When ancient hunters were cold it is easy to imagine them covering themselves by using the skin of the animal they had just killed. This is not leather but the natural skin of the animal. Conversion into leather was probably an accidental process involving ashes from the fire. Later the skins of smaller animals would be used to protect the feet and when the lady of the cave asked if it came in yellow, well fashion was born.
Material for shoes was simple and included vegetation to hold parts together.
Shoemaking in the early days was a very local process most villages having their own maker. The craftsman was taking orders from individual customers to meet their requirements. This would encourage different styles and shapes to emerge, some would be very localised. Gradually makers began making a supply of standardised product to hold in stock for customers to try on, purchase and take away immediately instead of waiting for the work to be completed.
Shoemaking became a cottage industry, workers taking skins of leather home to cut out the required parts using patterns supplied by the “factory”. They would return later for more work while the cut parts were passed to someone else for hand stitching together, and so on to complete the work. Factories at this time were transit places for parts being issued and returned.
By around 1750 larger towns had shoe shops stocking product from more than one shoemaker. This improved customers’ choice of footwear. Engineering advances in steam engines both static and for railways indicated change was on the way.
The Napoleonic wars which began in 1803 saw increased demand for footwear and by 1810 around 250,000 men in the British Army needed boots. This demand created some mechanisation and machines were adapted to making shoes/boots. Production was beginning to be mechanised. By 1850 factories became centers of machinery and much of the outwork nature of shoemaking reduced or stopped although Clarkes still used limited outworkers until the 70’s. Around this time shoes which had previously been worn on either foot now were made as lefts and rights with a big improvement in comfort.
Mass production reduced costs and by 1900 fashion and style became important, but two world wars stopped development. After the 2nd world war cheaper methods of manufacture were created including gluing on the sole instead of sewing it on. This also introduced alternative non leather soling materials. By 1960 imports from, first Italy then Portugal and Spain reduced the UK production capacity. More recently imports increased from Korea, Brazil and now huge volumes from India and China.
Shoes are still made in the UK. Production is split between larger factories which may import part of the product to be completed in the UK and small artisan workshops with lower volume that are often back to working directly for individual clients and high quality men’s shoes with high export value. Other areas which have survived are some trainer production and slipper manufacture. Technology continues to push shoemaking with computerised design/measuring/pattern cutting/last making and constructing.