The nursery rhyme says it all ‘Cobbler, cobbler mend my shoe’! It is cordwainers, not cobblers, who make shoes from new leather, and although the name is slightly archaic, it is still used by the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers, who received their first ordinance in 1272. There is even a Cordwainer ward in London which is where most of the cordwainers lived, and where this statue is now situated. The Cordwainers’ College in London existed as a separate entity until the year 2000 when it was incorporated into the London College of Fashion.
The name comes through Anglo-French ‘cordonnier’ as a corruption of cordouan leather from Córdoba in Spain. This leather was made from Musoli goatskin which was tawed with alum; it was in demand throughout Europe for the best shoes, particularly the red leather. In fact images of the goat are on the shield of the Cordwainers’ Company and as their crest.
The high-grade status of the red leather of skin from Córdoba is emphasised in this Byzantine image of King David. Only someone wealthy and really important such as a king would wear red leather shoes.
Making shoes today follows a similar pattern. Leather is first soaked in water to clean and soften the skins. The hair was then removed and the skin ‘bated’ by pounding dung into the skin or soaking in dung, urine and animal brains. For this reason tanneries were usually on the outskirts of towns as this was a stinky business! Vegetable tanning uses bark, often oak bark, and the hides are used mainly for luggage and furniture, strong shoes and belts.
Then the hides are taken to the clicker who cuts the uppers for the shoes, This is a skilled job because thin and damaged areas of skin need to be avoided, and the best sections of the skin used for the appropriate parts of the shoe. The craftspeople are called clickers because of the sound of their knives against the metal edged-binding of the patterns for the shoes.
The uppers are then closed or sewn together, a process which includes decoration, punching holes and fitting eyelets.
Then the soles and heels are cut from leather, the heels being built up from a number of layers.
The next stage is lasting, where the tops of the shoes take shape over a wooden last, and are attached to the inner sole.
After a number of other processes finally the uppers are attached to the soles and heels, the shoes finished, polished and packed ready to be sold. This is a short film of how shoes are made.