shoe repairer has a very dignified air about him.

Addis Ababa, Merkato Market. These tyre sidewalls have been strip cut and will be turned into basic rubber tyre soled sandals as below.


These rubber tyre sandals are custom fitted to your size. The straps adjusted then nailed together. Selling for around $2.50US a pair you'll get plenty of mileage out of them!

In Khayelitsha township, Cape Town, South Africa, my cobbler friend is painstakingly hand sewing a child's sandal together. His tools- a needle and nylon fishing line. The tin shack is his family's home. What will his son's future be?
When I retire, I'll throw my tools in my bag and give them to someone like this. I couldn't think of a better way of passing on my craft handtools.


A village stop on the drive down from Kruger to St Lucia, South Africa. This shoemaker made a good range of basic sandals. Business was good; he actually had a shop to work from. He was rightly proud to show me his work.

A shoe repairer's lock up shop in Shimla, India, in a side street leading from the central square. Most days he'll be working on the pavement, but rain was in the air. His tools were few, and business was slow. India now has a thriving footwear industry, but the cheap flood of mass produced product will have impacted on his trade. Often cheaper to throw away than to have repaired.

These craftsmen remind me that I am indeed privileged to be a custom shoemaker in an affluent society. It is an honorable craft. I take pride in my work and I admire my fellow craftsman, where ever I meet them. There's a great sense of pride to be able to create something with your hands. Artists and craftspeople know the feeling well.

So spare a thought for them, and open your wallet.

A few pics of my work.



thepinaysolobackpacker said...

wow Jim! you're a shoe designer/ maker? I've always dreamed of making my own shoes, I envy people who can make one. I envy you.

I'm touched by your composition. Love this post, I almost cried. I see them everyday, lots of them,but not a lot of people can appreciate the value of their work. I salute you.

Jim said...

So true, we must appreciate them for the skills they use to earn a living.

YogaSavy said...

Jim you did not need to resurrect the dead Imelda... Just ask me I would have told you all about the meaning of shoes to me! The choos, Blahniks, Viviers, Louboutins and need I go on!

Nothing like a pair of HANDMADE shoes! Fits like a glove...Their work is amazing and filled with passion

alejandro guzman said...

Nice tribute to your fellow cobblers. Nice work too.


Susan Deborah said...

I enjoyed reading this post as it not only paid a tribute to the sole but also captured various cultures' take on a shoe-maker. In India, the scenario is pretty grim as shoemakers are always in the lower rung of the society. People prefer branded pieces and hence the work of the cobblers are not quite appreciated and moreover people go to to the cobbler only when the shoes need mending. People don't ask a cobbler to make shoes anymore.

I am happy that you have done this post and proud to be a cobbler. Your designs are very good, Jim. Glad to know you and the cobbler, that is you.

Thanks for this heartfelt post.

Joy always,

cath said...

what a fascinating look at craftsmen from different countries...I enjoy the photos (I always love the photos in posts, it adds to the content for me) and your work is excellent. I can see the pride you take in your trade by the quality and design of your shoes...
thanks for such an interesting post...

Jorie Pacli said...

Oh wow Jim! I'm surprised that you mentioned the lady with almost all the collections of shoes on her shoe shelves. I'm so glad you shared with us a wonderful tribute to your fellow cobblers. I do feel sad seeing other cobblers who earn very little for their services.... I always see this scenario almost everywhere and if only all things are equal, these people deserve better pay too. You are very fortunate with what you do and I am so proud of you.... Thank you for writing such wonderful piece of tribute.....:)

Nelieta said...

Very interesting Jim! If you were my husband I would have asked you to design shoes for me every day..lol! I love shoes!!!! Your designs are great!

Jim said...

Thanks everyone.
Yogasavy, and Susan, yes the situation in India you'll understand so well. Branded footwear in demand, while a true handcraftsman now exists as a repairer.
Hi Cathy, yes, been thinking for sometime now about this post- to tell a wee bit more about me, but also about how the trade is in other countries, and realised I had quite a few photos of shoemakers.
And Nelieta, my wife still hasn't got enopugh shoes!

sulekkha said...

It is indeed a pleasure to create something with your hands. You are lucky to be doing it and I really love the boots. A very beautiful tribute to the craftsmen in your field too. Great post, btw how expensive are the boots in the pic? :)

Debra said...

Jim, you remind me of the cobbler, Martin AvdĂ©itch, in Leo Tolstoy’s short story, “Where Love Is, God Is.” Your caring and generous spirit is like his.

Your remarkable handiwork has earned you such a notable reputation, and I’m so proud to know a cobbler like you!

Warmest wishes,
~ Debra

Kriti said...

fantastic post Jim - I am totally convinced to open my wallet.

Cathy Sweeney said...

It's such a nice tribute to your shoemaking friends around the world and so nice to see some of your work! I have quite an appreciation for people with wonderful talents like this.

Caz Makepeace said...

Great post idea Jim. The best pair of shoes I ever had was from Hoi An Vietnam. Custom made kneee high leather boots. As someone who has real skinny calves, it is hard to find boots that fit without leaving gaping holes. These ones kissed my skin and were so comfortable. When they sat in my cupboard they actually looked like my legs. Loved those boots and do appreciate your craft

Jim said...

Thanks for the comments Debra. I enjoy reading your site also.
Kriti, I hope you have plenty in that wallet!

Hi Cathy, thanks and loved your post about your father and firefighters.

Caz, having boots made in Hoi An, wow! They'll be good workmanship too!

lorna - the roamantics said...

oh jim i love this! what a great prism from which to learn about another culture- a common interest/mastery. no debt you could blow jimmy choo away! :)

John in France said...

Jim I enjoyed your post very much. I heard a story the other day about John Wright in Mumbai buying a set of shoe cleaning "utensils" etc and stand for a family who were living in a tree outside the cricket stadium where he was living - true!

Tea said...

Oh my goodness, so glad I didn't miss your story. You are a custom shoemaker. I will never take my shoes for granted again. That's not a joke. Children and adults in Third World countries often can't afford shoes. Amazing. Thank you for your story and the photos.


Debbie said...

I love reading your articles Jim, they open the doors to another time and other places. It's truly amazing the stories of these shoemakers.