The HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Shoe and boot last and tree making

 

The making of shoe-shaped lasts in wood on which a shoe is designed and made and shoe/boot trees to keep the shape and prolong the life of footwear (see also shoe and boot making).

 

Status Endangered
Craft category
Historic area of significance Northampton and London
Area currently practised Eastbourne and Northampton
Origin in the UK 15th century
Current no. of professionals (main income) 6-10 estimated

1 making fully-custom lasts for sale;
11-20 in-house shoe/boot makers customising lasts from blanks known as rough-turns (see ‘Other information’);
1-5 shoe tree makers;
1-2 boot tree makers.

Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
1-5
Current no. of trainees 1-5 (Horace Batten Boots have 1 trainee tree maker)
Current total no. serious amateur makers
Unknown, but short hobby courses are available
Current total no. of leisure makers
Unknown, but short hobby courses are available
Minimum no. of craftspeople required 5 in order to support the next generation of boot and shoe makers

 

History

Until the 19th century fairly basic straight lasts were used for both left and right feet and not fitted very well. During the 1800s lasts began to be made for both feet and toe spring, heel heights and toe shapes were crafted and sized more accurately to individual foot measures.

 

Techniques

Lasts are cut on the bandsaw and turned on the lathe, and then worked by hand with rasps and files, with sand papering to finish.

There is also a long knife similar to a clog knife to hand cut which is rarely used today as models can be rough cut with a band saw or can be turned to form rough shapes.

 

Local forms

Individual shoemakers adapt old lasts and the variations are mainly in ways of taking measures of feet and adapting the measures so a shoe can be made on the resulting lasts shoe/boot trees have a number of style variations. Some shoe trees are not made any more at all as some component parts are no longer available.

 

Sub-crafts

Allied crafts:

  • Clog making has some hand work techniques and tools that are similar.
  • Shoemaking has a degree of crossover knowledge but often not much is actually known about either last making or shoe tree making.

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • Everyone known in the trade is aged 50 years or above.
  • Only 1 trainee is currently known (Horace Batten)
  • Many people are unaware how shoes are made – fewer know what shoe/boot trees are.
  • There is a distinction to be made between factory best-fit approach for made-to-measure and expectation of factory produced shoes to be made on them and that of true custom bespoke last making.
  • Companies without in-house tree makers buy standard lasts manufactured by Springline or from cheaper overseas suppliers and adapt to fit – or in the case of trees do not offer them at all.
  • The cost of making from scratch is often a price companies and individuals are not willing to pay to support a last maker’s wage, never mind a profit to train another (hopefully) younger person.
  • The form of the last is specific to the size, model and shape of the shoes that is to be created on it, therefore when going into production, it is unreasonable to make them all in a bespoke fashion.
  • The work involved is time consuming and not cost effective to the customer unless the whole process through to the finished shoe is bespoke, leaving prices high and inaccessible for most.
  • Boot Tree-making is separate from last making and although are in the same vein, they are also seen as different areas as there are further skills involved specialising in the shape of the leg alongside the foot. Specifically involving making spring keys to fit certain leg shapes etc. Further to this, boot trees are seen as integral to the longevity of the boot (supports the leather of the leg to keep its shape after lots of wear on the horse) and therefore are a worthwhile investment alongside the bespoke boot. Shoe trees are also important, however riding boots get a harder life in the saddle and therefore the existence of boot trees directly supports the making of boots.
  • There are very few bespoke bootmakers and even fewer boot tree makers, one can not survive without the other. Investment has been made  in training new bootmakers by existing companies but tree making has continued solely by the few individual makers now at retirement age.

 

Support organisations

  • British Footwear Association – involved with a large government investment, but it is shoe-related not last and trees, even though they are within the scope of the trade. They also may pay trainees a wage but not the person training, who would lose already limited income to teach a trainee/apprentice.
  • UK Independent Shoemakers

The above organisations are shoemaking based and do not really know about or are involved in shoe last and shoe/boot tree craft.

  • Lastmaker House – Steven Lowe and Dominic Casey teach last making courses a few times a year. It is the only known course in the UK and the world and has attracted students from Australia, South Korea, Japan, Lebanon, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, Thailand and the USA.
  • The Leathersellers’ Company
  • Worshipful Company of Cordwainers
  • QEST (Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust) offer financial support to craftspeople including lastmakers

 

Craftspeople currently known

  • Crispinians Ltd is the only known commercial company offering custom shoe lasts and shoe and boot trees. Steven Lowe is the sole owner and only last maker and tree maker in this company.
  • John Lobb, Foster & Sons, Cleverley and Gaziano Girling employ in-house makers’ including James Dowbridge (John Lobb) making Trees, do not sell directly but make only for a specific shoe company to which they are employed. Only John Lobb has in-house tree making with probably 4 people.
  • Horace Batten Bootmakers have one tree maker and one trainee.
  • Bill Bird make lasts in house with a focus on orthopaedic work.
  • Tony Slinger also mainly makes orthopaedic lasts.

Businesses employing two or more makers:

  • Springline are a manufacturer and will have an in-house model lastmaker.

Other information

In-house makers’ do not sell directly but make only for a specific shoe company to which they are employed. They are not necessarily fully trained in all areas.

 

References