By Gina Malone
Asheville’s bespoke shoemaker Deborah Robertson attended, for the first time, Footwear Symposium’s annual competition in Savannah, GA, in August. The event drew cordwainers from all over the US and beyond. After naming top winners, the judges felt compelled to extend a special “shout-out” to Robertson for her entry of a pair of Balmoral boots, praising them as an accomplished creation for someone fairly new to the shoemaking craft.
Robertson took her first shoemaking class in January of 2015. Before that, she had intended to concentrate on felt-making. “My mother and her mother were both extraordinary seamstresses,” she says. “I feel certain that my confidence with a needle and thread led me to believe I could make shoes.”
While taking a series of classes, including an eight-week concentration at Penland School of Crafts, Robertson began to acquire “piecemeal” the materials she would need to set up a workspace in her West Asheville home. These include a 5 in 1 machine, still in its original box and never used, that she found in Texas; lasts (mechanical forms that resemble the human foot); and vintage detailing tools.
Robertson rediscovered folk dancing in 2007, and admired the shoes her fellow dancers were wearing, but could not find a pair herself. “Once I saw them up close, I was incredulous, for they are very cheaply made,” she says. “The heels are plastic and the uppers are made of imitation leather. This made an impression on me and I was bound and determined to find a quality shoe.”
With her training and experience since that time, she can now make her own as well as ones for other dancers. “The benefit to custom-made shoes is the fit,” she says. “Many of the Romanian dances, especially, are quite fast with lots of complex steps and movements, so having a well-fitting shoe is critical.”
Handcrafted shoes involve a multi-step process beginning with a good measurement of each foot. “There are several places on the foot to take into account in order to produce a well-fitting shoe,” Robertson says. At an initial meeting with a client, discussions will include styles and colors, heel height and toe box shape. Once she finds a last in the client’s size, or modifies one in what is called a buildup, she can begin making the pattern that will be traced onto the chosen leather. Sewing, carving an insole, lasting, gluing, soling and heel-making are all necessary before the finishing process that, itself, involves many stages of sanding, burnishing and shellacking.
It’s labor-intensive from start to finish, but, Robertson says, there are several reasons clients might want a pair of bespoke shoes, including quality, a custom fit, and choices in styles and colors. “Handmade shoemaking may be seeing a resurgence,” she says. Waiting lists at classes she wants to take make her hopeful that it is not a dying art.
And when she finds time, she says, “What I want to work on is another pair of shoes for me.”
To learn more, visit DeborahShoemakerShoes.com.