The Rare Craft of Artisan Shoemaking

Monday June 25, 2018 Written by Koren Helbig

Becci 04

Australia once had a thriving community of local folk carefully handcrafting shoes to fit individual feet, but it’s gradually disappeared as manufacturing moves offshore. That makes Beccy Bromilow's handiwork even more special. “It’s something that is dying out, making shoes by hand,” she says. “Melbourne’s now the only place you can do the shoemaking course – the Adelaide school closed down a year or two ago and Sydney’s closed down ages ago.”

Beccy is one of the makers featured in our latest frankie press book, Look What We Made, an affectionate (yet honest) tribute to the handmade way of life, charting the skills, inspirations, spaces and day-to-day life of 38 creatives.

Each pair of shoes that leaves Beccy’s BB Shoemaker studio bears the marks of her hands, beautiful little cuts and scuffs that pay tribute to the long hours she spends making them.

Each shoe requires careful measuring, cutting, moulding, tacking and glueing, often with giant pauses in between to allow the South Aussie-sourced kangaroo leather to take shape or the glue to dry. Making just one pair can take 20 hours or more.

Becci 06

After leaving school in Year 10, Beccy gave hairdressing a crack, followed by a hugely practical three-year costume-making TAFE course. “It was enjoyable, but overall I wasn’t really into going to the theatre,” she muses. Eventually, she decided to return to tertiary study in 2012, this time focussing on shoemaking. “I did millinery and hat-making beforehand and it’s kind of a similar process, so I thought I might like shoemaking,” she says.

That hunch quickly proved right. After finishing her studies in 2013, Beccy launched her business, BB Shoemaker, the following year. Getting started as a shoemaker is tough, and not just because of the technical skills involved. A crapload of expensive equipment makes the job tons easier, but Beccy didn’t have any of that.

Fortuitously, Beccy managed to bolster her equipment list when TAFE SA ditched its course, scoring a few tools and a sewing machine, plus several beautiful sets of ‘lasts’, the moulds shoemakers use to craft each shoe.

Her Melbourne-based brother helped, too, sourcing a few choice lasts there and kindly driving them 700 kilometres west. Those thrifted lasts are proving especially important now, Beccy says: “Sadly, the last last maker has retired. He was over in Melbourne, but unfortunately, that’s no more.”

The final step in Beccy’s process used to be a polish on an industrial bench grinder, hooked up to a makeshift dust extractor fan her dad made. But in early 2017, Beccy found a giant grey secondhand machine adorned with blocky ’80s-style buttons and dials, the kind of thing you might still spot in some repair shops. “It’s got the polishing wheel so I’m pretty excited – we’re going to have real shiny shoes!” she enthuses.

Becci 05

Beccy admits she has to work her butt off to make a living as a bespoke shoemaker, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“There’s something about making with your hands that feels meditative when you’re really in the zone. You start from nothing and have this end product. When I don’t get to make for a period of time, I start feeling anxious. It’s not just because I’m not getting stuff done. It’s that I’m not in that state where everything’s tuned out and I’m not thinking about anything – I’m just making.”

Read about Beccy, and other Australian makers, in Look What We Made, available here

Photography: Andre Castellucci