Big shoes to fill: bespoke shoemaking with Rachel Ayland

Big shoes to fill: bespoke shoemaking with Rachel Ayland

It’s not very often today that you’ll find people walking around in bespoke, handmade shoes. Consumer culture has resulted in an overwhelming choice of shoes that are readily available at our nearest shopping centre or simply at a click-of-a-button through our favourite online shop. As with many crafts in Australia, large-scale manufacturing has caused a decline in the demand for handmade shoes. While factory-made shoes are convenient and accessible, they are often made overseas, and, like most mass-produced goods, come with environmental consequences; furthermore, mass-produced shoes lack what handmade shoes can offer: character, tailored sizes, bespoke designs and knowing exactly who made your shoes and what they are made from. Although finding a local shoemaker may seem difficult today compared to the easy of purchasing a mass-produced shoe, Australian shoemakers are reviving the traditional craft of shoemaking through local businesses that thrive on delivering the benefits of the handmade.

Bangalow-based shoemaker Rachel Ayland is one Australian shoemaker who has successfully established an artisanal shoemaking business. Honing her craft over the past 32 years, Rachel’s practice is driven by a dedication to creating bespoke footwear tailored to the individual.  With a strong focus on pattern making, Rachel’s practice is driven by a dedication to creating beautiful footwear tailored to each customer’s individual requirements. But while Rachel is able to make a viable income from her craft it hasn’t been without challenges.

The Apprenticeship curators Richard Stride and Aaron Barton recently caught up with Rachel to discuss her journey as a shoemaker and the challenges she has faced along the way.

Want your own bespoke shoes? Check out Rachel’s website here.


Traditionally, shoemaking apprentices were trained by masters in workshops. Does this path still exist?

My craft was traditionally learned in apprenticeships from a “Master”, within the environment of a commercially run workshop, such as my own. It is rare to find a Master shoemaker to learn from today. They are literally dying as a generation or are retired and are rarely replaced in most western countries. Modern shoemakers, like myself, may choose to take on an apprentice if some government or other financial support was available for the endeavour, but this doesn’t happen, making it difficult for shoemakers to justify the expense while trying to keep our businesses afloat.

 

Rachel in her workshop. Photo by Kate Holmes.

Rachel in her workshop. Photo by Kate Holmes.

 

How did you learn the techniques and theory behind your craft?

I learned the techniques and theory of my craft from a small workers cooperative in the early 1980’s, in the UK, which consisted of five traditional shoemakers who trained at one of the last college courses in London at the time. This group took me on and trained me in the craft for five years, sharing all they knew. Later in my career I met Master Shoemaker and teacher, George Koleff from Bulgaria, and I became his student for a few years. In this time, he helped me build my techniques and acquire tools and equipment. Some of the tools I still use today were made by George!

 

Rachel in her workshop. Photo by Kate Holmes.

Rachel in her workshop. Photo by Kate Holmes.

 

What has been some of the main challenges in acquiring your knowledge and skills in shoemaking?

Some of the main challenges I faced while learning to become a shoemaker include trying to survive financially while working my craft as I had to purchase many expensive materials. I also found it difficult to locate an appropriate workshop space. The competitive prices of manufactured goods played a major role in these challenges.

 

Have you established your shoemaking business as a viable living? If so how long did this take? How challenging do you think it is for others to achieve this today?

I have been making a living from my business for the last 15 years; however, I am not raising a family and have reasonably cheap overheads. It took 15 years to become self-sufficient, during which time I received a little government small business support. I would say it would be very challenging to achieve this sufficiency today, which is why there are so few making a living in Australia today.

 

Rachel in her workshop. Photo by Kate Holmes.

Rachel in her workshop. Photo by Kate Holmes.

 

Rachel in her workshop. Photo by Kate Holmes.

Rachel in her workshop. Photo by Kate Holmes.

 

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Work in progress. Photo by Kate Holmes.

 

Have you had any mentors? Or have the skills of your trade dissipated and needed to be relearnt?

Yes, other shoemakers that I’ve met on my journey have been of great support. Other shoemakers, and all the famous ones, have been inspirational to me. Some shoemakers have written texts, which have been an invaluable asset to shoemakers worldwide.

What do you think an apprenticeship for shoemaking might look like that gives makers the skills they need to establish themselves today?

I think more government subsidies for setting up small business and wage subsidy for traineeships would make a significant difference. Furthermore, there needs to be a legitimate modern apprenticeship for shoemaking which is modelled around hands on learning under the guidance of a qualified teacher master. I believe training in up-to-date business skills and specific computer skills (eg. pattern making and graphics etc.) should also be a central part of future apprenticeship models for shoemakers.

 

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Rachel in her workshop. Photo by Kate Holmes.

 

Obviously, shoes are mass produced on a large scale. What has this meant for the design and quality of the products?

Shoes are also produced on a large scale for mass consumption.  And while mass-produced shoes can be a good product they also come with faults; they can be hard to repair due to short sighted manufacturing processes and they may not be fit the customer well. These are value added to the potential customer experience by a revival in artisans in todays.

 

How has today’s marketplace, with abundant mass production, affected what you make and how you make it?

The pressures of modern manufacturing have led to such tight competition in the industry that the few bespoke shoemakers that did survive in the trade were often left offering orthopaedic services, which are hard to replace by machine! Increased material costs and workshop running costs have also affected the bespoke shoemaking business; as a result, our numbers got smaller, especially over past 50 years.

 

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Rachel in her workshop. Photo by Kate Holmes.

 

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Rachel in her workshop. Photo by Kate Holmes.

 

Is there a revival of the traditional means of production in shoemaking today, and if so why do you think that is? Are makers creating new value in traditional production methods or are consumers now simply perceiving value in it?

For ethical reasons there is a growing demand for handmade goods which have a low impact on the environment.

A young generation of shoemakers with fashion awareness and ethical stance are providing a unique and interesting range of products for niche customers; the product is modern, made to measure, and less conservative than previous methods and styles. Likewise, customers are actively seeking shoes that are made from environmentally sound glues and materials providing gentler foot care than cheaply manufactured, synthetic products.

As a contemporary craftsperson, how are you making this craft relevant and shaping it for the future?

I am continually changing my designs to keep up with fashion trends. I have increased publicity for repair and renovation service, as customers are increasingly aware of the need to consume less and value good design. I also offer classes, giving people a creative experience in my workshop; this is a growing trend that is reasonably lucrative for creatives.

Additionally, In order to respond to a growing demand for vegan, cruelty free fashion, I have recently successfully experimented with completely vegan shoes using hemp canvas upper. Public response to this is extremely positive and I am busy exploring this further.

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Rachel in her workshop. Photo by Kate Holmes.

 

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Work in progress. Photo by Kate Holmes.

 


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