I recently watched my cobbler, David, help a customer in his shop. She had brought in three pairs of shoes to be fixed and was quite surprised when David gently set two of them aside on the counter, explaining that their poor materials and workmanship made them not worth repairing. “They weren’t really made well to begin with,” David said softly, sliding his work-blackened thumb into the split between the sole and synthetic upper of one worn pair. “Well, I guess they weren’t comfortable anyway,” the customer sighed.
But aren’t comfort and quality the basic qualities one looks for in footwear? These days, maybe not so much. The average American woman owns 17 pairs of shoes, but only wears three pairs regularly. Why do the other 14 pairs gather dust in the closet? Usually because they don’t fit. In a recent study, 46% of women said they have suffered from foot pain, 59% have gotten blisters from their shoes, 35% have had an evening ruined by uncomfortable shoes, and 24% have actually fallen because of their shoes’ design.
Handmade custom shoes – with expert construction, precise measurements, and quality materials – could solve all these problems. But handmade shoes seem so expensive, the ultimate luxury. Who can afford them? Even for me, a handmade fanatic to the core, they seem out of reach.
Then I did some math. The average price for a pair of shoes in the study was $50, but David tells me those $50 shoes are probably not worth buying. Let’s imagine I paid a little more, say, even $90 for shoes that could be repaired and last a little longer. Well, $90 x 17 pairs is $1530, about enough for three pairs of handmade shoes – the three pairs that the study says are all we really wear anyway.
If over time, as the budget allows, I made the shift from quantity to quality footwear, what should I look for in a good shoe? Some of Etsy’s shoe and boot makers helped me understand what is important. (And I should note that they all made a distinction between “handmade” – which can be very high quality – and “custom made” – the highest form of the craft – which refers to bespoke shoes made on a custom last.)
Everyone agreed fit was crucial. “Like a good house, your body needs a good supporting foundation,” said custom boot maker Kyle Rosfeld. “If your footwear makes you stand crooked, the rest of your body will soon be crooked as well. I strive for the fit to be as though they have been worn for six months. When the wearer gets home at night and he or she forgets to take them off, then the fit is correct,” said Kyle.
Ren, at Fairysteps, agrees. “It should be like wearing favorite slippers…all day!”
“If the client is someone who cannot fit into standard sizes, the value is immeasurable. No one should be in extreme pain from walking or standing, yet this is often what people accept,” said Daphne Board, who is working to become a pedorthist.
The makers were also unanimous about the importance of shoes being repairable. “My first criterion for a well crafted shoe or boot is how easily it is repaired”, said Kyle, who also reconditions vintage boots and saddles. “A well-made shoe should be repairable,” echoed Daphne. “If the shoe is not made so that it can be reconditioned, it is essentially a disposable shoe.”
Handmade shoes represent a time investment for the maker as well. “The making of a pair consists of two factors: The inspiration factor and the making factor,” said Tina Nortin. “Inspiration is unpredictable. It may take 10 minutes or 10 days. But after the designing and consultation process is finished, depending on the design, the making can take days.” Part of that process includes time for the shoes to “sit” on the last and take their shape.
Everyone said well-made shoes, properly cared for, should last years, maybe even decades. Buying high quality is a cost saver in the long run. The makers suggest frequent polishing, with resoling and re-heeling when necessary. “Leather likes to be loved,” said Ren. They also suggest not wearing the same shoes every day so that shoes can dry out between wearings.
It is challenging to build a life with fewer, better made things. But now I can see there are makers here to help…every step of the way.
Karen Brown is an award-winning designer and creative director of the Center for Ecoliteracy. Her work has been included in the Smithsonian Institution and Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and featured in The New York Times, Architectural Digest, House Beautiful, and on Today on NBC. She believes that the handmade movement is a fundamental force for transforming society and the economy.