Can a craft novice make a wearable pair of shoes, from scratch, in just one day? Rachel Dixon attends an ethical shoemaking workshop in Devon to find out
"It's so stressful!" "I've got a headache from concentrating so hard!" "My hand's cramping up from gripping the knife so tightly!" We might have been a tense team of surgeons, embarked on an all-day operation. In actual fact, we were a group of women learning to make shoes. And it was exhausting.
I am not the crafty type. I admire those who are, and I find their exploits inspirational - but not quite inspirational enough to have a go myself. There always seems to be something better to do (sorry, crafters). But then I was invited on a shoemaking workshop in Devon, and what, I thought, could be better than spending a relaxing day learning a new skill in a converted mill by the river Dart? Little did I know that "relaxing" would not be quite the right word.
The workshops are run by Green Shoes, a Devon-based company that makes all of its shoes, sandals and boots by hand, using traditional methods and sustainable materials. The company was set up in the 1970s, but has since shed its hippy image and moved seamlessly into the design-conscious 21st century. While ethics remain at the forefront of the business, style matters more than ever - a collaboration with designer Lu Flux even led to Green Shoes walking down the catwalk at London fashion week in February.
But back to the workshop. The first job for the novice shoemaker is to pick a style to recreate. This is no easy job for the footwearphile: two of us spent a good hour cooing over the shoes and trying them all on. Then there's the colour, from boring black to daring gold, or even a wacky multicoloured shoe. Then the material: leather, eco-tan leather or vegan faux-leather? Finally, the sole - to wedge, or not to wedge? I was torn between the brogue-like Teasel shoe and the crossed-lace Willow shoe, but eventually I plumped for a dark brown gladiator-style sandal in soft eco-leather. It looked stylish, comfortable and, hopefully, easy to make.
Alison Hastie, the co-founder of Green Shoes, was on hand to guide us through the shoemaking process, as was Becky Marshall, a young designer/maker (all the staff are involved with every aspect of the business, unlike most shoe companies where the workers have been de-skilled). Our first job was draw out the pattern and cut out the leather pieces. This was incredibly nerve-wracking - I didn't want to make a mess and waste the precious leather - but got easier as I grew in confidence. Besides, any lumps and bumps caused by shaky hands could be snipped into shape with sharp scissors later.
Then the shoemaking was underway in earnest, as we lined, glued, stitched and steamed; made holes, soles and buckles. Stamping the holes in the straps was especially satisfying, as was riveting on the buckles and pounding the last into the shoes with a hammer. We paused for lunch and the odd biscuit break, but otherwise worked solidly from 10am-6pm.
And as we worked, we talked. There were a handful of women on the course (no men), from the unskilled - me - to the hardcore crafter. All abilities were catered for, with extra guidance given to those who needed it - also me. I had rather a lot of help with the big, scary sewing machine, while others merrily stitched away without a second thought. We were all there for different reasons: birthday present; charity auction prize; new challenge.
As 6 o'clock struck, we put the finishing touches on our handiwork. Everyone congratulated everyone else and told each other how pleased they must be, while looking pleased as punch themselves. I couldn't believe how well my sandals had turned out. I insisted on wearing them straight away, even rolling my jeans up to better show them off. I stayed that way all evening, during drinks and dinner in Totnes, much to my boyfriend's embarrassment. That night I slept more soundly than I had in weeks, despite being in a tent on rather hard ground. I think it was the exhaustion of a difficult job well done, though it could have been the wine.
In the days that followed, I willed friends to compliment me on my new shoes, so I could smugly inform them that I had made them myself. Several did, and were gratifyingly astonished. The warm glow of achievement stayed with me a long time, and I had an inkling of why so many people are part of the 'make your own' movement. I've even tried a couple of little craft projects myself, such as converting a badly fitting dress into a well-fitting skirt.
But the main thing I took away from the day was a greater appreciation of traditional shoemakers. I now know what a lot of skill and hard work goes into each and every pair.
The next shoemaking workshops will take place at Green Shoes in Buckfastleigh, Devon, on 25 September, 30 October and 20 November. A one-day course costs £175, and a two-day bootmaking course is £350. Visit greenshoes.co.uk, call 01364 644036, or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
More traditional British shoemakers
Bill Bird Shoes
Bespoke leather footwear for people with fitting and walking difficulties, handmade in the Cotswolds.
Handmade leather footwear and bags, designed and made to order in Teignmouth, Devon.
Handmade leather shoes made to order in Totnes, Devon.
Vegan shoes, handmade to order in the north-east of England.
Shoes and clogs made by hand in a small, family-run workshop in Scotland.
James Taylor & Son
Handmade shoes from English oak bark-tanned leather.
Made-to-measure, handsewn men's shoes from British and Italian leather.
Traditional British clogs and leatherwork, handmade in Stockport.
Handmade in the north-east by a small family business.
• Additional research by Niamh Griffin
A crash course in shoemaking