Making shoes and clogs
For over 30 years Godfrey Smith has made handcrafted clogs from wood and leather. The leather he uses comes in a wide range of colours, making some of his footwear products very distinctive.
Starting as a leather worker
Godfrey works at the Clog and Shoe Workshop in Balmaclellan, in Dumfries & Galloway. Originally from Surrey, he has lived in the area for over thirty years.
"You need to be strong and good with your hands. As well as creative, and you have to be willing to turn your hands to anything, to be a good all-rounder."
When a building restoration project he was working on ground to a halt for lack of finance, Godfrey, then aged 29, turned his attention to clog-making.
He learned the skills and borrowed the tools from an elderly clog maker and shoe repairer, John Hutchison, who had clog-making tools in his back shed.
John showed Godfrey the basics of fitting and making footwear in different sizes. “I needed to get my hands on some lasts - the forms around which shoes are made - as the ones John had were too old.”
Luckily Godfrey was able to get a £500 grant from the Highland Fund, set up to help small businesses, and with the money he bought new lasts. “I knew nothing about lasts at the time, so I had to find my way by trial and error, but I did have John’s lasts with some numbers on them so I knew what I needed. But they were very expensive.”
With John showing him how to shape the leather and attach it to the soles, Godfrey started making clogs. He moved to nearby St John’s Town of Dalry, into a shop in the main street, and added to his rather meagre income by driving the school bus and doing up the house he was renting.
Building a shoemaking business
After some time the property he now lives and works in, formerly a school, came up for sale and Godfrey was able to buy it, with some money left over to put into his business.
“I think one major reason why I have survived in this job is because my overheads are so low. It’s always been a rather precarious existence which doesn’t seem to get much better, but I’ve managed to get by. I’m never bored and I have a good life here."
He always has work to do and finds customers relatively easily, although he has had to put his charges up over the years. “Basically I have to sell to people who have money, it’s as simple as that. I was very dubious about computers and the internet but I have found it to be quite an asset – I get a lot of work through the internet and I can find supplies and things I need.”
Working hours are from 9am to 5pm but because of constant interruptions, phone calls and paper work, Godfrey usually does the more difficult work at night when he can concentrate. This might be forming a shoe to match the shape he’s been given by a customer - some parts of the process only he can do.
For made-to-measure shoes, Godfrey cuts leather by hand but for the standard stock sizes he uses a press for cutting. Sewing is done by machine. Leather and wood are used for the clogs with various rubber components for the soles and copper strips and brass nails for finishing. Copper strips are very hard to get in small quantities but Godfrey, through a friend, has found a source of recycled copper electrical wire from Pakistan which can be hammered flat.
Challenges for leather workers
Working alone can be difficult, although Godfrey has an assistant who works for him three days a week. He also gets support from an organisation called shoemakers.org which is an association of independent shoe and clog makers in the UK.
“I think one major reason why I have survived in this job is because my overheads are so low."
“We help each other finding supplies and equipment, as it’s very difficult for small businesses to buy small quantities of things. We also meet up once a year to discuss aspects of our work. I’m very lucky in this area because we have an arts officer and a crafts officer on the local council in Dumfries. It’s a very artistic part of the UK here in Galloway, there are a lot of people working in different crafts.”
Godfrey would never put anyone off the idea of handmade shoe making but points out that it is not easy to make a living. “You need to be strong and good with your hands. As well as creative and you have to be willing to turn your hands to anything, to be a good all-rounder.
"There are a lot of people who can’t wear off-the-shelf shoes but even handmade shoes don’t all fit first time, so you have to alter them and that takes time. Then there’s marketing and promotion. Big businesses have people to do marketing and management, I have to do it all myself.
“I think it would be good to have done some kind of course, to help with pattern-making. I did do a short course which helped me but otherwise I’ve just had to learn as I went along. As for business skills you either learn them or you sink, basically.
“But luckily, there are still people wanting clogs. Most of the ones I make are slip-on ones which people like to put on to go out to get coal or feed the hens. And children like clogs, they’re a bit of a novelty, I think it’s the noise they make. They find them rather entertaining.”
Becoming a leather worker
Working with leather can involve making a range of products such as bags, belts, shoes or fashion accessories. Leather may be hand-dyed or may come already dyed in a wide range of colours.
Leather design plays a large part in leather working, especially for making bags and shoes and good creative skills are needed. Someone working with leather needs a good eye for shape and balance and must have excellent eye-to-hand coordination.
For the self-employed leather worker, good communication skills are necessary as well as business skills, including marketing and financial acumen. Other skills include:
- Dealing directly with the end user
- Good at marketing and communication
- Ability to work on your own
- Good creative skills
- Good hand-to-eye coordination