Meet Tim Skyrme, a shoemaking boss
Imagine being stranded deep in a rain forest, far north in Queensland, Australia. Parched, tired, and lost, your shoe suddenly tears open. Just your luck, right? Wrong. From where you stand, there is a master within reach to mend your sole.
Tim Skyrme, author of Bespoke Shoemaking, is A modern-day master craftsman. Quality is this artisan’s motto, and his word is his bond.
Skyrme’s shoemaking career happened by chance when he became ill one day, and in his boredom he grabbed leather-working tools from a friend — never looking back since. Redefining the do-it-yourself ethic, Skyrme is self-taught in all his endeavors. Beginning his career by making handbags, belts, and wallets; all his work showed a man striving to push his skills to the limit.
Marc: At what point did you consider shoemaking as a career?
Tim: Well, because I was doing leather carving, I wanted to take that farther. I got as far as I could get teaching myself, and I felt as though I took it as far as I wanted to go. I wanted to make something more functional.
Eligible for unemployment at the time, Skyrme was sponsored by the British government, and applied for courses in saddlery and shoemaking. Tim was accepted into Cordwainers Technical College in London with hopes to establish himself as a master shoemaker.
Shoemaking became a journey That’s tested Tim’s willpower
At Cordwainers, Tim was being trained to work in a factory which is a typical setting for a technical college education. The training wasn’t in line with his principles — being his own boss was the goal, so he switched his focus. Moving on to pattern-making, Skyrme eventually learned the science behind true shoemaking, opening a door to the limitless possibilities for shoe designs and concepts.
Upon leaving school, Tim went to setup shop back in Queensland. Realizing no other shoemaker was within reach, he searched to find someone with knowledge greater than his own to further improve his skills.
Tim: I just had to persevere with what I knew and what I had learned through books. . . I didn’t really know how to go to a stranger and ask for information — I found that difficult. I suppose because that I was looking for teachers and shoemakers were shoemakers, not teachers.
Tim found a Bulgarian shoemaking master named George Koleff who lived three and a half days ride from him in Adelaide. George had taught workshops to those interested to learn the craft, teaching courses primarily once a week on Sundays. Due to their distance George offered Tim a special two-week holiday intensive to share his skills and knowledge.
Tim: I needed to know how shoemaking used to be done. You don’t have to do it that way, but it is important you know how to do it. Everything we have, came from somewhere original. Things haven’t changed over the years — just the way we do them. I learned from George that with time you can do a lot with a knife, a rasp, and a piece of glass.
With the teachings of a Bulgarian shoemaking master under his belt, Tim Skyrme would give his gift back to the world.
Back at his Queensland workshop, Tim continued to make and sell shoes. He created a one-page pamphlet to pass out to his students as reference, that eventually balloned to became a thirty-page book. Realizing his initial text left out key information, Tim started a new journey to compile a book that would explain everything.
Tim: I went up to Cairns to visit my kids, I was selling sandals at the time and I had stopped making shoes. So I sat in this basement for three months, I bought these old 386 computers with Windows 3.1 on them, the really old stuff. I taught myself the touch type, and I just sat there and wrote. I finished all the words, I had about 126,000 words and it had all come out of my head because I wasn’t in my workshop.
After the completion of the text, Skyrme’s next mission was to have reference pictures for the book to help readers fully understand the concepts he’d written about. After searching, a friend lent him a suitable digital video-camera to help complete his new project.
Marc: Did you always feel that you needed to share all the information you had learned over the years?
Tim: I figured that there was no point of me dying with all that information — because that is what was happening to the trade. It wasn’t until I wrote that book — where people started to come out and give knowledge. . . If I knew it, I didn’t matter to me whether I gave it away or not, but it would matter to somebody else. If one little thing made the difference, I had to explain it, and that’s why the book ended up being as big as it did.
Marc: Are there any words of advice you would have for anyone wanting to learn how to make shoes?
Tim: Go for it. I suppose I grabbed it with both hands, there are more places to learn now than before. There are more people opening up and teaching — I don’t know whether they are good, bad, or different, but they are people you can learn from. Learn from everyone you can learn from, in crafts you can learn something even if its bad. Once you learn its bad, you learn not to go there. You don’t realize it is bad at first — that is why you go to everyone.
Tim started by learning the trade first-hand to become a master shoemaker, then spread his talents by teaching others. Skyrme’s long development of skill with the help of a great guide like George Koleff shaped his desire for all his talents. Shoemaking as an art was dying, with the masters who never spread their techniques, leaving the world sole-less. The book that Tim had wrote became the one beacon of light to the world giving life back to a dying craft.