21st August 2020

Craft / Featured / Ruth Emily Davey

Honouring Traditional Craft by Heritage Shoemaker, Ruth Emily Davey

14 6 mins 1

RRuth Davey makes beautiful, handcrafted, leather shoes from her workshop in Machynlleth, Wales. She honours the ancient practice of working with leather and has written about the importance of passing on traditional skills from master to apprentice.

“There’s something about absorbing the knowledge of a skill through your hands.”

Ruth Davey

My journey as a shoemaker began when I was 18, as a trainee apprentice to Shoemaker, Alan James Raddon. The very first day I walked into Al’s workshop he set me up with an apron, a knife, a chinagraph -for marking on the leather- half of his cutting bench and said, “Right, you’re going to make yourself a pair of shoes.” And I did. It took me about a month, and they were pretty uneven in places, but they worked, and I loved them. I felt this enormous sense of achievement that I had made them from beginning to end.

Al was a great person to learn from because he has a serious amount of patience and an even higher degree of perfectionism. He encouraged me to do everything myself, which is one of the great secrets to becoming a successful shoemaker. By making mistakes on a pair of shoes that have taken you weeks to make, suddenly you learn to not make the same mistake twice.

Over the 5 years, I was Alan’s Apprentice, I slowly began to grasp the importance that every single step-by-step process is imperative to unite the end shoe. If you cut any corners you end up with a pair of shoes that are not going to last. We joke in my workshop now, that you impart a little bit of yourself and your energy, into each pair of shoes you make.

There is always room to perfect your skills, fifteen years later, I am still finding ways to develop the processes. Every new order is a new project, we rarely make the same shoes twice. There is something quite meditative about making a shoe; starting with a flat piece of leather and seeing a pair come to life from it. I have had some of my best ideas while stitching away.

It’s an honourable skill working with leather because it’s been a living breathing animal. It has this depth of personality and life behind the material. If you skive against the grain, the leather moves, and as soon as you find the right angle it works in unison with you. Leather is essentially a waste product; animals nowadays are bred in too many numbers with horrific consequences. But hundreds of years ago, we would have the hides from animals who had lived alongside us as farmers and shepherds. The life of the animal would naturally come to an end, then we would use the hide, tanning it with other waste products like urine and oak bark.

I read something recently that really made sense, which was that as a species, without leather, we would not have survived the harsh cold winters. It has gifted us the ability to move and discover new land by harnessing horses and to clothe us and carry our water. It’s an ancient and necessary skill to work with leather, one of the oldest traditions to remain unchanged.

It’s all about leaving your mark on the world to some extent, isn’t it? If I can make something that’s long-lasting, loved for its whole life and made in a small quantity, that’s the greatest sense of purpose you can have, I think.

We are born into a world where shoes are manufactured and mass-produced in minutes, assembled by cheap labour in factories, in corners of the world far enough away to shield from the harsh realities of how they are made. Our shoes, Shandals, are made from start to finish in Machynlleth, Wales.

A few years back, I was doing my WCMT Fellowship which was a project to research the passing of skills down a generation. I got to travel to Japan and Mexico to visit small craft communities and bigger firms using ancient skills in our modern-day world. I was walking down the street one early morning, having just arrived in San Cristobal, Mexico; I could hear the click-click of sewing machines making things in nearly every doorway. Each shop a celebration of a maker’s dedication.

Looking at Machynlleth, my vision for the town is to have traditional skills honoured. Tucked away in this area of Wales are many talented craftspeople.

I would like to see the town become a hub of independent shops in collaboration with each other, a celebration of makers and skilled tradespeople.

Ruth Davey

There is a lot of value in traditional craft skills. The gradual loss of family-run firms has broken the pattern by which traditional skills would be passed from master to apprentice, and therefore down the generations. It’s essential to bring back skills and styles of artistry that particular areas were once famous for. This can be a powerful way to bring work to an area and celebrate heritage. Honing a craft or skill gives reason to feel entwined to a place, a sense of belonging to the community and landscape.

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Ruth Emily Davey is a bespoke Shoemaker and owner of her own brand RED shoes. She is also co-owner of the sister company, The Original Shandals co., where they make handcrafted footwear designed to last. They have begun piloting shoemaking courses from their workshop in Machynlleth.Behind the scenes, Ruth Emily Davey is currently training two apprentices while juggling both businesses with two children age 3 and 5.Artistic expression shines from her work and deep aesthetic charm in her footwear which is all designed to be the natural shape of feet.

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