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My intention is to elevate the sneaker from a mass-produced fashion trend to that of the handcrafted, customised and precious; Emma Greenwood in Interview

March 12, 2010

Emma Greenwood is a Melbourne-based shoemaker combining the traditional skills of leatherworking, jewellery and textile arts to ‘produce footwear and accessories with a sense of experimentation’. When I first heard of her earlier this year and checked out her blog, Aprons and Hammers, I thought ‘Yeah! Here’s, someone interesting, it’d be nice to have a chat to her!’

(Well, you’d be mad not to think that when you read herAbout Me: ‘Shoemaking, mum, capoeira, crochet, argyle knee socks, philatelia, hip hop, colour spectrums, bicycles, tea, funk, optical art, hand tools, chinoiserie, jazz, brocade textiles, submarines, Bond films, clouds/weather’ (and that’s the edited version!)).

And I guess it was meant to be because that very same week, about three days later, I ran in to her (in our city of 4 million). She didn’t know me of course, and I only knew her by her accessories, but I introduced myself and asked if she’d be up for an interview, provided she agreed with my blog. She did, and she was so incredibly generous with her time and the thought she put into her answers, that I decided to post this interview in two parts. Here is the first, enjoy!

Me: You make sneakers made to order – how long does it take you to make a pair?

Emma: Sneakers take about a week to make, from absolute beginning to end. Of course in real time it takes longer, but if you were to add up all the hours it’s about a week. There are a lot of components to put together.

Me: Do you think that the waiting for them being made – in a society where we are used to always being able to get what we want straight away – is a problem that might turn some people off? Or is it possible that that the opposite might be true, that it actually adds value to the experience, a bit like waiting for Christmas when you’re little?

Emma: I guess it depends on the mindset of the customer. In Melbourne we are a bit more educated regarding artisans and their craft, so I’m hoping that those who order handmade shoes fall into this category.

Essentially I’m tailoring something to the foot, which is a complex piece of anatomy, requiring a number of fittings to get right. Every part of a handmade shoe has to be individually cut, altered, and finished, and all these processes are art forms in themselves. I really don’t think that people assume they will get a pair of handmade shoes in anything less than a couple of months.

Me: So what happens if someone in Reykyavik orders a pair of sneakers? Do you mail them back and forth, or is fitting only needed in regards to more traditional leather shoes?

Emma: If someone in Reykyavik is keen on a pair, then we can easily discuss what they wear in Euro sizing. From there I would choose a suitable last size, and provided that the customer has a fairly average foot, there would be no need for repeated fittings.

The lasts I use for sneakers in particular are quite generous, plus the laces or velcro add to this in terms of adjustability. With a traditional style of shoe, especially a woman’s high heel, the sizing is crucial, as generally these types of shoes aren’t worn with socks, and are a closer fit. However, in this age of digital technology, I’m sure I could somehow demonstrate to someone in Iceland, how to trace the outline of their feet for an accurate view.

I don’t cater for problem feet, which require specific build-ups on the last, and therefore repeated fittings. This specific trade is Orthopedics, which I am not trained in, and so I would refer someone in this position to an orthopedic shoemaker. If someone in Melbourne had a specialized last already made, then I would consider it.

Me: Is the way the sneakers wear something you keep in mind?

I’m thinking that if your shoes are structurally super-sound it’s really important the way they wear, because you want them to look good after five or ten years of use as well as just holding together. Can sneakers have that same quality as old leather shoes that can last a really long time if you care for them by shining and re-soling and t, or do sneakers just inherently have a shorter lifespan because of the materials used and their styling?

Emma: Well if you know anyone who adores sneakers, mass-produced or otherwise, you will understand how well they take care of their collection, no matter how big or small. I have a few friends who hand wash laces, have special brushes for taking care of suede, different cleaning products, etc.

A handmade sneaker is a rare and coveted item, and my intention has always been to elevate the sneaker from a mass-produced, disposable fashion trend to that of the handcrafted, customised and precious.

When it comes to handmade, the way a shoe is made is not so different from a traditional lace up to a sneaker. The upper style is certainly different, and often the materials can vary – synthetic sports mesh, canvas, or gorgeous leathers, but the pieces are stitched together with as much care, the uppers are lasted to the forme painstakingly, and the process is exactly the same as for a pair of more traditional shoes.

The soling is a departure from traditional lace-ups, as I’m using sheets of foam and rubber instead of leather, plus I am limited to cutting, laminating and shaping, as opposed to the injection molding that major sneaker labels use.

I have been wearing a few pairs of my own sneakers for 10 plus years now; I just resole them when needed, as I do with all of my handmade shoes.

Me: What you said about your limitations in terms of producing the sole really interests me – I think working with limitations can often force you push your creativity just that little bit further – is there anything in letting the production methods inform the styling of your sneakers that gives you the upper hand to the big labels do you think?

Emma: The limitations in soling a pair of sneakers means that I am very good at doing it my way! I pretty much use one method, and have done it so many times that I’m getting a really professional look to it.

As the sole is quite straightforward and minimal, it means that I can go to town with the uppers, and let them do the talking with regards to pushing the envelope.

I think that being able to make one-offs is my upper hand over the big manufacturers, who, due to the scale of economies, are tooled up so much that their minimums are probably at least 100 pairs of any particular style.That is where the handmade shoe comes into its own – I design a pair especially for you, with your choice of style, materials, colours etc.

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Right, you got sore eyes yet? Watch out for part 2 in the next couple of days!


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