My new hobby: I’m an amateur shoe maker

My experience at The Parachute Collective

It’s official. I have a new hobby. I am now an amateur shoe maker. How cool a hobby is that to have?!

I’ve just finished a five day course with The Parachute Collective, who kindly offered me a discount to attend their Derby masterclass. I obviously jumped at the chance, and it’s no exaggeration to say I am now hooked. I mean, will you just look at the shoes I made – bonkers, but beautiful, right?

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The Parachute Collective’s shoe making workshops are run by Thomas Rowe, whose enthusiasm for traditional shoe making is immediately apparent when you arrive at the studio space in north London; it is full of beautiful equipment, some of which is over 100 years old (my favourites were the Singer sewing machine and a hand operated cutting machine called ‘The Ranger’). He wears all of his own creations, and he’s on his feet all day, so that in itself shows that he really knows what he’s doing. This guy knows how to make quality comfortable shoes, and you all know how important that is to me!

Drawing out my quarters using a silver pen (this can be rubbed off the leather); picking my eyelets

While I was doing my five day course, Thomas was also teaching two other people who were doing the ten day bespoke course – on this one you get to design your shoe pattern as well as make the shoes, so it takes longer, and the two students couldn’t have been making more different shoes: one a classic black loafer, and the other an elaborated court shoe with 14cm heels. Whatever you fancy doing, Thomas can accommodate it on one of his courses.

For my Derby, I used an existing pattern but for such a classic shoe that’s all you need. I was really impressed with how hands on everything was; Thomas is very much of the thinking that he’d rather you spend time to practice a technique, and try something and do it again if you get it wrong, than not learn to do it at all. Of course, he checks everything at every step, and will correct anything that needs to be sorted out, but apart from some sanding on the soles which involved a machine that was a bit too tricky for a beginner like me to use, I really did make every little bit of these shoes.

The vintage box in the workshop that inspired my colour palette; using the vintage Singer sewing machine

That last sentence is particularly astonishing when you consider my complete lack of sewing experience. I’m the person who when I was 9, actually sewed a whole afternoon of cross stitch to my school skirt and didn’t realise until the end of the class, and it put me off for life. But thanks to Thomas’s patience and a bit (a LOT) of practice, I got to grips with the Singer and did some pretty impressive sewing (by my standards, but also compared to some of my factory produced shoes at home). I also punched all my lace holes (my technique involved standing on one leg to get enough power to get through the layers of leather), cut all my leather pieces by hand (there are no laser cutters here, obviously!), lasted my shoes (put very simply, that’s when you bend the leather on the top around the shoe and attach it to the soles at the bottom) and hammered and removed about 100 tacks during the sole process.

As you can see, I picked a bottle green leather and a mottled pony skin (this is unshaven calf, so the same as normal leather but hairy – it is not horse!) for a two-tone design. Thomas sources as much of his leather from the UK as possible as he likes to support local businesses, and he saves and uses every last scrap; there was only just enough of the pony skin to make my vamps, which makes them even more unique. I was really glad I didn’t go in with a preconceived idea of what I wanted to do, as once I saw what was available and a beautiful old flaked painted box that was in the studio, I knew the green and pink route was the one to take, rather than my default yellow and grey.

Punching my lace holes; adding randing before gluing on my sole

One thing I would say about shoe making is, don’t expect it to be easy! It’s hard, dirty work, but that’s all part of the fun and it’s so rewarding. I loved every second of my course and I learnt so much – you might think I’m a shoe geek but I’m nothing compared to Thomas. I was surprised at how much I liked using the tools, although I’m glad there were no cameras there to record my facial expressions when I was concentrating or having to use a lot of strength (I know they would have been hilarious!). The sense of achievement when I walked away with my own pair of shoes is addictive, and I am already planning my next course…

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The Parachute Collective Derby masterclass is £750 for five days and includes all materials. For more information about The Parachute Collective and the courses on offer, as well as Thomas’s bespoke shoe making service, head to theparachutecollective.co.uk or Thomas’s Instagram account.

*AD/discounted experience

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