This week I decided to explore ‘craft’ in a broader sense, and therefore approached a craftswoman, who creates objects that we use everyday, but perhaps don’t consider at first thought. Maud Van Den Broeke, of Oxford, is a shoemaker (https://www.facebook.com/mvdbleather). Her work has an elegant, but playful, contemporary style, which she creates using traditional leatherwork processes. I asked Maud a few questions to find out more.
How did you come to be a leather worker/shoe maker?
I had a pair of school shoes made for me when I was around 7 and when they were re-resoled, I became fascinated that this was possible! So I have always had a ‘back of my mind’ interest when it came to shoes. When I dropped out of my initial (more academic) degree, I realised I really needed to do something more hands on, as I had always done at home, with dressmaking and textiles. After an Art Foundation, I tried to get apprenticeships in shoemaking, but could not access any without a lot of financial backing, so I ended up on the technical shoe design course at Cordwainers (London College of Fashion). Since then, there have been many ins and outs of making, design and collaboration. It is only recently that I really settled my mind on making and getting the most out of the craft.
Is there training and guidance readily available?
There is and there isn’t! Apprenticeships are rare and where they do exist, you have to be very lucky with funding. Cordwainers at London College of Fashion do not run their technical courses any more with the focus primarily on design, but the workshops there are great, so you can always get the most out of the technicians! The best way to learn is to attend shoemaking workshops – there are a few, mainly based in London and Devon with very different techniques. I am planning to attend some of the London based training courses to develop the more traditional shoemaking techniques. Also – word of mouth – shoemaking is quite an underground world and there are hidden pockets of makers who may be interested in teaching.
What appeals to you about working with leather?
Leather is the most beautiful material to work with and has such a range of characteristics where no two skins are the same. I use primarily vegetable tanned leather, which is tanned using tree bark and other natural matter. It is very good for moulding, tooling and dyeing, which I do a lot of, and it does not require large quantities of chemicals to produce it.
Do you ever work multi-disciplinary?
Yes, the main shoes I make are dyed by applying a Shibori to the leather. (Shibori is a Japanese word referring to the various ways of embellishing a material, by shaping it and binding it before dyeing – https://www.clothroads.com/shibori-shaped-resist-cloth/.) I am very interested in how shoemaking is a traditional craft, and I like to combine other methods with this tradition. In another life, I would love to be a weaver, so weaving a panel for my shoes or using macramé to create shape is a nice way to experiment! I also really enjoy working on collaborative projects and am looking to collaborate with crafts people in wood or ceramics in the future!
Is it a craft you would encourage other young makers, particularly women, to try?
Definitely, there is such a range within shoemaking and such a lot to learn that it seems like an endless research project, producing functional objects along the way. If you can find someone to teach you as an apprentice then go for it, otherwise get some tools and find an appropriate course. After that, there are many different areas to specialise in, design, making, pattern cutting, sampling, to name a few! Bloody mindedness and determination are important, as there will always be those who know better, or assume so, but just keep asking, making and learning – I have to remind myself of this often.
Have you experienced any sexism or setbacks within your craft industry?
As a male dominated industry, there is sexism that is quite obvious when you first start out, particularly when dealing with men who have worked in the same industry for 40 years or so, perhaps not taking you seriously as a maker. Now that more mainstream courses are opening up and women run a lot of the small businesses, the balance is being addressed. I would say that areas such as tanneries, leather and hardware suppliers, there is an element of needing to know your stuff and explain when you do not. In the leather industry there is a lot of earned respect, and I think being aware of respecting those that have built up years of knowledge and developing long-term relationships with them is part and parcel of being a shoemaker.
How do you find working as an independent maker, developing your own enterprise, and living the life of a young woman? E.g. work-life balance, family planning perhaps?
It is a difficult balance and I am learning how to balance it all the time. I work part-time to allow me flexibility with shoe making and any quiet days at the weekend are still spent working in my workshop. One of the reasons I love shoemaking is that it can be quite a solitary endeavour, but this can make it hard to get out of when promoting or attending craft fairs. I am quite terrible with balancing work and life, as shoemaking always seems to be my priority, however working part time has helped this, by creating some form of timetable, as to when I am able to be in the workshop. Financially, it can be difficult, as there is no back up or support when thinking about family, settling down or even buying a house, however, somehow shoemaking always seems to override these, so we shall see! Realising that my craft needs to be my business, I am finally taking my making out of my workshop and more into the public domain, which for me is a big thing. It has made me realise that you have to just go for it!