The following is an exerpt from the last chapter of my new book. I post it here just to see how people will react and to perhaps illustrate what this topic "Rants, Rationales, and Suppositions" is supposed to be all about. It is long and, I hope thought provoking. Be warned!
Historically, bootmakers, as a class, have tended to be thoughtful and deliberate individuals. It is not a Trade for the timid. Or the easily frustrated. Nor is it a Trade that lends itself well to the impulse to “run on automatic,” either. There are so many variables...in the leather, in the the foot...that only by being fully engaged at all times can the work be taken beyond the mundane.
Eventually, anyone making boots has to ask him or herself why they do it; why, in an age of computers and nanotechnology and the nearly culture-wide expectation of “instant gratification,” pursuing a vocation that has roots and traditions and essential skills that go back literally centuries—a process that can never be made “fast,” only faster...and then, objectively, at the expense of quality—why this might seem like a viable career option.
Why do we make boots? And for whom? My answer is that we make boots for ourselves. Not for the customer, although he is, and ought to be, an important factor...but that’s all he is—a “factor’, no more important than the leather we use or the tools we handle. Not for our peers although they, their opinions, and their work surely influence and guide us as we begin. Not even for the “Elder Boot Gods” (as I somewhat humourously but deeply respectfully, refer to the masters of the past) although, for me at least, that comes closer to being a good reason than any other.
Nor do we make boots for the money...although there may be some who know, or have, no other way...simply because any hard, realistic analysis of the Trade as it is in the early 21st century, has to generate the certain knowledge that there are other easier, less demanding, less frustratng ways to earn a living.
So, why do we make boots? This is a question I’ve been asking and thinking about for over 35 years. And it’s important...it isn’t just some philosophical puff of hot air or an excuse to contemplate the navel of the universe. The answer is critical, central, to the choices we make as makers.
I am fond of saying that a person has to choose: to make boots or to make money, because in some fundamental sense one cannot do both. It is easy to misinterpret this statement. On the face of it, it is almost shocking to those who do not think it through. But the simple fact is that in any endeavor there must be a focus.
If we choose to make money...if that is the underlaying motive...every decision that we make will revolve around that objective. “Cutting costs” becomes the order of the day. Buying cheaper leathers, employing faster (but not better) techniques and materials, ignoring the little, “fussy” details, are all viable considerations to maximize monetary returns.
Perhaps there is nothing wrong with this approach, although it is certainly not the author’s cup of tea. But it is something other than bootmaking for the very simple reason that the focus is on the money, not the boots.
If we choose to make boots, a whole other set of choices not only present themselves, but become almost mandatory. A bootmaker is always searching for better leathers...better tannages, better finishes, longer wear...and price cannot be a consideration. A bootmaker will always be open to new materials and new techniques (or ways to improve upon old ones)_--not to speed up the process or to make a difficult job easier, but for the simple and sole reason of improving quality and wear and fit and beauty. Sometimes that even means going back to older, time honoured, techniques that require a level of skill and mastery that do not come easily or quickly.
Those who find themselves troubled or taken aback by the idea that one must choose between making money and making boots, miss the the point: it’s not about whether we can make a living making boots (we can...although it may be a thin living) or whether one can make a decent boot while focusing on the “bottom line.” Rather, it is about what we hope to achieve.
And, perhaps most confounding of all, is the simple, yet seemingly contradictory fact that choosing to “ignore” the money issues in favour of quality issues, often yields the largest financial rewards.
As “bespoke’ makers, the worst thing we can do is to try to compete—at any level— with factories. Those who do so, are nearly forced to adopt the very same philosophies and techniques that factories use (perhaps with some inconsequential modification for scale). Unfortunately, however, it is a common model that many people eagerly embrace (in many aspects of life) without much thought...simply because Trades such as bootmaking are so rare that the alternatives are almost unknown.
But as “bespoke” makers, the most lucrative and the surest path to success—at any level...financial or artistic—is to create a product that is uncommon. That’s the cache—the “hook”—that will open any niche market such as custom bootmaking. The best materials and the best workmanship will always command a greater interest and a higher dollar than the commonplace or the mediocre. Yes, it takes time...and dedication...and probably some judicious PR. But a select clientele is infinitely better and more reliable (for repeat business) than a client base that is constantly looking to “upgrade.” Achieving a reputation for unstinting quality, attention to detail, best quality materials, is the key—the one certain path—to commanding both greater respect and higher prices...prices commensurate with the actual effort and skill involved.
And there is yet another, “hidden” consideration: the only way a maker gains the skill and ability to successfully undertake complicated and difficult techniques is to do the job for the “learning” experience—in the absence of any consideration about money.
If a maker cannot show examples of such work, he will not get many orders for it. If he has no commissions, he will never learn to do the work...at least not well. If he cannot display a certain mastery, he can never...at least not with integrity...ask a price that will compensate him for the time and skill he brings to the task. And so it goes...it’s a vicious circle.
It is perhaps only because we are the product of an affluent and privileged society (relative to earlier times) that we have the luxury to contempate such matters. None of us have been sold into indenture, or apprenticed into a Trade chosen by our parents or patrons. In an earlier time, being a “bootmaker” was a job—a means of survival—not a career, and the “Master” was the owner of the production facilities—the shop—not necessarily even a qualified maker, at all.
Most of us chose our “careers,” and the the course of our lives, to one extent or the other. In doing so we are the beneficiaries of a freedom greater than all but the most privileged of our ancestors enjoyed. Recognizing this fact is a blessing in and of itself and a recognition that further frees us to pursue our choices to whatever heights and ends we desire. In that context, competiton with factories is not just unneccessary it is downright foolish. In that context, catering to the every whim of a customer, even when such whims run contrary to what we know is “do-able” or advisable...perhaps to the detriment of the quality of our work or even our reputations...is short-sighted, at best. In that context, even the competition among other bootmakers—to be the “best”—seems somehow trivial.
In that context, the only rationale to make boots that stands the test of time, the market, and which justifies the choices we make, is love of the form, the “pursuit of excellence,” and the challenge to one’s own internal sense of beauty and refinement.
There is a certain satisfaction—a feeling of “wholeness,” of ”peace,” even—that comes from immersing oneself in a process that is both complicated and difficult to master. There is a certain satisfaction in challenging oneself...each and every day...to do better, to go beyond the boundaries of yesterday without dismissing the past nor the wisdom to be found there.
And sometimes...when we’re least expecting it...we lose ourselves so completely in the work that when we look up we find we’ve been tapping into “something greater than ourselves,” some wellspring of creativity not wholly our own. And often, we find that until that moment, we weren’t really capable of doing what we’ve just done.
That alone is worth the price of admission...and reason enough to make boots (or shoes).
(Message edited by dw on August 07, 2006)