A slow Saturday and this is long--just an outing for the brain...
If one reads the Crispin Colloquy on a fairly regular basis, one sees a dichotomy of sorts. There are makers...good makers...who favour the newest materials and the the most "progressive" techniques. And there are those who tend to be more conservative and more...as one should say..."traditional."
At one level, there is nothing wrong with either approach. But they do seem to be in conflict sometimes. There are times when I think it is regrettable that we tend to see these issues as "either/or." But then...most of the time...I recognize that it is both natural and even desirable that there be a tension between the established wisdom of the past and the "exploring spirit" of the present.
I have, on more than one occasion introduced techniques and even materials that may never have been seen or considered before. Of course, in the larger sense of things, what I have contributed is surely neither all that revolutionary or singular--I have always drawn upon what I believe to be a solid grounding in traditional practices and all my innovations could fairly be said to be incremental and derivative. It could be said, I suppose, that I, myself, tend toward a more "traditional" viewpoint.
Nevertheless, I believe that being open to new materials and new ideas is critical to continuing to learn and grow. And over a career that spans a lifetime, that " openness" is, in itself, critical to success and viability. Nylon bristles and dacron thread aren't exactly "traditional" materials, for example, and I am an advocate of both. But in every case, the adoption of the "new" must be in the pursuit of better quality, not more "couch time."
However, knowing what I know and having seen what I have seen over the years...and that includes a relatively wide range (by no means exhaustive or liable to make me an "expert" ) of footwear from the mid 18th century to the present....I am convinced that the apex--the high point--of bespoke shoe/bootmaking was the late 19th century, and, to a lesser degree, into the early 20th.
Before the advent of shoe factories, every little town had one or two shoe/bootmakers and the larger cities may have had dozens. Certainly price was an issue but there was a great resistance to the devaluing of all Trades during that time--from shoemaking to weaving to gunsmithing. Tradesmen were virtually up in arms about "wage slavery" and exhibitions (World Trade Fairs) were universally considered an opportunity to demonstrate that factories could not possibly match the quality and refinement of work that a skilled craftsman could produce. Quality was a real issue and was the one thing that separated a maker from his competition. And, perhaps just as importantly, every man put his name on his work.
I am always a bit perplexed at those who dismiss or look down upon the literature and traditional techniques that come to us from that time. They almost always do so without ever having read to any great extent or even attempted to master the skills that are our legitimate inheritance--skills that have evolved over the course of, literally, centuries. Given that, I wonder if there isn't a certain arrogance or presumptuousness in being a "progressive"...if that's the appropriate terminology? It is a little suspect, in my mind at least, to "pooh-pooh" pegging when one has never mastered the art of pegging. Or leather toe boxes when all one knows how to do is celastic (and leather toe boxes are admittedly harder to do and take longer). Those who've never successfully made hand wax according to the old recipes, don't have a leg to stand on when they dismiss the need or the efficacy of a good hand wax...even on dacron. And, to illustrate the point in another way...those who learn to skive on a skiving machine or with a razor blade skiver, have a very difficult time learning to use (or sharpen) a good skiving knife...but the same is not true in reverse.
One of the aspects of all of this that has been an "issue" with me for as long as I can remember, is what I call the "factory mentality" that seems to pervade almost every aspect of modern life--from what we eat and how it is produced and delivered to us, to the entertainment choices that we typically make. And of course, that mentality not only affects bootmaking but, in my opinion, tends to undermine every aspect of what we consider "quality." Unfortunately, when it comes to bootmaking, it is the makers themselves, as much as anyone, who are doing the undermining.
If a maker decides...for whatever reason--personal standards of quality, expediency, or even necessity--that celastic toe boxes are acceptable, would it not be reasonable to assume that using celastic (or something like it) for heels stiffeners would also be OK? If fiberboard "cottages" (shank covers) are reasonable, why not fiberboard heel stacks...or even fiberboard insoles? If cement sole construction meets a standard of durability and...logic...why not moulded sole construction? If tacks (in the heelseat and shank area) are the logical choice (versus hand stitching), why not staples? It's a slippery slope.
Each of the aforementioned techniques originated in a factory context and the over-arching reason for implementing every single one of them was to cut costs or replace time consuming and/or hard to master skills. In each case, implementing one led to implementing the next...and the next. And each of these techniques can be seen in...indeed they are almost the hallmark of...common, post WWII, mass-manufactured, commercial footwear...at almost any price point.
If we adopt techniques and materials such as these we, in effect, surrender to the "factory mentality"...because the only valid reasons to do so are the very same ones that motivated the factories themselves--the "bottom line." Time is money; skilled workers command higher wages. Money, money, money.
On the face of it, such considerations might not seem unreasonable but, from a purely economic point of view, they are nearly suicidal for the "bespoke" maker because they put us in direct competition with the factories. Whether we like it or not. But few of us will ever buy leather or other materials in the kind of freight car quantities that result in train loads of savings. Nor will many of us put out 50,000 pair a day, week or month--the kind of quantities that allow for realistic price competition.
And if the old ways and the reasons for doing them are lost and our "custom" boots become fundamentally indistinguishable from factory boots, shouldn't they then be priced accordingly? And what exactly are we offering our clients? What value that they cannot find in an off-the-shelf boot?
Of course there are some folks who grew up with the old ways and now reject them. I don't understand that perspective, I doubt I ever will. It reminds me of my parents and grandparents, who having made it to America, wanted to forget everything that reminded them of where they came from--who literally burned the records and photos from that by-gone time.
So much is lost when the past is seen as an encumbrance, or of no great significance...not the least of which is the wisdom that accumulates in a family...or in a Trade...over the years. We ponder and wrestle with our reasons for making boots or shoes (or at least some of us do)...but of all the myriad of, perhaps overwrought, reasons, one seldom considered but nevertheless critical reason, is simply a "love of the process."
But how can one love techniques or a process that has no history, that has no roots? The very origins of which are in a context (the factory) that demeans not only the final product but the skills and, more importantly, the individuals who are, or were, its heart and soul? How can one love a process that has been made so mind-numbingly simplistic that, to a large extent, it can be entrusted in its entirety to dumb machines, with little or no human intervention? And when we borrow techniques that, having been adapted to machines (or to the factory context), are stripped of all complexity and all humanity, do we not take on some of the same stolid, immovable, passionless, character of the machine? How do we as individuals...presenting a product that is supposedly unique and individual...not blush with embarrassment when we allow ourselves to be so shamelessly debased?
Maybe it's all a different world--a lost world, the likes of which is inexorably fading from human understanding. But for me, I think I'll tarry here a while...there is something timeless and immensely beguiling about the smell of pine pitch coming off a waxed end as it it burnished. Something so bewitchingly attractive about a double row of pegs...all aligned so that they form rows of diamonds....