The Bill Bird Shoes Team
I was born in Canada and moved to England as a teenager with my family. Because I have a foot deformity myself, I became interested in how bespoke shoes were made. Whilst still at university, I took a job in the bespoke shoemaking district of London’s West End and for 11 years worked with some of the finest craftsmen in London.
During that time I absorbed from them the intricate, detailed knowledge that could be lost when the old men themselves died. In the process, I became a master last-maker, one of the few now left in this country. Lasts represent the anatomical form of the foot and are totally unique to each client. At Bill Bird Shoes’ Gloucestershire workshop, we hand carve wooden lasts from new air-dried wood in the traditional way.
I set up on my own in the Northwick Business Centre in 1987, specialising in making shoes for people who, because of their fitting or walking difficulties, couldn’t simply walk into a shop and buy shoes off the shelf.
Later on, I studied chiropody and biomechanics to deepen my understanding of these problems with the intention of making clients’ feet feel as good as possible in shoes that look as good as possible. I have been a lecturer in bespoke shoemaking in the Fashion and Footwear Design department of De Montfort University, Leicester since 2007 and have taught at post-graduate level since 2015.
Many people have come to work with me here at Bill Bird Shoes since 1987. Of the many, a few have stayed the course and through their own efforts, by learning on the job as apprentices or completing university degree courses, have become the skilled and dedicated team that I now have working alongside me.
As I begin to slow down in the latter half of my sixties (shoemakers never retire by the way), I feel enormous gratitude that the skills I was given 40 years ago are being taken up and added to by my younger friends and colleagues here in the workshop. It has given me great pleasure to have turned the firm into a collective ownership company, which means my shares will steadily pass onto those who work here and keep up this highly valuable work.
I began my shoemaking career in 1995. I worked at Bill Bird Shoes between 1997 and 2001, rejoining the firm early in 2004 and I have been a director since 2005. I feel very lucky to get paid for doing something I love. I look forward to coming to work every day – I never dread it, it’s more like a hobby than a job. Most shoemakers will never be rich but the job satisfaction I get is worth all the money in the world.
Each client is a person with a story and we get to know every one of them well. They are not a number to us, far from it. We see people from all walks of life, with all sorts of foot problems that really affect their lives. Our shoes can change people’s lives.
I joined as an apprentice and have spent the last 20 plus years learning everything I can from a true master. Bill would never say this himself but he has an exceptional worldwide reputation. I am a qualified Master Shoefitter – we all are at Bill Bird Shoes – and being a director means that I have a personal interest in keeping the shoemaking trade going. We work as a co-operative and we all want this trade to continue for as long as possible.
I am responsible for clicking out the uppers and then closing them. This is the cutting out of the leather, folding, assembly and fine stitching of the upper part of the shoes. I then continue the process of pulling over and shaping the uppers onto the lasts. I also run and organise the workshop and take care of the oak bark tan leathers used in the interior and bottom of the shoes along with all the upper leathers used in the making process.
Our feet are vital and we don’t realise this until there is a problem. People with foot problems and medical conditions that affect their feet know only too well how compromised their lives can become. It is our mission to help create a strong foundation for them and we do this by hand crafting beautiful shoes that are expertly fitted to their feet and accommodate their problems. Seeing their reaction at their final fitting is where I get the most pleasure. It’s wonderful.
Outside of work I spend a lot of my time judging horses and ponies for several different societies, which takes me all over the country and abroad most weekends.
I joined in December 2005 and have been a director of the firm since 2012. I graduated with a BA in Footwear Design from The London College of Fashion in 2003 and then had three years’ experience with a fine bespoke shoemaker in the West End of London.
I became interested in creating shoes for problem feet while at university. For one of my projects I made a pair of shoes for someone in my family who has diabetes and this sparked my interest of working in this area.
I realised very early on that I didn’t want to work in mass production, which is very limited and can have many constraints. I enjoy the freedom when making bespoke shoes. I knew when I walked into Bill’s workshop and smelt the leather and saw all of the hand carved wooden lasts that this was for me.
I enjoy building my skills as a pattern maker and I especially enjoy helping our clients choose their inspired designs and leathers. Over the years I have become a skilled last fitter and maker. I love working in a small team and I want to learn everything I can so that we can continue making handmade shoes long into the future. I want to gain as much expert knowledge as possible from Bill and Russell and being in a small team is like having a second family.
Customer satisfaction is so important and very rewarding. Seeing how happy people are at the end of the process is very special. Having shoes made for you is a personal thing and some clients get involved in the design process, which is great. I really enjoy coming to work and my commute of more than an hour is never a problem.
I first visited the Bill Bird Shoes workshop in 2006 for work experience while studying for a Footwear Design Degree at De Montfort University in Leicester. I immediately fell in love – the craft, the level of expertise, the workshop itself and of course the team and the clients!
My passion for footwear began when while at school. I worked part-time in a high end, French shoe shop as a sales assistant. It was here I began to explore and experience the design and fit of footwear and how they relate. My education then became focused on footwear and its possibilities through art college and onto university.
It was my visit to Bill’s that had ignited my deeper passion for the traditional bespoke shoemaking craft, opening my eyes to the world of orthopaedic footwear. Bill inspired me with his passion and vision of uniting the two.
After graduating I returned to the workshop here at Bill Bird Shoes on a part-time, voluntary basis to learn from the very bottom all the skills it would take to become a shoemaker. In 2009 I became a full-time team member and Bill’s apprentice.
From then I have endeavoured to gain as much insight and knowledge as possible into the art of shoemaking and fitting, as well as running and organising the business and schedule, managing and maintaining materials, machinery and tools, and of course a wonderful level of customer care.
I am fortunate to have been given the opportunity to do work experience with other master shoemakers from the UK and Sweden and feel strongly about learning from others with far greater experience and knowledge in order to keep the skills, craft and trade alive.
I specialise in a range of shoemaking and design processes right from working with clients, creating the last pattern, making insoles and inserts, lasting the footwear, preparing the bottoms for welting and randing, putting on welts and rands, soles and heels, edge finishing, shoe rooming and preparing the footwear for the finish off stage. I also have been learning how to carry out alterations and a wide range of repairs to various styles of footwear. In 2014 I became a director here at Bill Bird Shoes.
I won the Student Shoe Fitter of the Year award after completing a course in footwear fitting and customer care at the prestigious Footwear Industry Awards in 2015. My passion for all aspects of what we do here at Bill Bird Shoes continues to grow as I learn, develop and hone my skills in both shoemaking and fitting.
I am the newest member of the Bill Bird Shoes team. I joined part-time as Bill’s apprentice last maker. It was from this moment my interest in footwear and shoemaking began to develop.
I have always been a very creative and practical person. While I was still at school I became an apprentice textile fabricator and machinist. I then took to the job full time and it wasn’t long before I began to gain experience and knowledge of using a range of textiles, materials, seams and construction techniques.
I have worked on a range of projects from banners and flags to marquees, stage and musical backdrops, as well as engineering cement bags used in the construction of foundations for bridges, islands and the stabilisation of Venice.
In 2010 I applied my practical skills in a different direction and began to learn the craft of trimming vintage and classic cars and upholstering antique furniture. I quickly began to learn a variety of both modern and traditional upholstery techniques and many leatherwork skills.
It was my interest in leatherwork that led me to Bill Bird Shoes but it was my passion for learning new skills, particularly with wood that resulted in me being given the opportunity to become Bill’s apprentice last maker.
There are many things I enjoy about working at Bill Bird Shoes and there’s something new to learn everyday. I’m passionate about keeping these traditional skills alive, from hand carving the last to the new shoemaking techniques I’m learning. The opportunity to be in with the client, see the measures, the feet and then be able to go and work with the wood is really priceless and vital to the making process of the last.
I still work with classic cars and antique furniture for the rest of the week, applying my ever-developing skills to keep the traditional hand-made techniques alive.
Either Russell, Emily or Rebecca may answer the telephone when you call and will be happy to help you with any queries.