Recently, The Heritage Crafts Association released its 2021 list of ‘Extinct’, ‘Critically Endangered’ and ‘Endangered’ British skills that are, or soon will be, things of the past if they are not nurtured and protected. We would like to draw your attention to the specialist shoemaking skills that made the list.

Drawing on the conservation status system currently used to classify nature and rare animal breeds, Heritage Crafts has adopted a similar system to pinpoint at-risk skills. It bases its assessment on how many viable craftspeople there are to pass skills onto the next generation – the fewer there are, the most critically endangered the craft is said to be.

Shoe and boot making appears on the ‘Endangered’ list, which is used broadly to encompass a range of skills like hand-cutting, hand-lasting and hand-welting. Unsurprisingly, Heritage Crafts focuses on Northampton and suggests that only around 20-50 professionals currently rely on shoemaking as their primary source of income (many of whom are listed). The viability of shoemaking is said to be challenged due to a range of factors: costs associated with training apprentices; lack of technical colleges fostering ‘makers’ and not ‘designers’; lack of school support; the rising cost of bespoke shoes; the vast availability of cheap shoes; general business issues; lack of awareness, and a shortage of both raw materials and tools.

Heritage Cratfs’ Red List makes for interesting but concerning reading. It highlights why fighting to preserve and protect historic skills in the footwear sector is not only important but an absolute necessity to keep bespoke manufacturing in the UK for as long as possible. I encourage you to follow the links below, read more and strategise in-house about ways your team can pass skills along to the next generation,” Lucy Reece Raybould.

Also classified as ‘Endangered’ are shoe and boot last and tree making (shoe-shaped lasts in wood on which a shoe is designed and made and shoe/boot trees to keep the shape and prolong the life of footwear). Practised in Eastbourne and Northampton, there are said to be around 10 full-time professionals and a further five using these heritage skills on a part-time basis. There are understood to be approximately five trainees developing last and tree making skills across the country.

BFA Members John Lobb, Foster and Son and Gaziano & Girling are highlighted by Heritage Craft as having in-house makers, however, the list of ‘issues affecting the viability of the craft’ is extensive and suggests further action is urgently needed.

There is one shoe-related discipline on the ‘Critically Endangered’ list – pointe shoe making. The craft of making shoes for ballerinas is at serious risk of no longer being practised in the UK due to a combination of factors, such as a shrinking base of craftspeople, limited training opportunities, low financial viability and/or few mechanisms to pass on skills and knowledge to a new, passionate generation.

Pointe shoe making has been practised in the UK since the 1920s and has been historically focused on London and Leicester. Today, there are approximately 20 to 50 professionals whose main source of income is pointe shoe making, with 28 of those said to be working at BFA Member, Freed of London, and others at Suffolk Dance. Heritage Crafts points to just three current trainees in the craft, who are all said to be working for Freed of London.

Pointe shoe making is divided up into a number of processes. Typically, each craftsperson is responsible for one skill area only: cutting, measuring, making, binding, cleaning and finishing. Although demand for quality pointe shoes is high, the rising cost of raw materials, difficulties in accessing materials and the ravages of COVID-19 are said to have pushed this heritage craft into the ‘critical’ zone.

The BFA acknowledges these struggling heritage crafts and believes in preserving them to the fullest extent. To this end, we have established new Working Groups focusing on issues of production, training and representation to provide a forum where protecting our sector’s heritage crafts can be discussed.

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