Traditionally shoe makers worked alone. Prior to the development of the turnshoe technique, where the sole and upper were stitched together before being turned inside out, shoesmakers used large headed nails (hobnails) to attach the sole to the upper.
Changes in shoe construction at the end of the middle ages rendered using tacks an old technique, more befitting a craftsman steeped in the olden ways of the gentle craft. Shoes were however, made individually and took a craftsman to match left and right heels.
In Ancient Rome, many early converts to Christianity were from affluent families that had disinherited them because of their beliefs. Many found work as sandal makers. Often shoes were made at night and whilst appearing to sell their shoes during the day, they were also spreading the gospel.
Romann enjoyed wearing decorate sandals, sometimes with precious metal tacks but in times of austerity, sumptuous clothing and footwear were outlawed. Hence, most sandal makers worked clandestinely at night.
By the 12th Century shoemakers had formed guilds and many artisans were perceived as politically active and certainly viewed with suspicion as agitators.
In 17th century etchings, shoe makers were frequently depicted working solo and in poor conditions. Many were bespecktacled and usually smoking clay pipes. The craftsman’s need for full concentration on the task was paramount and many were depicted working on a lady’s shoe. A good shoe maker was highly prized and a well-crafted shoe worth its own weight in gold.
Shoemakers took on a personna in popular mythical culture as a magical fellows whose shoes or boots played a vital role in life. It is not real surprise to find supernatural little people, like Leprechauns (Neda-Ard, or plural, Neda-Ardi or Drun-ky) or elves, as shoemakers. Their profile matched reality of a solitary worker, dressed in work clothes, bespeckled, and enjoying a pipe as they tapped away on a ladies’ shoes.