Size as a number is not discussed very much in the world of bespoke shoes. The shoe is made to fit the client with the most important consideration being the design of the last (or form / mould) on which the shoe is made. The last is made to the client’s unique measurements, representing the interior shape of the shoe, and informing the finished aesthetic. Many clients have a number of lasts, for different heel heights and toe shapes. The subject of lasts deserves its own dedicated article. For the craftsman, the last comes first.
Crucial to design is the attention to detail in the selection of upper leathers, lining leathers and silks; how the different materials fit together and move together depending on grade, thickness and surface treatment, avoiding the use of manmade reinforcement.
Examples are the relationship between the weights of the upper leather and the lining leather (or silk), or the relationship between the thickness of the thread used and the length of each stitch; the balance of colours; the introduction of other specialty skills, be it embroidery, bookbinding techniques, crochet, calligraphy and the suitability of the leathers for the specific decorative treatment. Pulling all this together is no mean feat, and requires a level of technical knowledge, skill and artistic vision that comes from years of experience.
Once materials are selected and patterns cut, the closing of the uppers begins. This involves edge preparation - skiving, folding, binding - to give that accomplished finish, then sewing together the uppers and linings. Decorative treatments could be carried out at different stages of closing, depending on the the type and method of treatment. The closer works with hand tools and hardly any use of machinery. Every shoemaker has a special relationship with his own tools (a hand-sharpened knife, a favoured awl) and workspace (a low chair for some jobs, a high workbench for others).
Caroline is particularly passionate about hand-welted shoes. Hand welting is the process of attaching the uppers to the soles by means of hand-sewing only. No glues are used at all. The result represents hours of highly skilled work that go into what is largely invisible to the unknowing. This is the hidden secret of bespoke hand-welted shoes. Traditionally sewn using a bristle taken from the back of a hog’s neck connected to flax threads by rolling in pitch in the maker’s palm. Hand welting is a laborious process where planning and pacing the work is of utmost importance to ensure the leathers are in exactly the right condition for moulding and shaping. When the day’s work is complete, the storage and preparation of the next day’s work begins - soaking, dampening, wrapping, temperature control - all the technical nuances that can only be learned by practise.
Balance - especially on a high heel - is a hallmark of a skilled maker and a testimony to his or her abilities. Again the relationships matter - the correct heel pitch for the pitch of the last, with allowances for the depth of the insole, stiffeners and welting - all this dependent on the type of construction.
Finally, and perhaps the most difficult skill for a shoemaker to develop, is judgement. Traditionally, it was understood and expected that the leathers of the uppers and soling need to naturally move with each other, and with the foot, to fully achieve the goal of moulding to the wearer over time. Today’s expectations are quite different. The modern buyer is discerning and more demanding. When money can buy instant gratification in every aspect of life, why not also the perfectly fitting shoe?
A shoemaker is required to exert her judgement and experience to achieve the best outcome for each individual client, and interpret this knowledge when making the shoe. This is where knowing the client and building trust between maker and client comes into its own. Perhaps the key difference between a Caroline Groves shoe and something off the high-end shelf is that Caroline is first and foremost a leatherworker. Consequently her approach to shoemaking is driven not by shoes, but by leather. She sees shoes as the ultimate expression of the possibilities of leather, not found in any other object.