Life After Shoe College: Interview With a Cordwainer
Part Two in a series of interviews with people who have found hands-on, creative work through doing an apprenticeship.
Shoemaking, or cordwaining (the official term), is a craft that has been largely erased from mainstream shoe production over the past 30 years. Only 2% of the US shoe market is produced domestically, and as of 2011, there are only 1,460 shoe repairers and shoemakers practicing in Canada.
Despite these numbers, the cordwainers and cobblers working today reflect new investments in locally-sourced clothing and shoes that are well-made by artisans, rather than large multinationals.
Michelle MacLellan is a cordwainer living in Toronto. She teaches workshops and makes custom shoes. Michelle talked to me about cross-border training, lime green leather, and creating the perfect shoe last.
So, cordwaining? Is that right?
Yes, cordwaining is the official, old-timey term for what I do.
What does that entail?
A cobbler is someone that does repair, and a cordwainer is someone that does every step in constructing and building a brand-new pair of shoes. So it’s constructing the upper portion, which involves cutting and drafting a pattern, either machine sewing or hand sewing the upper, and then lasting, which is stretching the leather over a shoe last, which is a shoe form. Then you cobble it with cobbling tacks, and add an outer sole, and then usually add rubberized soling at the end.
Are you officially a cordwainer, or are you still in training?
I’ve been making shoes for about two years now. I was first self-taught, and then I went to The Shoe College, in Jerome, Arizona, where I got official training, and then I ended up going back and volunteering for the school last year. Now I’m actually going back to work for them again in January, which is exciting. But I think I would consider myself to still be in training.
What got you into cordwaining in the first place?
I’ve been sewing forever. I think I made my first dress when I was 10 or 11 years old, and then I got into leatherwork, making belts. From there, I started making moccasins. I had a little moccasin-making business when I lived in BC. After that, I decided I wanted to learn to make a pair of fully-lasted shoes, which is when I went to the Shoe College. I actually got a certificate in New Media, which I clearly didn’t end up pursuing. I definitely see myself doing this for the long term.
How did you find out about The Shoe College?
I did a bunch of online research to figure out where the best place for me was. Almost all shoe manufacturing is done in Asia now, so when you’re going to a larger university, you’re learning how to design, and then how to put your design into AutoCAD [computer-assisted design], and then sending that to Asia where it’s actually constructed. There are a few different options, but not many, when you’re looking for a small, independent shoe college. The Shoe College was the ideal space for me. I ended up becoming great friends with the teacher, and felt like I had such a great experience. She is such a great person to learn from, and I’m really excited that I have the option to go back. It’s such a continuous process of learning, something you can study for a lifetime and still be learning.
Are you making your own designs now?
When I came back [to Toronto] from the Shoe College, I opened a studio and started doing custom orders for people, and also one of a kind stuff. I thought I might start selling my shoes in a store, but I decided against that. I don’t like the idea of selling one-offs in a store at this point; it’s just too hard with the sizing if they’re one of a kind. I also teach moccasin-making workshops at a studio called crown flora. Teaching is such a great way to learn. I definitely feel like with every workshop I do, I learn a new way of doing something, or how to teach things in a new way.
Where do you find your custom shoe clients?
Friends and family, for sure, and word of mouth. The workshops have been great because I can get in contact with people I never would have met otherwise. Instagram (@michellemaclellan) has also been a great way of finding people from all over the place who are interested in what I’m doing.
So if I were to come to you wanting some new custom shoes, how would the process go?
I don’t really allow people to design their own shoes that I then make for them. The design process is part of my creative process, so someone might come to me and say that they want a boot in a particular color, and ask me what I thought. I could show them different styles and past pieces that I’ve worked on, and talk a little bit about their vision. I have set styles that I do, like a ballet flat, a desert boot, and a boot that I was calling a boxer boot, which is a lightweight twelve-hole boot.
How long would it take to do a consultation and sizing?
An initial consultation would take about an hour. I’d measure the person’s feet and we’d talk about color, style, and design. From there, upper construction, depending on what they want, would take a day or two. Lasting the shoe would take a day, plus another day for the last to dry because it has to be constructed while wet. Everyone’s feet are different, and sometimes people have feet that fit a last perfectly. If they don’t, I have to do buildup on the last, which is when I put layers of leather onto the last, to make the shoe wider, or augment the toe shape. That takes another day or two, and they have the option of having that last forever, so they can use it again. In total, I would say that if someone orders a shoe, and I don’t have a bunch of people in line in front of them, they could expect a shoe in maybe two weeks.
Do you have repeat customers?
Definitely, even though I’m at a stage right now where I can’t do too much. I’ve actually closed my studio and moved it into my house because I’m going back to Arizona soon, so that’s really cut down on the amount of work I can do on custom orders.
Do you remember your first pair of shoes that you made?
I started working on the pattern before I got to The Shoe College, because I thought that I knew enough about pattern drafting to draft my own pattern. They’re actually online if you want to look at them. I decided I wanted to make a shoe within a shoe: a lime green ballet flat, and an oxford-style perforated shoe on top. I got a leather hole punch and drew a perforated grid on the backside of the leather and I punched and I punched. I got to the school and I was really proud of myself for all the work that I’d done, and it turned out that my pattern was completely wrong! My teacher said, “Just go with it! Keep punching!” so I ended up making these lime green perforated shoes.
Are there certain styles of shoes that you want to try to make?
I’m looking into making more heels. The prefabrication for heels are normally mass-produced in Asia, so I’m looking into making them myself. I might 3D print them. People are actually 3D printing whole shoes, which I’m not that into. I’m more interested in augmenting things that you often have to buy in bulk from abroad. I want to combine that type of heel with a fully leather sole and upper.
What’s it like working in Toronto after studying in the States?
The difficult thing about working in Canada is finding materials. I’ve noticed that a lot of my purchases, especially lasts, come from the States, so I find myself paying double the price for shipping and duty. But I know some girls who are cobblers here, and they’ve been awesome about helping me find materials that I need, like cobbling tacks and things that are hard to find here. I have a great professional network of people here, and people to bounce ideas off of, even though there’s not a huge network of cordwainers. Some of my friends are artists in different disciplines, which I find totally inspiring and we talk about collaborating on things.
Does it get kind of weird being alone with your shoes?
Yes! Being alone in the studio, breathing in intense glue fumes… it can get a little lonely sometimes.
Do you have any advice for people looking to get involved in cordwaining or shoe repair? What is a good place to start?
If you want to be hands-on, I definitely suggest looking into the smaller, independent shoe schools, because I don’t think you’ll get that hands-on approach anywhere else. I definitely recommend The Shoe College, or even starting small and taking workshops and getting a feel for it that way, and knowing that it will be a major process and a major learning curve. It won’t happen overnight, but it’s really rewarding.
Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite writes and edits in Toronto.