Do you know what’s in your shoes?

Towards the end of my professional photography career I was asked to photograph a wedding, that I was also going to be a guest at, so I wanted to buy a pair of shoes that suited my outfit but were practical to work in. The shoes I bought were not cheap necessarily, but they were on sale and heavily reduced in price, which at the time I thought was a bonus. When I got home and opened the box there was an overwhelming toxic smell that wafted out… I instantly thought it must just be the glue they used, so I placed them out on the verandah to air out. On the day of the wedding the smell had not completely disappeared but had worn off, so I wore my new shoes and happily snapped away. But over the course of the day I developed this uncomfortable feeling in my legs, it was an unusual feeling, one I had not experienced before. The only experience I could liken it to, was when I was put under a general anaesthetic and could feel the substance slowly flowing through my veins up my arm. It felt like there was something penetrating up from my feet up through my legs. By the time we got to the reception venue my legs were aching, I could not take it any more, so I took the shoes off, as that was the only explanation I could come up with for this most unpleasant feeling. All I could think of was that toxic smell that came out of the box, which could have meant a toxic substance may have been entering my body via my feet.

So just as much as we need to be aware of where our clothing is made, which is hot topic at the moment (and rightly so) so too should we be more mindful about the production of our foot ware. Not only for our own health and well being but for those who are given the task of making them. The substance used in the construction of those shoes that made my legs ache could not be good for the people handling it day after day, mass producing thousands of pairs of shoes. Not to mention the destruction it is most likely causing in their immediate environment with chemicals being washed into their water ways. The list goes on of how harmful cheaply made shoes are for us and our global community.

In my childhood I recall driving across to the other side of Melbourne with my father to pick up his handcrafted shoes. He had two pairs custom made by a cobbler in an industrial area of Melbourne, I cannot recall the name of the area, but I do recall the experience vividly and I can even see the building in my minds eye. Two pairs of shoes handcrafted leather shoes with wooden heels… custom fitted, one pair in brown and the other black. It would not surprise me if he still has those shoes, I recall him wearing them to work every day and even wearing them out on the weekend. He cleaned and polished them every weekend and treated them with the utmost respect. His first job was as a shoe pattern maker for a cobbler on the little island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean where he moved to from the even smaller island Rodrigues where he was born. The art of making shoes has always fascinated me, I have spoken to my husband about my desire to learn to make shoes many times over the years and been taking small steps along the way, developing skills that compliment the craft, I have not been in a hurry to reach this goal, as I have had many other goals I have been working towards along side this one. Recently though I attended a Jandals (leather sandals) making workshop at the tannery I purchase my leather from. It was run by a professional shoe maker who specialises in custom made shoes, and was a fantastic introduction into constructing very simple foot ware. At the end of the workshop I left with my jandals at this stage…

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Then over the following week I used skills I have developed through my current leather work to finish them off. I bevelled the edges then stamped them with my signature, a quote, patterns & the shoe size. Then stained & sealed them with the eco-friendly stain and sealer that I use for my cuffs and personalised labels. To finished them off I added some metal beads to help weigh down the straps and give them that special little extra detail touch.

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I also plaited a second set of straps in kangaroo leather which I adorned with beads & charms… giving me the option to transform one pair of Jandals into two completely different looks.

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Since my experience with the toxic shoes, I have opted to buy better quality shoes and have less. I find open leather sandals most comfortable to wear in the extreme summer heat we experience down here, over winter I opt for well crafted leather boots. I look forward to the weather warming up so that I can test out my new leather Jandals properly, but until then I shall hang them up and admire them, especially since they were handcrafted by me… eventually Jandals will make their way into my product line, once I have thoroughly road tested them and refined their construction.

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So the next time you go to buy a new pair of shoes remember to ask yourself; is it worth compromising on your own health and quality of living for others in order to obtain many pairs of cheaply made shoes? Wouldn’t you rather invest in less and purchase shoes that are made ethically and with respect for our environment and global community? Knowing where your products come from is possible… by choosing to support local producers gives you have the opportunity to ask first hand what it is they use to create their product. Doing so also keeps the artisan skills and techniques thriving in our own community & country. There are many people just like me out there who actually enjoy the process of creating a product and digging deeper into understanding the process, refining their skill, producing a quality handcrafted item for you to enjoy!

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