A major car accident that devastated her short- and long-term memory almost upended Amara Hark-Weber’s life. Shoemaking gave her a new one.
The accident occurred just as Amara was entering her final year of her MFA program, and the brain trauma she experienced sharply altered how she could live. While Amara was set to graduate with a degree in visual communication, she ended up taking an elective course in shoemaking that changed her life in a similarly dramatic—but much more positive—way.
After being bitten by the shoemaking bug, Amara went forth and built a career in the craft (or art, or trade, or really all three, in Amara’s estimation). Along the way, she learned from such esteemed shoemakers as DW Frommer, Janne Melkersson, and Marcell Mrsan. Today, Amara creates all sorts of footwear under the name Hark Weber Handmade Shoes. Her tagline is: “Never the same pair twice!” And that’s absolutely true—Amara has become a jack-of-all-shoe-trades, producing everything from sneakers to cowboy boots, every pair totally unique from the ones preceding it, designed with each of her clients’ specific needs and desires in mind.
Amara’s work has earned her multiple grants, along with awards such as the 2017 Rare Craft Fellowship from the American Craft Council (ACC). Aside from being a shoemaker and educator, Amara recently added curation to her resume; her exhibit, Hand Made in America: Contemporary Custom Footwear premiered in early 2023 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, featuring the work of almost a dozen different American shoemakers.
Amara has long been interested in the overall state of American shoemaking. In 2018, she penned an article for the ACC in which she took stock of the past and present of American shoemaking, and also interviewed many of her shoemaking peers to try and form an understanding of how people who wanted to work in the field could actually learn and thrive.
In our conversation below, I followed up with Amara about her insightful article to find out what had (or had not) changed about the American shoemaking landscape in the past five years—plus her dogged pursuit of becoming a shoemaker, her biggest mentor takeaways, and what people still don’t quite grasp about being an independent shoemaker.
What originally inspired you to become a shoemaker?
I truly believe that I did not choose shoemaking, but it chose me. It is a fool’s paradise. But it’s something that I was able to do at the time. I started when I was getting my MFA at the Art Institute of Chicago. They had a footwear class, with a very simple cemented construction, and you could take it wherever you wanted to go. This was my “fun class” that I was taking at the end of a very long academic career.
Remind me what you got your MFA in?
Visual communication. It was basically graphic design. I was a photographer and a writer. My TA-ship was running the letterpress. So I did a lot of letterpress and helped other students do letterpress and bookmaking. My mom is a papermaker, I’ve always apprenticed or done production bookmaking work for like, fine arts books or whatever. So that was kind of the world I inhabited. But I lived abroad a lot, and I’ve always paid attention to what people were wearing. I’ve always been interested in footwear and outerwear. So I was like, shoemaking, that’s cool, never seen that before. I’m gonna take shoemaking and hatmaking, and that’s gonna be a fun way to top off my academic career!
Yes. But I was going to do shoemaking in the fall, hatmaking in the spring, then la-di-da, I’d graduate and go on and be a bookmaker or whatever I was gonna do. Just before that year started, I was in a major car accident and I had head trauma. Everything from my chest up had damage in it, most notably my brain and my eye.
My left eye doesn’t work properly because of nerve damage in my brain. My ocular center, the connection between my eyeball and my brain, was damaged. So, I couldn’t do the work that I was doing before. I didn’t realize that I had such a severe head injury, because head injuries are really strange. I have a good vocabulary, and I would complain to the doctor, “I can’t form sentences. I’m having trouble with dates.” And everyone would be like, “Oh, you were just in a big car accident!” I was also going through a major breakup, and so people were like, “Oh, you’re just sad.” It was a very bad scene.
It wasn’t until I got to school and I was forced to read for academic reasons, and forced to write, and forced to sit down in front of a computer, that I was like, oh, there’s something really wrong. I went to a doctor in Chicago and they had just had another patient who had a similar head injury. She was like, “Hold the phone. How did you even get here?” It was so bad; I was really, really struggling. She helped me set up appointments with neurologists and all these different kinds of people. They did testing to see what was…like, my short-term memory was severely impaired. My long-term memory was mostly gone. I could physically read, but I couldn’t comprehend what I was reading.
Anyways, to make a short story long, I couldn’t do what I was doing before. I slowly had to withdraw from my classes one by one as I realized I couldn’t do them. But for whatever reason, I was able to make shoes. I would sit next to someone in class and just follow their motions. The one memory that I did not lose was muscle memory. I knew how to make books from the time I was really little, and it’s a very similar process. I had a class buddy, I don’t even remember her name. I’d be like, “What are we doing now?” And she’d be like, “We’re doing this.” I’d be like, “Okay!” And I’d follow along with her. It stuck, I was able to do it.
My first pair of shoes were totally fucked up. They were super weird-looking, but they were well constructed. They were super bonkers, because I couldn’t follow directions. So I was like, this is pretty cool, I can do this. This is the one thing I can do, so I’m gonna do this. My thesis project was about how footwear changes your relationship to the ground and forces the body of the wearer into either physical or emotional reactions. Physical and emotional is really intertwined, in my opinion. Those were things that I was dealing with as I rehabilitated. So that’s what I spent the year doing, was making these seven pairs of shoes.
And that’s how I started. I got a little fellowship from that—’cause like, I don’t come from means—and I graduated, miraculously. It was the exact amount of money I needed to go learn from DW Frommer. I went out to learn from him for a month.
This was out in Oregon, right?
Yep. Redmond, Oregon. He and his wife Randee were super, super generous with me. She did a lot of the closing, and he did a lot of the bottoming and was the face of their family business. I work quickly and precisely—I always have, I don’t know why. I’m not in a race. But I just happened to work quick. So we would get these tasks done, and we would have extra time to do a special project. So I learned inlay, I learned onlay, I learned fancy stitching. I learned a lot of extra stuff that was kind of a bonus because we had a little bit of time to fill.
The other thing that was really great about DW was that he was extremely generous, and could not have been a better teacher at the time. He knew I had a head injury, and he sat with me for hours making me get the different movements in my muscle memory, ’cause I was not gonna be able to remember it. Then he has his book that he wrote, and you get the book when you take the class. The book is wonderful, and so funny, especially reading it now because it’s like how he talks, which is a very specific use of English language. It is delightful. It’s kind of old-fashioned. Anyway, that’s how I got started.
And then you also learned from Janne Melkersson as well as Marcell Mrsan?
Yeah. And they’re all really different makers. And like, I think that one of the things that I’m the first to admit is I do a lot of things a little well. So when I went to DW, he makes cowboy boots, and that’s what I learned how to do. I knew how to make cemented shoes and I knew how to do patterning on a taped last. I knew no rules, and when you don’t know any rules, it’s wonderful, ’cause you have total freedom, but you make a lot of mistakes.
So I came back from DW and I was like, well, I can make these wild shoes. I can make cowboy boots, but only kind of, because that’s not really my culture. It’s a very specific visual vernacular that I wanted to learn. But honestly, I’m in Minnesota, you know, and I didn’t have the money to go and learn from another person. To buy cowboy boots…the Internet was different at that time. There were limited options.
This was the early 2010s at this point?
Yes. 2012 or 2013. And also, I just couldn’t read very well. I’m sure that had I been a better researcher and if I had been determined to make cowboy boots, I would’ve been able to go online and find information. But bear in mind, I was still dealing with head injury stuff that was still pretty new. I was pretty good at ignoring it and working around it. But I did have impairments, and I still have impairments. It’s just that my brain works differently than it did before.
So I came back here and I was like, I’m gonna make boots. And that’s what I did. I made a lot of Chelsea boots, I made some cowboy boots—and they were all for people I knew, sold at cost. I lived in a live-work space, and because of the particularities of my life, and having gone through this major split up, I had no furniture. I had almost no clothes. I had a folding chair, and a futon, and a sewing machine. That’s it. I don’t think I could do it again. But you know, you do it, ’cause I was extra determined. And also, what else was I gonna do? I did not feel like I had very many options. This is what I could do.
So I made boots, sold at cost, with tons of mistakes—well, they were not bad for where I was at. I also made bags, because you make way more money sewing bags. That’s production work, and I could bust it out. Then these big finishing machines were here [in my mom’s basement], so I did my dirty stuff here. The window didn’t close, so in the winter it was really cold. And then after a couple years, I realized, hey, Minnesota just isn’t cowboy country. So I was going to the HCC meetings every year at that time…
Yes. They’re super great. They were an invaluable resource for me, and I can’t speak highly enough of them. So anyways, I’d been going there—I think maybe this was the second or the third year—and it was down at Lisa Sorrell’s. I met a ton of people there, it was just a really good, really cool year. One of the people who happened to be there was Janne. He came in, and…he’s like five feet tall, dark sunglasses with big gold frames, cowboy boots made out of reindeer hide…and he just saunters in. And everyone was like, ohhh, it’s Janne, Janne Melkersson! And I was like, who is that guy?
But that’s where I first met Janne. He had just started teaching again when I was interested in learning. So I just contacted Janne and I was like, “Hey, do you have space?” And he said yes. So I went to Sweden for a month and made shoes with him.
What originally inspired you to ask Janne in particular if you could learn under him?
There weren’t many people. I chose DW because at the time, it was DW or Lisa. I didn’t know their personalities. All I could look at was their work, and I responded to DW’s work. It’s just so tight. But Janne was really the only person who I knew of that taught handsewn shoes. I don’t even know who else does. Not like that. It’s a rare art.
So what was your experience with Janne like?
Oh god, it was great. He was up in northern Sweden, and it was winter, when the day-night cycle was very agreeable to me. Janne was just really accepting. We both had similar eye issues, and we wore these weird sunglasses all the time in the workshop. His motto was always, “Well, if it works, it works.” He said, “We’re gonna do three pairs of footwear while you’re here. We’ll do oxfords, derbies, and riding boots. I’ll make the first pair, we’ll make the second pair together, and for the third pair, I’m gonna be out on the fishing boat.”
He just left you all alone in the workshop?? Wow.
Yeah. And so, we ended up doing it in that order. My takeaway from working with Janne was that he has the most agreeable attitude, but the most exacting eye. He doesn’t miss anything. But he acknowledged where I was in the process of learning and was like, “Hey, let’s deal with what this problem is.” With the riding boots, we made so many mistakes, grievous errors, at every single step of the way. I’m not even kidding. Every step, every single day something would happen. I didn’t know what we were doing. So I don’t think I even understood the profundity of what mistakes we made [laugh] to the point where Janne was gonna cut them up and not let me take them home.
Oh! Oh no.
He called it slashing. He said, “I’m gonna slash these boots because they’re just not good.” And I was like, what are you talking about? And he said that’s what they would do in his dad’s footwear factory, if the footwear was so bad that they didn’t want it going on the streets with their factory name. They’d slash it so it couldn’t be worn.
They would literally cut into it?
Yeah, they actually put slashes into it. I was like, “Janne [laugh], please don’t do that.” We finally came to the conclusion that I could take them, as long as I took them to this shoe repair shop in Stockholm to have some of the issues worked on there, and I didn’t show them to another person who makes footwear.
[Laughs] Oh man.
But anyways, I learned the basics of handsewing soles, patterning, and just how to be an agreeable shoemaker who is accepting of your mistakes. I think that that’s one of the things that all of my teachers have been really open about. It’s like, hey man, this is not a factory. Factories try to keep up with us, and we still make mistakes ’cause we’re hand makers, and shit happens. So, that’s what I learned with Janne. I came back here and spent a couple years doing practice, practice, practice. I mean, you go and you have all these questions, and then you work with someone, and you answer all those questions, or some of them. The next body of questions I had was about leveling up, learning different kinds of more complicated constructions, more hand skills. I went to Marcell for those.
Right. Was he down in Georgia at that point?
Yeah. The first time I had met Marcell, it was actually also at Lisa’s. I was trying to avoid him like anything, ’cause I was kind of afraid of him. He came and sat next to me at one of the seminars and I kept trying to sit so he couldn’t see my shoes. He kept leaning over and leaning over. That’s part of why those conventions are so fun, people get down the floor to see other people’s shoes. If you’re really into it, you either get down or you just say, “Can you take your shoe off?” So Marcell is like, “Can I see your shoe?” And I was like, AAAAHHHH! I still have those boots. They’re just…they’re pretty wild. I took one off, he looked at it, and he was like, “I think you need to come learn from me.” [Laugh]
So a couple years later, I took him up on it. That’s where I learned things like Norwegian sewn shoes, more intense patterning stuff. Then we would spend hours on the Internet looking at shoes and he’d be like, “What do you notice here? This is what I notice.” We just practiced looking at things, which I think is something that’s really hard with anything that you are interested in, especially apparel—to not just say “I’d wear that,” or to figure out why you can say “I like that.” Spending this time with Marcell was really good practice for me, because the fact of the matter is, I probably wouldn’t wear a lot of the footwear that I’m really attracted to. What I’m attracted to are the skill sets needed and the refined shapes they produce, or something. It’s less about…
It’s more about the process and less about the results.
Yeah, yeah. Like…I’m really not that into shoes. [Laugh] I could honestly, truly say I probably wouldn’t wear most footwear, just ’cause, I’m kind of messy [laugh] and whatever, you know. But as people are learning how to make boots, they should be thinking, not about “would I wear that” or “would someone else wear that,” but instead, “What is my eye noticing? Where is my eye catching, and why is it catching there?” This is part of where an art school education comes in handy. You’re training your eyes to move across objects, and noticing what you’re attracted to and what you’re not attracted to. If you’re making something, and your eye is catching, be honest about it and don’t assume that nobody else will notice it [laughs].
What would be most surprising to your younger self about what you’re doing now with shoemaking?
I think that she would probably be surprised at how little I’ve changed [laughs]. I don’t feel more confident. I don’t feel more comfortable. That, I think, is kind of a bummer. I feel pretty much exactly the same as I did a long time ago, for better and for worse. I still don’t feel beholden to rules, but at the same time, I know what a lot of them are. That can be kind of limiting, but also it can be a good thing. I’m also pretty proud of my workshop. I worked really hard to put it together.
It’s a kick-ass workshop.
Yeah. I mean, I don’t believe in the American ideal of bootstrapping, but like, this shit is bootstrapped. [Laugh] I really started with nothing. I didn’t even have a brain. I’m pretty proud of being able to figure out how to do this. I feel really lucky that I’ve had so much help along the way, and I still have so much help. Younger me would be surprised that I have a skiving machine, that’s pretty cool. What else would be surprising?…I don’t know. I think I’d be surprised by how hard it still is. I mean, every pair is kind of a struggle.
What do you feel like you struggle most with?
You know, it’s really scary making work for clients. Because I never know what people are gonna be expecting. And what might be good to me might not be good to someone else.
You were telling me before about how when the day arrives for a customer to come pick up their footwear, it can be so stressful.
Yeah. So stressful. And the more unusual the foot shape, the more stressful it is. There’s so many things that are just completely out of my control.
I’ll give you just a brief example of a pick-up from last week. It was somebody who had an orthotic, and they had arthritis. They needed specially shaped footwear that accommodated an orthotic and also was a particular shape that wouldn’t work off-the-rack. So they came and picked them up—bang, they worked. I felt amazing. I was like, I nailed that one, boom! Then over the weekend, I got a video and an email, saying the heel is sliding. And I was like, ugh. That’s the worst nightmare. You can do a lot of accommodations, but if it’s loose in the heel, that shit’s hard to fix. So I was like, “Okay, it could be this, it could be this. How about you come in and we’ll try to figure this out?” He came back in—super, super nice guy. Turns out his orthotic doesn’t have any flex, and in my mind, it was only half hard. His joint does not move. In order for him to move forward, the only bend that’s gonna be happening is at his toes, which is pushing his heel out.
So I had misremembered how the orthotic was. We fixed the situation. Honestly, considering that he had no flex, that was an awesome fit, and surprising it wasn’t worse. But it’s really hard to build your confidence when every single time there’s just a completely different set of rules and parameters. It’s hard to feel comfortable when you’re outside of your comfort zone with every single situation.
“Never the same pair twice.”
It’s never the same pair twice!
It’s not just your tagline, it’s the truth, right?
It’s fucking true! I think because I started with a head injury, I was relearning every single time how to make a pair of shoes for like three years. So I know that you can do this in a million different ways. The result is what matters. I’ve learned to be forgiving with myself. Honestly, orthotics are tough to work with…like, feet are hard to work with. But it’s not a nice feeling, to get that email that says, “I hate to say this, but…” You’re like, oh god. But also I want to make it right. And that’s how I learn. So yeah. I struggle with that.
If I was just building shoes that were interesting-looking, I’d feel pretty good [laugh].
But was it a conscious decision to be like, “I’m not just gonna specialize in one thing or another, I’m gonna do whatever I want”?
Well, now, I don’t take every order. But I was not in a position to turn any work away. So I learned this stuff because I had to learn, because I was trying to pay rent. So, I don’t know that I would necessarily recommend people do so many different things. Many older makers have been like, “What the fuck are you doing? Pick a lane and stay in it, lady.” I just have not been in the position to do that. For better and for worse, it truly is a mixed bag. I feel like because I’ve made so many different things, I have an understanding of different types of footwear that is kind of unusual, you know? But by the same token, I kind of make Frankenstein boots, or whatever. I feel like a true mercenary.
Fair enough. Alright, let’s move on and talk about this Craft Council article you previously wrote. It’s been about five years since you originally published “Voices of Contemporary Shoemakers.” Since then—based on your conversations with other shoemakers, as well as your own observations—do you think that the state of American independent shoemaking is better, worse, or about the same as it was five years ago?
Well, it’s hard to answer. When I wrote that article, I was like five years in and I was trying to be like, “What the fuck?” Literally, I was like, what have I done?
“What does this all mean?”
Yeah. What does it mean? How does this work? Do other people actually do this? Because I am barely making rent every month, I’m walking to work because I can’t afford gas. This shit is like, what?? So I figured there were all these different people who are kind of mid-level makers like myself, who are at the end of the beginning or the beginning of the middle of their career. And I was like, how are these people doing it? Because I don’t understand. Now, of all the people that I talked with, more than half of ’em aren’t making shoes anymore. But there’s a lot more new people making shoes.
Okay. So there’s been a bit of churn in the community.
Some people who had been doing this for a while aren’t doing it anymore. Older folks are no longer practicing or no longer with us. There’s just been a changeover. It’s kind of a different scene than when I started. I do less looking around and thinking “what the fuck are other people doing?” because I’ve realized that every single person who does this has their own peculiar story. They make it work for them, and nobody’s is the same. That’s what makes footwear people interesting. But there’s not really that many role models, you know what I mean?
So it’s a mixed bag?
I would say it’s just different. It’s neither better nor worse. I am a different person than I was at that time. I’m a little bit more, like…I know not to base my practices on other people’s trajectories. But at the same time, I really try to be cognizant of how other people do things.
What about the access to, and quality of, the different tools and materials out there? Do you feel like that’s been different too?
Oh yeah, it’s totally different. When I started, all those finishing tools I have on the wall there, those were super cheap. Nobody wanted that shit, nobody knew how to use it. Now it’s really, really expensive. When I started, a 5-in-1 was a hundred bucks. Now? A thousand dollars. They’re not making new stuff like this, so all of the things that are not being made anymore are harder to find. A similar thing happened with letterpress. Everyone was throwing away letterpress stuff, and then all of a sudden letterpress got popular, and now shit’s really expensive. I think that the same thing kind of is happening with footwear making. Because of the Internet, there is a surge of hobbyist makers who are buying stuff up and make finding it expensive.
Finding good leather is both more difficult and less difficult. There’s Rocky Mountain and other leather people who are bringing in really beautiful leathers. And then it’s like, everybody can get those things. That’s a wonderful thing, but for somebody like myself, what do I have to offer that’s different from other people? I can do pretty classic designs, but I really like using unusual leathers or unusual patterning and compositions. I want to be able to offer my clients unusual things that are tough to source. I think that it’s just really different than when I started. It’s a good thing that there are more people who are doing this. There’s more of an appreciation. But by the same token, people feel like you’re holding out on them, or…
Holding out in what way?
“Why don’t you tell me this?” “Why aren’t you taking apprentices?” “Why can’t I come and learn from you?” Like, hold the phone. I don’t need your attitude. And, when something is done well and is really beautiful, it looks like it should be effortless and easy, but it takes a lot of effort to get your stuff to look very effortless. People see it and think, “Oh, I could do that.” Then they try and they’re like, “Why doesn’t mine look like yours?”
That’s frustrating all around.
Overall, I think that things are just different. Were I to write that article again, I don’t think it would be the same, because there’s different folks working, and there are communities online that weren’t there before that I’m not aware of or a participant of. I think that’s the scene for new and up-and-coming makers, and that’s just not my world, exactly.
I want to pose a hypothetical question. If you were to prescribe how to keep the craft of independent shoemaking going, what do you think is the engine that makes that happen? Is it more public interest in education and knowledge about shoemaking? Is it making education to potential or future shoemakers more accessible? Is it something else completely?
It’s interesting that you ask this question. I actually have been thinking about this a lot, because I just wrote a grant for a gigantic thing to try to answer that. I think that this is a beautiful and special and truly unique artform, craft, and trade. It’s all those things uniquely, and all those things together equally. But there is no education. There is little public understanding, and because of that, there is absolute screaming about the price. In order for people to actually make shoes and go deep, you need clients. In order for you to have clients, you have to have people who are willing to pay you. Then in order to have people that want to pay, you gotta be at a certain level. It’s this vicious cycle of, you gotta get to a place, to be able to get to the place, to get to the place. So, I mean, I don’t know what it needs. There are a couple schools, and I’ve looked at their classes…
You’re making a face.
I see really cool design, but not that spot-on craftsmanship. I think that if you don’t teach craft, you can’t articulate the potential of your design. You have to have good craft in order to be able to express your designs. You can’t just have a cool design.
What defines good craftsmanship in shoemaking, in your opinion?
Your seams have to be tight. Your upper has to fit over the last in the way that you intend it to—not that it just goes over the last, you have to pattern properly to get it on the last.
It has to reflect what the last’s dimensions are. It can’t just be like a facsimile of the last.
Yeah. It has to be put on the last with intention. Your soles have to be adhered well—like, they can’t be flopping all over [laugh]. There’s a million steps to this, and every single one is hard. And so, good craft is really hard to articulate, because I can be a bang-on closer, and have messed up bottoming skills. Am I a good craftsman? I don’t know. Everybody has things that they are better at and worse at. From start to finish, this is a more complicated endeavor than I think people realize.
To talk about good craftsmanship is really hard, especially here in the United States, where shoemakers do everything. In other places, you’d be like, okay, I have an order coming in. I’m gonna send my leather out to my closer, my closer is gonna sew up my shoes, send them back to me, I’ll last them, and I’ll have my bottomer bottom them. There’s a differentiation between the large tasks. But to be a really good craftsman in the United States is even more difficult, because you’re doing all these very different processes. Sewing on a sole is really different than sewing on an upper. Inseaming is really different than outseaming. Skiving on a machine is different than skiving by hand…it’s hard to talk about what good craftsmanship is, honestly…
I think you’ve given it a pretty good shot.
So, what this country needs is…I don’t really know what it needs [laugh]. With Janne and DW passing away, those are both surprising blows. On a personal level for me, but also for shoemaking everywhere. It’s pretty upsetting that they both are gone, because with them goes decades upon decades of visceral knowledge. When you’re learning this, I always tell students, first you have to understand conceptually what we’re gonna do, then you have to see it being done and understand visually what’s gonna happen. Then you have to do it yourself and you have to feel it in your body.
So you have these three types of learning and understanding, and the hardest one is visceral knowledge. It can’t really be taught, it has to just be practiced. I can tell you what’s going on in my body and what I’m feeling. That doesn’t mean that that’s what’s gonna be happening in your body. So, to have those two makers who also taught no longer teaching means that we have two fewer people who have spent a lifetime building up visceral knowledge, not able to pass that on. And with people like DW spending all that time helping me, you know, not many people would teach in that way. That was something that I will always be grateful for and always be aware of, is that everybody’s bodies are just different.
So, if visceral knowledge can’t be taught, how can it be passed on? Could you elaborate on that point a bit more?
I think that learning from someone with a lifetime of experience was helpful for me because they were able to respond to my learning needs, and problems that I was having. For example, I was having a lot of trouble with hand-sewing soles. I was breaking awls, my fingers were getting strained, and I wasn’t happy with the work as a result. I went back to Janne with this question (among others!) and he said, “Well, it looks like you need to use the awl like the way they do it in France, which is like this. It isn’t what works best for me, but try it and see if it works for you.”
It totally worked for me, and is now how I sew soles. While visceral knowledge can’t necessarily be taught, more experienced teachers have a larger body of information to draw from and thus better able to meet each student where they are at. Because this job is so physical, a lot of the learning is training your body. DW was the same—I was struggling with memory issues at the time, and he watched how I was working, and taught techniques that would be possible for me. Marcell was similar. My time with Marcell was all about question asking and making sense of what I was seeing other people doing. Marcell pulled back a lot of the smoke and mirrors of what we see online to look at the actual making. While these aren’t necessarily visceral skills, they are what experienced teachers are able to do—pivot on a dime to help and push their students.
I see. You can learn from how others’ lived experiences have been shaped, but ultimately you alone live your own life and learn your own lessons—and in turn, you can share that experience with others. Perhaps that’s getting a bit tautological, but I guess I’m just trying to summarize the concept in a succinct way.
Yeah, that makes sense. I think that part of the epic loss of great makers is the loss of their visceral knowledge. That it can’t be taught is the point—it has to be accrued over time, through mistakes and success, trial and error, and curiosity. Their loss means that this knowledge is gone. Poof! And with each of them goes 45-plus years of skill. We live in an age of accumulation, and people think they can learn this because learning is easy. But, this kind of learning isn’t easy, or it isn’t easy for everyone. The loss of these folks, with half a century of knowledge that can’t really be taught is like a library burning. It is a loss for everyone.
It would be nice if there were some kind of archive of leathercraft, or like a center for leathercraft, or something of that nature. There could be classes not just taught by one person, but taught by experts on many things. It could have actual tools and rentable space where you could go and practice. It wouldn’t have a certificate program or anything like, “You’re gonna come out of this and then you’re gonna be a shoemaker!” No, it should be like a yoga space, a place where people go and practice different things, take different types of classes, build up information, but also connect people with different types of makers. Maybe you’re like “I wanna have this type of footwear made,” or “I’m interested in learning this skill.” Okay, well that person knows how to do this. That person knows how to do that. You know, some kind of…not a centralized body, but something that’s slightly more organized that provides…the kind of deep shit. You know what I mean?
Yeah. The deep shit.
[Laughs] Yeah. And not to blast the schools that are in existence, which I’m keeping nameless. Because what they’re doing…there are always people taking classes, and that is awesome! That means that there’s demand. the fact that there’s all of these tools, you can’t buy them for less than a thousand dollars—there’s demand for this shit. There’s not enough knowledge or appreciation of how deep it can go. And also, if nobody is practicing some of the harder things, they don’t exist anymore. And we now have two fewer people doing that. If I wanted to start now, I don’t even know how I would start without DW and Janne. Nobody teaches like that.
We’ve lost some giants.
Yeah. So that’s pretty major. I have this conversation with people who are kind of at my same level. “Yo, is this trade gonna go on or not?” Because there’s a lot of people who are making a lot of shoes, but there’s not a lot of people who are doing it like that. There’s not a lot of people who can sew or stitch like that. There’s not a lot of people who know how to understand lastmaking or fit. There’s just so few people. So…I don’t know what we need. I think there’s something. But in the world, nothing is stagnant, you know? So to figure out what that change will be, and to help make it a positive thing, and an inclusive thing, and an expansive thing—that’s the trick. And I’m hopeful that can happen, because this is a really beautiful craft/art/trade.
So, we kind of touched on this a little bit already, but, just as you’ve asked other shoemakers, I’ll ask you this: what do you wish more people knew about the craft/art/trade? Particularly the people in the audience reading this. What do you think even enthusiasts still don’t quite get about being a shoemaker?
I’ll tell you what caught my attention was all the talk about price and value. I found it very surprising. It seems like…and I’m not in Boot World. I have to say that Boot World is a new world for me.
A caveat worth mentioning, sure.
Based on my very superficial understanding and very limited browsing of Boot World, people talk a lot about value with shoes, and they talk about cost. Cost and value are two different things. I think that there is an inherent value in a handmade item. I don’t care what it is. That should be reflected in the cost. Ergo, handmade items should cost more. I don’t care what. A friend of mine said, “People know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.” Seeing that in Boot World, that’s something that surprised me.
It seems like there’s three different categories. There’s a $200 to $400 boot, and people expect that’s like the entry level. Then there’s up to a thousand dollars, and that’s gonna get you by for a couple years. You can get ’em resoled, and that’s your value. Then there’s above that, and like, what is the value of that? And I haven’t heard a satisfactory answer. People expect something more for more money. And I don’t think that that’s necessarily right. I think that by spending more money by working with a handmaker, you’re getting a bespoke object, right? It’s built for your body. You’re choosing all the shit that goes on there. You’re—
You’re choosing to work with a specific person and developing a relationship with them.
Yeah. It’s about relationships. People understand fair trade when it’s coffee growers in Guatemala, but they don’t understand fair trade when it’s craftsmen down the street from them. By working with a shoemaker, you are supporting them, giving them a living wage. There’s an inherent value in that. And that might not be about you, it might not be about what your feet are experiencing. Like, yeah, these boots are gonna fucking last forever. They last longer than you want them to last [laugh].
But that’s not the value. I don’t think that that’s the value. I think that the value is the relationships that you’re having. It’s supporting people who have this knowledge, that human beings will continue to have this knowledge. If we are not supported, it goes away. That’s a fact. I don’t know how some of these older shoes, like reverse-seamed shoes, I don’t know how that works. People don’t do that anymore because there’s not support of those things. So, if you value handmade objects, if you value handmade shoes, work with a hand maker. That’s what the added value is. So I found it a little bit surprising that there is sometimes an expectation of, you should have more resoles, or you should have more whatever. I think that it has to do with community and it has to do with not just the buyer, but about a bigger picture thing.
Any other misconceptions?
I wish that people knew how different handmade footwear is from manufactured footwear. What a footwear maker like myself or Graham or Lisa or Francis produces is inherently different from what comes out of a factory. It isn’t better or worse, which is why I found the expectation of a more expensive boot being better a curious one. That idea isn’t even on my radar. I think that Lisa touched on this point in her interview. Her boots aren’t better or worse than other makers with her experience. They are different. They are hers.
In a factory setting, the idea that more expensive is better may be true. I don’t know. Price difference could also be due to economies of scale. Red Wing owns a tannery and produces more, so they can charge less. Making footwear one pair at a time is different from factory work. Our processes are different, materials are different, lasts are different, all of which result in something that also goes on your foot, but is just a different thing that anything made (or could be made) in a factory.
When people not familiar with handmade footwear look at what we do, it is hard to see this difference. Folks see the shoe or boot and say, “I’d wear that,” or not. “That’s worth more money,” or not. “Why would I pay so much when I can get a great boot for less?” The answer is just like Lisa said: because they are made by her. Or me. Or you. Using processes that are unique and established in each individual workshop.
I have nothing against factory-made footwear, nor am I trying to sell footwear or convince anyone to buy handmade. And for that reason also, I wish that our work wasn’t compared to factory work. My work absolutely is not better than Nicks, or Red Wing, or whatever. I can’t stress that enough. Those are great boots. For that reason, it makes me slightly uncomfortable that a high price tag goes along with higher expectations—whatever those expectations may be.
For some people what I am able to do is worth paying more—the fit, the customization, the support of a culture of small, handmade, super local, whatever. But for most people, factory footwear works, and that is totally great! But they are different than handmade. Not better! Not worse! Just different.
Alright. Let’s bring this home with my last big question for you. We’ve talked about each of your teachers a fair bit already throughout this conversation, and I feel like you’ve kind of already answered this. But what were the most invaluable things that each of your teachers taught you?
I think about my teachers all the time. And it’s kind of funny, because I also teach, but I don’t think that my students for some reason think of me in the same way, which is really weird. I’d never thought about that until very recently. That was really lovely to think about in some ways. And also kind of scary [laughs]. I learned different things from all my teachers.
My favorite thing from DW is: find three things that you like and you feel proud of, and find three things that you didn’t like and work on those. And I do that, man—oh my God, I do that. Also, keep your knives sharp. He’s like, “If you wanna be a bootmaker, you basically just have to learn how to sharpen knives.” UGH. That’s all I can say about that. It’s so hard to keep your knives sharp. But yeah, those are the kind of philosophical things that I learned from DW. And I recently inherited a lot of his library, and I’m going through that this year, which is like, fucking awesome.
What kind of cool stuff have you found in his library?
Well, I get emotional even thinking about it. It’s so hard to find information about shoemaking that’s actually written down. Like, there’s just nothing. Ever since I started, I have been on the hunt for shoe books or anything written down, snapping up everything I can find, used or not. There have been certain things that you just can’t find. You’ll see ’em in the glass-door bookcases of older makers, and you’re like…
“Can I touch them??”
Yeah. So I have a bunch of DW’s books, and then Randee sent me a box of his Xeroxed stuff. I just started going through it, and I feel like this incredible connection to shoemakers of the past and also shoemakers of the future. I feel like I’m truly a caretaker of this body of information. I was just reading one of the books the other day, and I was stunned at…you know, there’s so many things that I do that I learned by the School of Hard Knocks, by making mistakes, and in this book, it’s talking about fit, leather, and lasts. It’s exactly all of my observations. It’s so affirming, but also like, holy shit, that would’ve been nice to know. Also, wow, somebody 150 years ago was making these same observations and took the time to write it down for people in the future. And that’s me now. That is really, really super, super cool. Also, DW’s notes are in there, which is delightful and kind of silly and awesome and meaningful. I’m not writing in them. So anyways…I learned that from DW.
What about Janne?
Janne’s attitude was so good, and I think in terms of temperament, Janne and I were the most similar. The motto of “if it works, it works,” I really appreciate that. I know he would put duct tape and weird shit in his shoes, because, well if it works, it works. He also taught me how to fix a lot of mistakes, and just deal with that. Also, Janne wasn’t a tool collector. He just had very simple things. Two knives, two lasting pincers, a sewing machine. You don’t need much to do all this. I really appreciated that, because having come from DW’s and seeing all these other shoemakers’ shops, and you’d walk in and might think, ahhh, there’s so many tools! There’s so much shit everywhere! It makes you feel like, wow, I need to start getting more stuff, because I need more stuff to do this fine work. And that’s not true. You need a sharp knife, you need an awl, and you just need to know how to do this stuff.
You gotta Marie Kondo that shit.
Yeah. You just really don’t need much. It’s hard not to become like a machine graveyard or a tool graveyard, but…I appreciated that about Janne’s shop.
And from Marcell, well, first of all, Marcell is a dad, and he is a working dad who’s hoofing it to get it done. He’s supporting his family doing that. There are very few people who are doing this job and supporting a family. I’ve been able to connect and understand with Marcell now, being a parent—it’s a big fucking deal to be a parent, and it’s a big fucking deal to do this job, and to do them both at the same time is an exponential fucking deal. [Laughs] So I really appreciate that about Marcell. Also, Marcell does not suffer fools. He will tell you if it’s wrong. He’ll stand next to you and be like, “What are you doing??” You have to do good work, and he’ll tell you when it’s good. If you don’t do good work, he’ll tell you if it’s not good. And he knows, like…he’s seen the trajectory, and he’s not gonna expect a beginner to do advanced-level work. He’s actually not gonna let you do that [laugh].
Also, Marcell’s the only person who has told me, “Of course you can do everything. You just have to do everything really, really well.” And I was like, “Oh. Okay!” Like, I got it. That’s a good aspiration. Marcell does do everything, and Marcell knows all of the rules. It’s kind of his curse and his blessing. I have to say, Marcell has been a really generous teacher. He’s taught me how to do things that I’ve tried to figure out and I couldn’t, I would not be able to figure out otherwise. He’s like a…MacGyver. He flits around from project to project, maybe never quite completing anything, but everything is made to extremely high standards. That kind of high standard is what I aspire to and try to keep myself to, to be working at my best. Not ever saying “good enough.” And also always trying to do better, you know? If only because I can hear Marcell’s voice whispering, “That’s not good enough.” [Laughs] I’m just kidding. But we communicate back and forth. I can send him a photo and be like, “How was this done?” And he’ll explain it to me, every single time, which is so generous. He’s helped me with patterning. He is a brilliant patterner, full stop. He can look at one of my patterns and be like, “That’s wrong.” [Laugh]
Well, this has been a wonderful conversation. Anything else you wanted to add?
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