Monday, May 28, 2012

Where Did All This Come From?

Today is Memorial Day and it's a day set aside to remember those who have died while serving our country in the military.  It seems as though it is also kind of a day in which we remember all those who have served in the military, whether or not they died.  So, though my dad did not die in battle, he did serve in the Vietnam War, and I can say that I am proud that he did, even though Vietnam was a pretty screwed up war.

Though my dad is not real big on sending our young men out to die, he does still really like guns.  He has bought and sold several over the years. Although I don't consider myself much of a military type or even a gun type, as I've gotten older, I realize that I do have some of my dad's more eccentric traits.  And I think that's part of why I am pursuing shoemaking.  And what I mean is this:

Many of my memories of my dad are of him pursuing quite heavily some fairly eccentric curiosities and interests.  There's the time when I was maybe in 3rd grade that he was quite heavy into classical music.  He and my sister got cellos while my brother Graham and I got violins. We all began taking lessons at the Flint Institute of Music and, if I'm not mistaken, I think we even performed a couple stringed quartets for family reunions.  I'm not sure how good we sounded. But it was fun!

Then there was the time when he got really into gardening.  He plowed up some ground in our backyard and planted tomatoes.  I'm not exactly sure why, but I can remember him and my Uncle Larry buying a case of Milwaukee's Best and dousing the tomato plants with beer.  I assume this had something to do with getting very juicy tomatoes.

Fast forward a year or two and he got quite interested in beekeeping.  He purchased a wooden bee hive and began tending a fully populated bee colony which he kept in the far back corner of our backyard.  For awhile, he would regularly put on his full protective bee suit and arm himself with the bee smoker, as he prepared to do whatever was required to tend the bees and produce some great honey.  The image of that in my head looks something like this:

Maybe about five years ago, I began noticing that I was becoming obsessively interested in some rather arcane pursuits.  Initially, I had this pretty intense urge to learn how to make soap.  I got all the oil, and lye, and mixers, and began a little soap chemistry shop in my house. Several months later my curiosity shifted to making homemade soda.  And then while I was working with the Flint Crepe Company, I dove headlong into learning the various ways of serving the best coffee.  

First, I got an old stove top homemade espresso maker and began making wonderful espresso for myself and for family when we got together.  Then came the pour-over method and I got a Chemex pour-over device.  And after that was the vacuum coffeemaker where the heat from a flame creates a vacuum in one section of the maker and sucks up all the water, thereby mixing the water with the coffee grounds, eventually releasing the mixed coffee back into the bottom chamber.

I initially thought some of these methods were new to the recent coffee era we've gone through in the last 20 years.  But Pastor Brown said to me one day, "That's not new, that's the way people used to make it in my day." Just so you know, his day was a pretty long time ago.  He was born in 1930. Anyway, the thing I loved about all this was that these things were all new to me.  But they seemed like things which more people should know about, but they didn't because we've all become so accustomed to the mechanized way everything has been done for the last 50 years or so.  And when I began to learn how to do it, I somehow felt invigorated and fulfilled in a strange Ludite sort of way.  And that brings me to the shoes.

The same bug that bit my dad to learn about cellos, or beer tomatoes, or bees, and the same bug that bit me to learn about soap, or soda, or coffee, also bit me to learn about shoes.

I never really put much thought into how shoes were made. But about 3 years ago, I began to look into it.  I wanted to make a pair or two for myself and began looking at some websites. And what I saw intrigued me quite seriously.  Many of the techniques I was seeing go back thousands of years.  I loved watching videos of the shoe being lasted, or of the welt being stitched on.  There was something so earthy to it.  There was a certain connection to the past, and  for all the complexity, a certain simplicity to it.  I  also knew if I ever learned how to do it, it would take several months at the bare minimum.  So, now,  here I am in Doylestown, PA, about 600 miles from my hometown of Flint, MI.  And I'm learning the ancient craft known as shoemaking, which is also called the gentle craft.  I've been learning a lot and I still feel like I've only scratched the surface. 

I know my pursuit of the gentle craft has something to do with this deep curiosity I have to learn how things are made, especially the way they used to be made in a time gone by, by true artisans.  And I know that a large part of that comes from my dad.  In fact, when he heard that I was going to be learning from Perry Ercolino, another one of his eccentricities showed up. He went out and had this lab coat made for me. I haven't had a chance to wear it yet, but I soon will, and I think it's pretty cool, in an eccentric sort of way!

Once the pattern pieces are made, it's time to test out how they fit once they are sewn together.  In order to do this, you would simply take some leather scraps and cut the various parts out and put them on the last to see how they fit. Here is what mine, actually more Perry's at this point,looks like.  I didn't get a good shot of it, but the one modification that Perry suggested needed to be made is that the inside quarte piece slanted down too much one it was on the last. The solution was to shave off about 3 mm. The next step, which I'll show in the next post, is to make the lining pattern pieces.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

What's the Point?

On Wednesdays Perry travels to New York City to meet new clients and take measurements. For the last couple weeks I've stayed and tended the shop (Pavlo doesn't speak good English). Yesterday, I got into a conversation about craftsmanship with someone who came in to the shop. One of the things I told him was that even after spending countless hours online and in books researching the topic of bespoke shoemaking, I didn't realize the amount of work that went into a pair of custom-made shoes until I got down here and into the shop on a daily basis. 

I remember watching the movie "The Game" with Michael Douglas and Sean Penn, about a wealthy investment banker who gets caught up in some adventure gone awry.  In one scene, Michael Douglas's character is climbing the side of a building, trying to evade some people who are pursuing him. In the process, he loses one of his shoes.  He says to the woman who is with him, "There goes $1000."  She says, "Your shoes cost $1000?" And he responds, "That one did!" At the time I remember thinking, "Who in their right mind would spend that kind of money on a pair of shoes?" Obviously, I've changed my mind since then.

I certainly don't expect most people to slog through every moment of some of the videos I am posting. But, if nothing else they might give you a taste of how much work is involved in each stage of the process, and what kind of quality and value are involved. For the first pair of shoes, I believe Perry is now charging in the neighborhood of $4,000 (the reason it goes down for subsequent pairs is that the measurements have already been taken and the last has been formed).  $4,000 seems like a lot! I certainly don't currently have that much money to spend on a pair of shoes.  But is it worth it?  Consider this: It typically takes 40-60 hours for a pair of custom-made shoes from start to finish.  Ask a good lawyer to spend that much time on your behalf and see what the bill is! 

So why buy a pair of shoes from a craftsman if it takes so long to make?  First of all, the materials which are used are typically far superior to what you get in a store-bought pair of shoes.  You'd be surprised to see some of the materials that are used in brands of shoes which used to be well-known for making quality footwear.  Just the other day I tossed a pair of my own shoes from one of these makers in the trash that I initially thought were easily repairable.  The more I tore off from the heel, I realized that the whole thing was essentially particle board.  If you buy a pair of custom-made shoes, you are almost certain to have a shoe entirely made from fine leathers.  And the parts that aren't likely are an improvement in some way over leather.

Secondly, the design.  How many times have you had an idea in your head about what kind of shoes you wanted, or any other product for that matter, only to realize that it isn't available anywhere?  When you buy shoes at the store, you get what they make for you and that's it!  It kind of reminds of what Henry Ford said about the Model T.  Something along the lines of, "It's available in any color as long as it's black."  That might not be a bad thing.  If what you want is available, that's great.  But when you go through the experience of buying a pair of bespoke shoes, you join in the creation of the shoe.  I believe Frank Gehry, the famous architect, said that when people work with him, they feel as if they are the ones designing it.  That's the difference you get with a bespoke shoemaker.  You can bring a photo, a drawing, a nebulous concept, and they can translate that into a shoe just for you.  You can choose what color, what type of leather, the particular  style, or any variation thereof. You are joining in the process of creating something truly unique.  And don't think I'm merely talking about shoes for formal occasions.  Many shoemakers are now making shoes that are more appropriate for wearing with jeans and in more casual circumstances.

And finally, the fit.  There's not much of a comparison to getting a pair of shoes made exactly to the size and shape of your own feet.  If you have bunions, flat feet, one foot significantly larger, a high instep, it's not a problem.  Most of us have become so accustomed to wearing ill-fitting shoes that we take for granted the accompanying discomfort.  But when you finally put on the shoes from a master shoemaker, you won't want to go back.

So, maybe you don't currently have the money to spend on a pair of custom-made shoes.  If that's the case, you may want to consider it at some point in the future.  It's not for everyone, but if you do decide to do it, you won't be disappointed.  One more thing about cost:  Perry tends to be on the higher side of the bespoke spectrum.  And I do think Perry is well worth his fee.  If you do a search online you'll see that most of the people who have commented about purchasing from  him have thoroughly appreciated his professionalism, his willingness to work with them and do all the work on the front end to make sure they end up with a pair of shoes they love.  I can personally attest to his attention to the customer's needs and to his attention to detail. But even if you can't spend $4,000, there are other makers who charge less.  So, you may want to reconsider bespoke.

Anyway, I hope through this, and some of the videos I am posting that you will recognize that even if it's not for you, there certainly is great value in a pair of custom shoes. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Couple Nice Pairs of Ercolinos

Just a little shot here of a couple pairs that were finished 2 or 3 weeks ago:

Making Patterns

When you are making shoes, there is a lengthy and detailed process involved in getting your uppers made.  First you tape the last, then you get your mean form, from the mean form you make your standard, and from your standard you can make your pattern pieces.  I've been trying to get video of Perry demonstrating each step.  

The first step and second steps I did mostly without Perry's help, so I didn't have video of him demonstrating it.  But I did manage to get video of him going from the form to the standard. But I kind of screwed up today.  Before I got video of Perry showing me how to get pattern pieces from the standard, I deleted the standard video, because I thought I had transferred it to my computer.  But when I got home, I realized I hadn't and I  spent about 2 hours trying to see if I could recover the deleted files.  Unfortunately, I had no luck!

But I do have the video of Parry making the pattern pieces and this I will post.  If anybody has questions on Perry's method of getting the form and the standard, let me know and I will seek to explain it myself.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Measuring the Foot

Well, I've definitely been enjoying the whole process of learning about making bespoke shoes. And I'm really liking the Doylestown area.  Even though there's more traffic here than I'm used to in Flint, the area has a slower feel to it than Flint.  Plumsteadville, where I live, is borderline rural. And there are a lot of cool places in the area to get good food.  

Last Saturday I was in the mood for eating an amazing burger made with high quality ground beef and no hormones etc.  So my roommate and I stopped at Harring Brothers , then picked up some ingredients at the local grocery store to make some killer burgers.  We fired up the grill and had some of the most mouth watering burgers known to mankind.  The exception would be Basically Burgers in Doylestown which has THE best burger I've ever eaten. Anyway, I do like the area.  But now for some shoemaking stuff.

Up until now, most of what I've been doing at the shoe shop is watching and doing small things here and there, both with shoemaking and with shoe repair.  However, I recently convinced Perry that I should start making some of my own shoes.  In seeking to find select the right last for my foot, Perry measured my feet.  I decided this was a good opportunity to take some video so I would remember what he showed me.  I've included a lengthy clip from that session for those who are interested. Tim Skyrme goes over this in his book, Bespoke Shoemaking. This is a great book which is quite comprehensive.

A couple things to remember: Perry insisted I be wearing the same kind of sock I'd be wearing with the shoes I'm being measured for, in this case, a very thin dress sock.  Secondly, his pencil is shaved off on one side so that his line around my foot is right on point.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Beginning

As many of you may know, I am currently in Doylestown, PA learning how to make shoes. For many people, the fact that I am pursuing something called bespoke shoe making seems somewhat out of the blue.  Let me give just a little background on the trade and my interest in it. 

First of all, the term bespoke literally refers to speech, to "bespeak" something.  It's a custom order product, made to the specifications of a customer's wants and needs.  So, a bespoke bicycle would be one that you had custom-made for your height, riding purposes, aesthetic sensibilites etc.  The same goes with footwear.  In spite of the fact that the vast majority of shoes are made in high tech factories, there are still a handful of people who make a living by constructing shoes by hand, according to the size and shape of a customer's feet   Theiy're called cordwainers, or bespoke shoemakers.

My own journey into bespoke shoes was not a typical one.  For the last five years I was on the staff of a very small church in Flint, MI.  For part of that time I was also part of a small crepe "restaurant".  I very much enjoyed both of those endeavors.  Not that they didn't have their down sides.  They certainly did.  But, overall, I enjoyed doing both of them.  But, through a long series of events, both of those avenues of work came to a close.  

Now, a couple years ago I became very interested in the idea of making shoes.  I am really intrigued by the idea of things which are made by hand.  I know that factories have given us many good things, and raised the standard of living for people all over the world.  I've even worked in a couple.  So, I am not against factories, or buying things made in factories.  But, I also think that, if possible, it is nice to have some things which are made by hand, things that have a little bit of a "soul" to them, where individual time and attention was invested into the product by its maker.  I believe that's how God made us, and so enjoying a little slice of that in the products we purchase is a good thing

Initially I thought it would be cool to make my own shoes.  I really enjoy making things.  I like creativity.  I like to draw, paint, make cartoons. So, I figured I could learn from a website how to make some shoes.  But I realized it was a bit more difficult than I thought.  So, I filed it away and decided I might try to learn it at some point in the future.  I just didn't have the time to dedicate to it with my other responsibilities.  But more recently, when I realized that both things I had done for the last few years weren't going to be there anymore, I knew it was a time where I could dive into shoemaking head on.  

So in January of this year, I went on a little trip.  I decided to visit a couple shoe makers to see if somebody would be willing to teach me.  One of them was Perry Ercolino in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.  Perry has a pretty high reputation in this field.  He is one of the few people in this country making a decent living from making shoes.  There is a good article about him in Esquire Magazine .  When I met with him it turned out that he was open to teaching me how to make shoes.  And  I considered myself fortunate that I would have the opportunity to learn from one of the best.

So this blog is my attempt to document my learning journey.  And maybe there's somebody out there interested in learning to make shoes and you would be helped a little by reading this. Also, there are several people that I know that just are curious about this strange thing called bespoke shoemaking that I've jumped into and may want to peak in from time to time to check on what I'm up to.  Even if there aren't many people who end up viewing this blog, it's something that I will enjoy doing, if for no other reason than documenting my journey so I can track my own progress and have  a tangible record of a part of my own life.

The following video is one I sent to a few friends and family to give them idea of where I'm working and what Doylestown is like.