Can Women Be Shoemakers?

100% yes. I pose this question because this was something I foolishly asked myself before I even learned custom shoemaking.

Generally speaking, the majority of shoemakers are overwhelmingly male. There may be a few female upper-makers here and there, but the numbers leave much to be desired. That being said there are, I’m sure many experienced female shoemakers out there–this post is not meant to denigrate or overlook anybody.

The number of popular female shoemakers is even smaller. Some well-known women in the shoe industry with global repute are Emiko Matsuda and Saskia Wittman.

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I saw this book in a London shoe shop featuring Emiko Matsuda. I didn’t know her reputation at the time, but thought, “Wow! I want to be just like her!”

I never doubted my potential until I talked to various shoemakers (all male, except for Emiko). These guys knew I was a woman interested in shoemaking . Many were kind and gave valuable advice. But some made undermining comments such as, “You know, shoemaking is very difficult and you need a lot of strength,” or, “you need to know how to torque your body…etc.” I am certain that if I were male, these questions would not have come up.

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One renowned shoemaker said that I would not be able to apprentice in his workshop because it was full of burly men. Another custom shoemaker in New York said his workers were rough around the edges–they would slice my fingers off if I mishandled their uppers.

Coming from big-time shoemakers, of course these words were discouraging. I questioned if women could even be shoemakers. Does shoemaking take that much strength? Am I incompetent being 5’3 and 105 pounds?

I still carried these doubts before I went to apprentice full-time for two months.

After that, I found out is that strength is not the key to shoemaking. Yes, shoemaking is laborious, but not herculean. You do need to exercise muscle to pull uppers over the last as well as some strength to pull your final shoe from its last. But that’s it. And though I struggled with those aspects, I got better with practice. There are a hundred of more important steps that require your skill and attention.

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One step that requires pressure: poking through the leather sole with an awl tool. It’s horrendously strenuous and tedious for anybody.

Someone who is bigger and bulkier is not necessarily better than someone smaller. Each person will bring their skill sets to that profession. I’ve seen strong guys slip and ruin shoes because they failed to control their strength. And part of shoemaking is about tactility and knowing how to handle your pressure.

Like any job that requires labor, shoemaking is intense and strenuous, regardless of gender. You just have to learn how to pace yourself if you are smaller. I hope this post is encouraging to anyone who wants to learn shoemaking, whether male or female.

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