Shoemaking: The Dexterous Craft

By RJ Lara, WPAMC Class of 2019

A craftsperson’s hands are his or her most valuable tool when working with the material of leather. Working leather into finished products enters craftspeople into a direct relationship with organic material that began as hides and skins from slaughtered animals. As leather connoisseur John Waterer stated, “Intimate contact with a natural material through its fashioning brings understanding of its character and skill in making allowances for variations and idiosyncrasies, in which the craftsman triumphs over nature.”[1] When hands alone cannot accomplish a certain operation, leather craftspeople employ the help of hand-tools. Such tools are extensions of the human hand, and they are directly responsive to hand and brain. A few of the earliest and most essential hand-tools used in leatherwork were sewing or stitching needles and thread. Due to their importance to leather craftspeople in colonial America, I and five of my classmates tried our hand at fashioning a threaded needle—using an 18th-century technique—in the Shoemaker Shop during our field study at Colonial Williamsburg.

Five people standing in front a white building with a red door. The people are standing on a red brick sidewalk. Hanging from the building is a white sign with a shoe painted on it, identifying the building as the Shoemaker’s Shop. Flanking either side of the building are trees.

Five graduate students from Ritchie Garrison’s Craftsmanship course standing in front of the Shoemaker’s Shop at Colonial Williamsburg. From left to right: Emily, RJ, Eliza, Brooke, and Katie. Not Pictured: Carrie. Photograph courtesy of Carrie Greif, WPAMC Class of 2019.

Few trades were as numerous as boot and shoemaking in colonial America. It is estimated that most people purchased four pairs of shoes per year, and the desire of craftspeople to turn a profit by protecting these feet created intense competition in the shoemaking trade. With the population of Williamsburg around 1,880 in 1775, Virginia’s political center proved to be a lucrative market for boots and shoes—just as in most other colonial towns. Between 1770 and 1775, there were ten craftsmen making footwear in Williamsburg and another forty-three merchants or craftspeople who were retailing such products. A shoemaker’s ability to produce footwear with beautiful and reliable lines of stitching may have set himself apart from competitors in Williamsburg’s highly competitive trade. Still true today, every great boot or shoe displays fine stitching.

Photograph of the back three-quarters of a black leather shoe. The shoe appears dirty and worn. The sole of the shoe is cracking away from the upper leather portion. The center portion of the shoe appears to have been repaired.

Detail of an 18th-century shoe that was unearthed by archeologists in Williamsburg, Virginia. In the collection of Colonial Williamsburg. Photograph courtesy of author.

As my classmates and I would discover, crafting a threaded needle in an 18th-century manner takes a fair amount of hand dexterity. Under the guidance of Val Povinelli, Master Shoemaker at Colonial Williamsburg, we began the thread-making process by hand tearing or cutting three strands of flax yarn to the length of our wingspan. We then pulled the yarn over pieces of hard beeswax so that the three strands of yarn might stick together to form a single thread.

Val’s hand is seen on the left, holding the flax thread. Arwen’s hands are seen on the right, holding the hog’s bristle. Val is helping Arwen wind the thread down the shaft of the hog’s bristle. Below their hands is a pile of wood and two paper packets. A mug sits on the windowsill.

Val Povinelli (left) showing Arwen Mohun (right), Henry Clay Reed Professor of History at the University of Delaware, how to attach flax thread to hog’s bristle for sewing. Photograph courtesy of Eliza West, WPAMC Class of 2019.

With one end of the waxed thread pinched between the tip of our thumb and the tips of our other four fingers on the same hand, we wound the thread around our pinched fingers. Then, using our other hand, we quickly unwound the thread by pulling the material away from our fingers. Repeatedly winding and unwinding the material from our fingers created a twist in the thread that helped hold the three strands of yarn together during sewing. Finally, we attached the thread to a hog’s bristle—the needle—by wrapping the thread down the shaft of the needle to the pointed end of the tool and then wrapping back up towards the hair end. After attaching a hog’s bristle to the other end of the thread, and several more passes over beeswax, the threaded needle was ready for sewing.

Holding an awl and needle in one hand and a second needle in the other, Val pulled the thread to half its length through his starting hole in a leather shoe. His next steps in the sewing process—as seen in the video—are best described by Waterer: “An awl held in one hand makes a hole, the needle held in the other hand follows the awl as it is withdrawn and the other needle, held in the awl hand, then enters from the opposite side. The stiches are drawn tight and the operation repeated.”[2] Visible in the video is a pad of leather or a sail-maker’s palm on Val’s left hand. This tool allows him to push the needles through difficult sewing portions without injuring his hand. The sail-maker’s palm is undoubtedly worn from his many years of experience in this truly dexterous craft.

[1] John W. Waterer, Leather Craftsmanship (London: G. Bell & Sons Ltd., 1968), 46.

[2] Waterer, Leather Craftsmanship, 50.

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