Women at Work: Tess (Cobbler/Shoemaker)

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Editor’s Note: I’m excited to present our third interview in the series! (Check out 1 and 2 as well!) We talked to Tess, who works in a rather unusual industry—as a cobbler’s apprentice. As someone who knows basically nothing about the handcrafts industry, it was cool to talk to someone who is following such a unique path. Read on below:

What do you do for a living?

I’m a cobbler’s apprentice right now. Cobbling doesn’t have an educational requirement/school, so everyone tends to start as an apprentice.

What does a typical day on the job look like for you?

Tess GobeilI am admittedly still learning and there is an insane amount of little things to memorize. Typically, I come in and am shadowing someone for the day, whether that is on the glueing side of the shop, or the finishing side. I often am helping someone work through their rack of shoes, and in down time, I am doing a lot of varied shop prep work. This has included stuff like cutting and glueing new rands for rock climbing shoes, cutting down large leather pieces into small leather heel pads, taking the stock order weekly, preparing halfsoles to be used for those day’s shoes, etc.

Something that I really love about the work is the variety and that I have yet to have one day that was the same as the one prior.

How did you decide to become a cobbler’s apprentice? How much longer do you have as an apprentice, and then what is the process like after that? How much do you make?

Last year, I was working in a handmade papermaking mill, doing mostly bookbinding type work, across the country from where I live currently (which is also where I grew up). I had a partner back home, I wasn’t feeling fulfilled at work, and I was just ready to leave town. I knew I wanted to keep working a workshop environment but I was hoping to keep away from heavy trades (like carpentry, welding, etc) because those don’t interest me much. I ended up cold calling a bunch of cobblers in the city I wanted to live in, and it worked out for me!

As it is, somedays I am given a few pairs to do repairs on. Right now, it’s mostly simple stuff, basic hand-sewing and glueing, sanding things down, etc. When I am fully trained, it will look pretty similar to what I do now, except more work and more complicated work. In the morning, I’ll be assigned a much bigger pile of shoes to work through, aha.

Tess 2

Right now, I make 12$CAD an hour (9$USD) but I’m told that gets raised pretty regularly, after training and assuming I’m still doing solid work.

I’m definitely the baby of the shop still, so it’s hard to say how long I will be apprenticing for! Probably six months to a year, if I had to estimate.

Very cool! I feel like not many people our age are in touch with this kind of smaller-scale craft work. Are you worried about the growth of your industry, or are you not planning to stay in it definitely?

I’ve had a pretty niche set of jobs and I really strive to stay connected to smaller crafts, because I think they are really valuable as an industry (even if it’s a small one). I’m definitely intending to stick with cobbling. In school, I actually studied papermaking but when I went to do it as a “career”, it just wasn’t for me. So it’s been really encouraging to find something with some familiar hand-skills, that I really love.

In regards to growth, I am not so worried. There has been a big push on online fashion communities, that appears to be trickling into the mainstream culture, that we should be buying buy-it-for-life and better quality products in general. Ideas like this are imperative to cobbling continuing to strive, so I am very grateful for a shift.

Tess 3.jpg

Was cobbling traditionally a male-dominated field, and how does it compare today? Do you see any gap in wages between men and women in your field, or any other areas where you think the conditions for women could improve? (I.e. Things like maternity leave?)

Cobblers themselves are mostly men, I’d say. It’s hard to say why exactly, other than it’s a blue collar industry. And realistically, it’s also one that isn’t very innovative or having changed much, so I sense it isn’t one that has really made a shift to encouraging women to get involved. As well, lots of people aren’t sure how to break into the industry. Our shop is about 20% women, which is pretty low compared to other industries.

Something that our shop does that I really appreciate is always having a cobbler on the front intake counter. This position rotates every shift and that person is also working on shoes in between customers. As a woman, this feels like it reinforces that we are not just cashiers or front-of-house people, but that we also are the ones doing the dirty work.

I would say that the majority of cobbling shops are one-man-stands, ran by slightly older gentlemen who have been doing it a really long time. It’s going to be really interesting to see how the industry evolves over the next 20 years.

I don’t see any wage gaps, but it may also be because the industry is so small and there are so few people really vying to get into it. Most people are hired as apprentices by a man in his one-man-stand, so there aren’t a lot of fellow female coworkers to compare wages with, unfortunately.

Tess is making a pair of shoes from scratch and documenting the process on tumblr. You can follow along here!

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