Alexandria Wills has blown glass, studied ceramics and worked under a traditional Korean Hanbok maker who dyed her dresses with wildflowers gathered in the mountains. But it wasn’t until she made her first pair of shoes that she found her calling.
Half fine art and half biomechanical engineering, shoemaking is complex process and Wills immediately found herself captivated by the intricacies of the human foot and the seemingly endless possibilities offered by the craft.
Wills, who was born and raised in Chicago, opened her own studio in Logan Square last summer (Alexandria Wills Showroom, 3423 W. Fullerton Ave.). She is one of only a handful of people still making shoes using the traditional hand-lasting technique, which can take from a few days to more than a month per pair depending on the style. As part of her mission to keep her craft alive, Wills also offers shoemaking workshops for the public at her studio.
LoganSquarist recently interviewed Wills about the art and craft of shoemaking, how the process works, and why it can be a bad idea to wear cheap shoes. The conversation has been edited and condensed.
LoganSquarist: How did you first come to shoemaking?
Alexandria Wills: I started my business just by selling what I could make: clothing, jewelry, handbags, sculptures. It was an outlet for my creativity that turned into a source of income. There’s a big maker scene here in Chicago and I’ve met many wonderful and supportive artists over the years. I ended up taking shoemaking classes and started teaching myself through YouTube videos, books, and trial and error.
Later, I moved to New York City to study in a more intensive environment and met a bunch of shoemakers who helped me develop my skills. I made over 100 pairs of shoes my first year in New York. I was working out of a tiny room I had in a three-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. It was crazy— I had leather everywhere, ink all over the floor. I was sanding shoes off on the fire escape.
After two years, I decided that I needed to grow my business, and I couldn’t afford anything in New York other than what I had. So, I bought a mini school bus on eBay and packed my whole apartment into that little bus and drove back to Chicago.
What drew you to shoemaking?
When I made my first pair of shoes, it was hard. It really took a lot of energy. You’re hammering, you’re skiving; it’s a lot of physical labor. When you finish a shoe and finally put it on your foot and wear it, it’s an extremely rewarding process. And when I started getting into it and making more styles, I just never got bored with it. There are endless possibilities with shoes.
How does the shoemaking process work?
I start off with an interview process as I’m measuring my client’s feet. We talk about their health and if they’ve had previous surgeries or pain from walking. I also figure out what they want and what their style is. After I get their measurements, I go to my last inventory to find a match. I have lasts that fit every shape and size, and if needed I will make a custom last.
I create a pattern for the design that I am going to make, calculating the shapes and pieces required. Then I stitch and stretch the leather uppers around the last to create the shape of the shoe. After that, I work on creating the sole and the outsole, which I hammer down and attach with cementing glue.
How long does it take to make a pair of shoes?
It’s hard to say. Every shoe, every style takes a different amount of time. Some I can crank out in a few days. For others, especially boots, I’ll work on them for over a month. I like to keep shoes on last for as long a time as possible, doing water and heat treatments, until they take the right shape.
What is your favorite shoe style?
I like boots. I want shoes that I can hike in, walk in, climb a building in. Since I started making shoes, I’ve stopped buying them. I realized they didn’t fit my feet properly. Now I just make my own.
What do people get wrong about shoes?
A lot of people wear shoes that are too narrow for their feet. Most mass-produced shoes are different lengths but only one width, and that can cause problems over time. It’s almost like foot-binding, it can start to reshape your foot.
People’s arches fall, and when that happens it can affect all the bones in your foot. Your arch, and the position of your toes, really define the movement of your whole leg. When your arch falls, your whole leg starts to try and compensate for it. It can cause all sorts of pain and issues.
What’s the difference between hand-lasting and the way most shoes are made today?
People have been making shoes like this, with a last and leathers, for hundreds of years. But the shoemaking trade is disappearing. It’s difficult to find the tools and it’s difficult to learn because there are very few people who are sharing the craft anymore. It’s also hard to sell shoes at the price point required to cover the cost of making them from scratch. Most shoes today are mass produced and made using heavy machinery. The materials are cheaper, the labor is cheaper. Everyone today is buying shoes that cost pennies to make. It’s hard to create a market for [custom shoes].
I feel like I’m trying to keep this trade alive in people’s minds. I want more people to make shoes, because one day no one will be able to make them anymore. These trades will disappear if no one keeps practicing them and learning them.
Is that why you started offering shoemaking workshops?
Yes, I offer shoemaking workshops every weekend. It’s a single-day workshop, where you can come and learn how to make a pair of shoes in a day. You learn how to measure your own feet, then choose your own leathers and fabricate a pair of shoes using traditional hand lasting techniques. I usually have no more than four people per workshop, so it is very intimate and fun. And, at the end of it, you walk away with a pair of shoes that you have made yourself.
What’s next for your business?
I am participating in the One of a Kind show for the first time this April, which is a huge accomplishment for my brand. Everything there is one-of-a-kind and made by very talented artists. I am also working on some new collaborations with local artists and just started offering a Level 2 shoemaking workshop at my studio for those who want to continue after my Level 1 class.
Check Wills’ website for the latest workshops and to see more of her work.