The basement cordwainer
Anyone who thinks that making shoes is a harmless activity that can be carried out safely at home is wrong according to Tomas Karlsson: “I have invested a great deal of blood, sweat and almost tears. You use very sharp knives and awls (editor’s note: a shoemaker’s tool used to engrave holes in leather), and before I had worked out how to use them properly, I had already pierced my hand with my awl. Fortunately, that healed quickly.”
It takes the Sales Manager about 60 hours to make a pair of shoes. That is only about one third longer than the time taken by a professional. Together with his girlfriend, he has rented a little workshop. While he makes shoes there, she repairs old furniture. “And our two-year-old daughter is always with us and she is fascinated by all the exciting things there,” describes Karlsson. “It has developed into a real family thing. After work, we often go to our little workshop together.”
Step by Step
Many individual steps are required in making a shoe. Karlsson does not just make any old espadrilles or simple slippers, however. He has specialized in “Bespoke Goodyear welted shoes”. The best Goodyear welted shoes can, still to this day, only be made by hand. The shoes are synonymous with durable quality and are correspondingly complex to make. This is a challenge for perfectionist Karlsson. The shoes get their name from the stitching machine with which they are manufactured. This machine was patented by Charles Goodyear Junior – the son of the man who invented vulcanized rubber, paving the way for modern car tires.
First you need seven different measurements of the foot and a footprint. These are used to produce a bespoke shoe last – essentially a reproduction of the foot. The shoe pattern must then be drawn on the last. The individual parts are then cut out of the leather and sewn together before everything is shaped and stretched on the last so that the shoe fits perfectly. Then comes the step that gives the shoes their name; the handsewn Goodyear welt. In the final step, the sole is attached, and the heel is built up with layers of thick leather. For the fine tuning, the last is removed and the shoe is polished.
Why don’t I make shoes?
After four years in USA, which the native swede spent there professionally, he returned to his homeland in 2014. Karlsson had to readjust to life there – and that included establishing a proper work/life balance. “I thought long and hard about what hobby to take up. It had to be a counterbalance to my high-tech digital work. Something where I would use my hands,” he recalls. He first considered golf. He tried it then but it was absolutely not the thing for him. After some time searching for a new hobby, he finally had a brilliant idea: “Why not try to make a pair of shoes?”
Books, YouTube and Facebook
Karlsson had to teach himself the craft from scratch. His motto was: “Trial-and-error”; simply try it. There were certainly plenty of “errors” in the early days. “It is important always to make two shoes: a right one and a left one,” explains Karlsson with a laugh. “Initially, however, I kept on making left shoes only. I was concerned about repeating the same mistakes on the right shoe that I had made on the left one. Or even worse: making the right shoe much better so the pair would not match. I now have seven unpaired left shoes lying around at home.”
To learn his hobby, he plowed through the books he could find on the topic. However, most of the books were so obsolete that they were barely readable. Moreover, corresponding YouTube videos condensed 40 hours of work into five-minute clips. They were not too helpful. At some point he stumbled across a Facebook group with many like-minded individuals. Since then, things have really taken off. The group has about 12,000 members and that number is constantly rising. Even though only about 200 of them are really active, the exchange of information is worth its weight in gold. “The first materials I bought to make shoes of was completely wrong,” he knows today. “And at the start, I had to throw away a lot of material.” These days, he works with particularly expensive types of leather, such as rhubarb tanned leather and shell cordovan – a special leather made from horse hide.
They are beautiful
It was not easy to get hold of the special tools one requires as a shoemaker, but he was able to find all he needed on the Internet. It was worth the effort. “They are simply beautiful,” says Karlsson. He is particularly fond of the sewing machine from 1906. “It is so cool! You can see how the entire mechanism moves.”
His next project is a pair of winter boots – which probably will be ready by summer, he says and laughs. “I just can’t get around to it any sooner. That is also the reason why I don’t make shoes for my daughter yet. She would grow out of them before they were done. I can’t use the same excuse to my girlfriend,” says Karlsson with a laugh. His next pair will be for her.