Cordwainers: Experts in the Fine Art of Shoemaking
A Multi-Step Process
The shoemaking process starts in the upstairs shop, where the cutting, sewing, gluing and basic shaping is done. The entire outer shoe is often made from kid leather, and the lining is made of lightweight cowhide or pigskin. The back of the shoe is made up of “quarters” that are stitched together on the leather sewing machine. The quarters are glued to the lining, then the excess is carefully trimmed with sharp scissors, leaving a tiny bit of lining on the bottom. The “vamp” is the front part of the shoe, connected either by hand lacing or machine stitching to complete the upper. The finished upper is then hand sewn onto the leather sole.
The shoes are finished in the basement. First, the soles are pounded on a metal shoe shaper, which closes any channels between the leather and the sole. The method of shoemaking that Molly uses is called “slip-lasted,” which means the shoes are completed and then a wooden last is slipped into the shoe. Next, shims (slivers of leather) are used to fill in empty spaces between the last and the shoe, specifically to form the shoe to fit the customer’s feet. Shims may be used to create bumps where there is a bunion or to raise the toes if a customer has hammer toes. Molly’s motto is “going for perfection.”
After the shoes are “lasted,” they are put into a warming oven overnight. This helps tighten the shoe around the last, giving it the appropriate shape. Next, the heels are made and then glued to the bottom of the shoe. Excess leather is trimmed off the heels to create a neat edge. Finally, the shoes are burnished and waxed to give the leather sole and side of the sole a shiny, "finished" look.
While I was visiting, Molly was finishing a pair of orthopedic shoes in black leather for a young girl who was born with half a foot. The shoes are not the same length, but close enough for them to be aesthetically pleasing. This child has worn sneakers most of her life but the family wanted her to have pretty shoes to wear to her school graduation.
Molly’s greatest love is teaching her shoemaking workshops, which are held at the Wild Orchard Guest Farm. Students need no experience or artistic talent—just a willingness to learn. (Please see cordwainershop.com to learn more about the workshops.) In Molly’s “spare” time, she also teaches classes at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota.
—Patty Boyd, IPFH Roving Reporter
About the Cordwainers/History and Craft
What is a Cordwainer? An Ancient Calling