Sara McIntosh Revives the Art of Shoemaking

By Patty Wetli | Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Sara McIntosh, cobbler at work. Credit: Patty Wetli

Stepping from Winchester Avenue into the cobbling studio of Sara McIntosh, which also doubles as the Chicago School of Shoemaking, feels a bit like visiting one of those historical colonial reenactment communities (*cough* Williamsburg *cough*), minus the actors in period costumes. But while the tools of the craft are virtually the same as those used by shoemakers centuries ago, the act of creating handmade shoes is very much on trend in 2012.

Manufactured shoes, which typically include a fair amount of cardboard and substitute glue for stitching, are essentially designed to fall apart, the mindset being “if we make this pair of shoes that lasts, people won’t buy more,” according to McIntosh. “That phase of a throwaway economy I think is coming to a close.” Since the beginning of the recession in 2008, she’s sensed a shift in attitude toward higher-quality, longer-lasting goods, similar to the way the slow food movement grew out of people giving more thought to what they eat.

The Chicago School of Shoemaking, which McIntosh founded in September 2011, is one way of promoting a return to artisanship and more physical work. “Making something, having a connection to something meaningful, it feeds the human spirit,” she says. During a recent leather working class, she notes, “the amount of satisfaction in the room was tangible.”

A similar interest in handmade items swept the U.S. in the 1970s. Not coincidentally, this is the same decade in which McIntosh constructed her first pair of shoes. At the time, she was in the midst of a “back to the land” period, building a log cabin, growing her own food and milking cows. “I’ve always lived that kind of holistic lifestyle,” she says. “I may not be swinging the hammer anymore, but I can still build things,” including her studio’s work bench.

That independent spirit  is what originally prompted her to take apart a pair of shoes. “Once you have a certain skill and understand how things go together, it translates,” says McIntosh. She used the pieces of her disassembled footwear to create patterns and, working backwards, built a new pair. A life’s passion was born.

Over the past 36 years, McIntosh has moved from Bloomington, Ind., to Minneapolis to Wisconsin to the Southwest, eventually settling in Santa Fe before relocating to Chicago in 2007 to be closer to her parents. Along the way, she continued to hone her cobbling skills and gained a reputation as one of the few individuals in the country crafting custom fit shoes and boots from scratch, by hand.

In May of 2011, on her 60th birthday, McIntosh had an epiphany. The time had come to teach. “I’m ready to share all my secrets and techniques.” In short order, she planned and launched the Chicago School of Shoemaking, entering a wide-open field; there are scant places in the U.S. for potential cobblers to learn the craft. Though essentially a one-woman operation, the school’s name reflects its founder’s vision of a much broader future.

“I want it to grow, I want it to be associated with Chicago,” she explains. “I wanted it to be separate from my own business so it can be passed on. I don’t want to be holding it up so if I’m not here it collapses.”

Her model is the nearby Chicago Mosaic School, 1800 W. Cuyler St., where she’s gained a mentor in Karen Ami, who built a successful arts program from similarly humble beginnings. McIntosh feels fortunate to have made the connection. “It was a learning curve to come to Chicago from Santa Fe,” she says, and not just because she’d never lived in an apartment (she quickly learned to lease the top floor). “How do you find your people? That’s the main thing. In a smaller town it’s much more understandable. In Chicago, the field is so big, you know your people are out there, but how do I find them and how do I get them to find me?”

Basic tie shoes. Credit: Patty Wetli

The answer has been word of mouth, social networking and a successful Groupon campaign, all of which have lured curious individuals to classes at the school, which typically accommodate no more than eight students and range from Leather Jewelry (popular for parties) to Advanced Patterns and Shoemaking. The cost, $895 for the introductory Basic Tie Shoes class, includes two full days of instruction, materials and, ultimately, a pair of custom shoes; students should walk away with a general understanding of the design and structure of shoes. “It’s a skill I feel that warrants that kind of investment,” says McIntosh. “This could add to your life.”

Budding fashionistas need not apply: McIntosh is not looking to train the next Manolo Blahnik. Rather she teaches students how to make “shoes for everyday people, for everyday wear,” in part because that’s the style of footwear she personally favors and has largely derived her technique from deconstructing her own shoes.

A basic tie shoe is just that, a shoe that ties. The components are fairly simple: sole, mid-sole, heel back and leather upper. The process begins by making a pattern, tracing the foot and measuring across the top. For the purposes of her business, McIntosh, whose far-flung clientele often precludes personal fittings, developed a kit  that includes a tape measure, pattern paper, video and written instructions that coaches customers on how to provide her with their own specs. “That cut my remakes to one percent,” she says.

McIntosh characterizes the majority of her customers as people for whom “shoe shopping is a nightmare.” Many of them have different-sized feet (imagine, early shoemakers didn’t even distinguish between left and right), others have concerns such as bunions. “I’ve made a pair of up-to-the-hip boots for somebody in Minnesota.” And then there’s the guy who’s been ordering the same style of shoe in the same color since the 1980s. “That’s his signature shoe,” says McIntosh.

A Sara McIntosh design ranges from $320 for a pair of shoes, up to $500 for a pair of tall boots. (“I remember vividly the day I decided I was going to start making boots,” she says. “I was basically with my leg up on a stool for 14 hours trying to figure out how to make a pattern.”) Random callers are directed to check out McIntosh’s website before proceeding. “I say, ‘One, would you be willing to wear these styles and two, check the price.’”

McIntosh cuts a piece of leather. Credit: Patty Wetli

In a given week, McIntosh may work on three to four pairs of shoes. “The most shoes I’ve ever made was 24 pairs in a week,” she says, “though I don’t choose to. I can build a pair of shoes in probably six hours, then they need overnight to dry. But I don’t value speed.”

One would think that in her spare time, McIntosh would craft herself a Carrie Bradshaw-sized collection, because who wouldn’t. So, how many pairs of shoes does she own? “I think I probably have about eight,” she admits, which is more a testament to her craftsmanship than lack of style. “I’ll wear them for years and years. I have a pair of boots that’s 24 years old.”

Hanging on the wall of her studio is an even older pair of shoes, the first she constructed for her infant daughter, now 38 years old, but the seeds for her current path were actually sown much earlier. “My dad plays and repaired violins, my grandmother was a tailor. I was so drawn to that, it gets in your blood. You just want to manipulate materials. I just wanted to make things.”



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