Descending from a long line of craftspeople and artisans, Caroline Groves became a shoemaker almost by accident. Taking up leather work while on maternity leave in the mid- '80s, a chance encounter with a local shoemaker set her on a path that has led to a flourishing business and an international reputation as one of the most inventive shoemakers working in the UK.
Launching her own label 12 years ago, Groves fuses a diverse range of influences into a style that is completely her own. Rooted in traditional leatherwork techniques, her designs blur the line between fashion, high art and fantasy. Building on her arts and crafts heritage, her shoes combine familiar themes of folk art and Victoriana with brash, almost punk like audaciousness.
Currently splitting her time between London and her workshop in the Cotswolds, she continues to be a respected leader in her field, with a client base that spans the globe. Made a Freeman of the Honourable Company of Cordwainers in 2009, her business continues to go from strength to strength, as recent invites to New York and Moscow can attest.
Is it true that you got into leather making quite late?
My family has a culture of making things and an enormous respect for 'craft'. As a child, I believed my father could make anything and my grandmother was an extremely skilled needlewoman and silversmith. A great grandfather was a master cabinet maker and part of C.R. Ashbee's Guild of Handicraft and was also its longest serving member. The only award I ever won at school was the Middle School sewing prize around 1972.
Family circumstances, including my father's death, meant I was unable to stay at school after my O levels. I was pretty directionless for a few years, spending time hitch hiking in Europe and the Middle East, working on a Kibbutz and eventually taking a bar job in Oxford's first punk venue where I met my husband. It was a crazy few years and a relief when my daughter was born in 1984; I finally had time to take stock and think about what I really wanted to do. Whilst at home on maternity leave I found myself wanting to make things, whether it was nest building I don't know, but I felt a compulsion to work with my hands. I'd always been fascinated and drawn to leather and spent a time working with sheepskin, making clothing, but I was drawn to hand sewn work and eventually persuaded a local saddler to take me under his wing and teach me some techniques.
How did you end up becoming a shoemaker?
I found myself wondering how to make a living from my burgeoning passion for leather working and fate introduced me to a shoemaker who had recently arrived in the area having spent the previous 11 years with Lobbs of St James. Shoes are absolutely the ultimate expression of the leather worker's art, encompassing the use of leather with all its unique and sensuous characteristics. Traditionally handmade shoes have no preformed parts or components, so you have to rely on ancient skills and learn the secrets of wetting and mellowing, moulding, drying over the last, the setting, wetting, sanding, inking, stacking, filing, ironing, glazing, waxing and honing. Add that to the final sculptural quality of a shoe, and I'm still sold on it.
I worked side by side with that shoemaker for 15 years as well as hunting down and spending time with makers and shoemakers who were working at the top of the tree both in London and Northampton. Many of these guys are dead now, but they all worked to ripe old ages and were hard task masters and rightly proud to be masters of their craft. All had a contemplative nature. One boot maker still working in his 90's told me "a wrinkle has a memory"; that saying alone has taught me so much.
What's the most important tool for a shoemaker?
There's another saying in shoemaking: "a good shoemaker can make a pair of shoes with a knife and fork'. Extreme, I know, but not without an element of truth. In common with all traditional shoemakers my single most important tool is my knife and God help anyone who touches it!
Sharpening knives is probably the single most important skill to a shoemaker. Learning to sharpen is a craft all on its own.
How would you describe your style?
I don't see myself as a designer. To me good design is the culmination of understanding various construction techniques and understanding leather and making informed decisions about applications for different textures, the original animal, the tonnage of the leather etc. Working in a bespoke manner means that designs are usually made in collaboration with the client and based around their particular needs.
This all makes it difficult to establish and enforce my own aesthetic but perhaps that is for the future. My best work is done when the client allows me free rein to develop my own vision. I am interested in other skills such as embroidery and enjoy commissioning other craftsmen in the making of my shoes. I have often felt embarrassed to say that I like decorative work, but I do. The pleasure of expressing one's self decoratively is satisfying.
"My best work is done when the client allows me free rein to develop my own vision."
How long does it take to make a pair of shoes? What's the process like?
I hear this question all the time! My answer is always, 'how long is a piece of string'. It's never possible to start at the beginning and work through to the end of making a pair of shoes.
The wooden lasts need to be carved per measurements and style considerations the client has asked for, be that heel height, toe shape, style of shoe, boot, lace up, sandal, open toe, etc. Patterns and uppers are made (closing is a skill by itself), lasting up (pulling of the upper over the last with the mellowed leather stiffer in place), welting, making (soling) all take periods of time and will require drying and resting periods. There may be partway fittings and alterations may be necessary. Making shoes is anything but a straight forward process.
How do you go about sourcing and storing your materials?
I get all the leather I use from Britain and Europe; whatever tanneries are producing the best leather for my purpose. In terms of soling and 'rough stuff' this will always be Bakers of Colyton in Devon who are the last oak bark tannery in the UK and I believe have existed for hundreds of years. Upper leathers most often come from Italy or France. We simply do not have the tanneries in this country who make the kind of upper leathers and suede that I require for my work.
How did you go about sett.ing up your workshop?
For me, my workshop is like an extension of my home. It's not a concept made of bricks and mortar. Life has taught me to be flexible and business and family needs have forced a number of moves. Like the people you love who 'make' your home, as long as I have my tools, leathers and lasts around me, then I have my workshop and can make shoes.
How do you best make use of your space?
I'm untidy but I also hate untidiness. The workshop may be a tip when I walk away at the end of each day, but I cannot embark upon a new job until the place is re-organised, cleaned down and then I have 'space' to think and be creative.
Is there one piece of equipment that would make your life easier?
I recently committed to purchasing a vamp blocking machine that is over a hundred years old. It was destined to be a museum piece but I have undertaken a complete renovation including all the wooden parts fully restored and all brass polished.
It has been hideously expensive but it's a beautiful and pretty machine. It's also hand operated and easy to control without having to use electricity, hydraulics or compression. The only other one I ever saw was in the workshop of the elderly bookmaker who advised me that 'a wrinkle has a memory'. Whether this purchase will prove to be a sound business investment remains to be seen.