Making Shoes By Hand – Three Master Shoemakers Who Prove The Tradition Is Alive And Kicking

handmade shoe

A Scandanavian style shoe recently handmade in Portland, OR. Photo courtesy of Marrow Magazine.

These days, the shoe industry has become largely automated, and while tanned leather is still the most common material used, shoes are now mass produced out of all sorts of materials, from fabrics, to rubber, and everything in between. But there are still stalwart souls out there, proudly old-school, fashioning beautiful footwear by hand in the traditional way. And with the surging interest in all things handmade, these folks are becoming more and more visible.

Once the purview of the very wealthy (think well-heeled aristocrats shopping London’s Saville Row) the handmade shoe is becoming more accessible to the rest of us. Here are 3 different world class shoe manufacturers who are not only keeping the process alive, they are taking it to the next level.

Barbara Shaum, Ltd.

barbara shaum sandals

Barbara Shaum has customers that are still wearing their shoes 30 years after they were made. Now that's value.

Octogenarian Barbara Shaum has been making shoes out of her East Village studio in downtown Manhattan for a half a century, and customers have been consistently singing her praises since the first pair of sandals walked out of her shop so many moons ago. “I don’t think of myself as a business woman,” she muses, “I’m really a craftsman.” But all modesty aside, she has managed to stay in business longer than most.

More missionary than merchant, Ms Shaum accepts apprentices from all walks of life, and is determined to spread the knowledge to any and all that are interested. Her work has inspired the likes of Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren, to name a few, yet she remains completely accessible to all comers.

If you’re willing to visit the store, have your foot measured, wait three weeks and pay between $300 and $600 (though when a shoes lasts 30+ years, it’s actually pretty inexpensive!) you can walk away with a piece of New York CIty history. And a really comfortable pair of shoes to boot!

Osborn Shoes

osborn shoes

This Justine Ashbee Oxford by Osborn is part of a series of artist designed special limited editions.

A visit to the Osborn shoe factory located just outside of Guatemala City reveals 30-odd master craftspeople fashioning beautiful and singular shoes out of handwoven or vintage fabrics and hand-tanned leathers.

Co-founded in 2007 by Brooklyn residents Aaron Osborn and his wife Carla (Aaron’s family runs one of the largest orphanages in Guatemala) as a way to further their humanitarian efforts by “doing good with good design,” these lively and singular oxfords and boots let your feet do the talking while your karma improves via supporting the work of talented native shoemakers. They even sign and date each pair of shoes, treating them like the wearable works of art that they are.

Check out the video below to see how they get it all done:

Olivier Rabbath

Where the action is: Olivier rabbath's Brooklyn studio

Where the action is: Olivier rabbath's Brooklyn studio.

If you really want to get your hands dirty and dive into the business of building your own boots from scratch, look no further than Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill and Olivier Rabbath’s school, which is aptly named “How To Make Boots From Your Garage.”

Preaching the gospel of shoemaking to all who will listen (he even has classes for kids, though for safety’s sake it’s the parents who wield the sharp tools) the eccentric Frenchman has been compared to Willy Wonka and says that “working with leather, and seeing a product grow each day – for me – is a joy.”

His own creations, available for sale online as well as at the studio, are spectacularly unique and make use of materials as varied as duct tape or are even plated with gold.

OR boots

The love is in the details: here are two Rabbath creations, one has intricate leatherwork, the other a silver plated heel.

$375 and 15 hours (plus the cost of your materials) will get you a pair of your very own boots, handmade by you, under the close supervision (and inspiration!) of the master shoemaker himself. There are also more extensive courses that can help get you set up to go into business for yourself.

A Growing Community

Shoes have been an essential part of mankind’s toolkit since the dawn of history itself, if not longer. The first known shoes (simple sandals, to be specific) were discovered in Oregon and date back to around 7500 BC. There is, however, strong evidence based on the development of man’s bone structure in the foot, that shoes (primarily made of leather and hence more likely to decompose) were in use as far back as 40,000 years ago. And as long as there have been shoes, there have been shoemakers, or cordwainers (cobblers are the folks that make the repairs) hammering and cutting and shaping our footwear.

These three masters, and others like them, are truly inspiring a whole new world (or rather, a reawakening of an old one!) of people who are making their own shoes both to wear and to sell. There are galleries devoted to the subject on Flickr, classes popping up all over – the interest seems to be building by the day.

At Krrb, we’re all about finding out what’s going on wherever people are making things by hand. Let us know in the comments about any shoemaking activities going on in your neck of the woods!