Putting the Last First in Eastbourne: the Fascinating World of Handmade Shoe Manufacture

Shoe lasts in dark woodOn 19 February, six highly skilled artisans will travel to Eastbourne from as far away as Germany, Switzerland, Finland and even the USA.  They’ll walk down the side alley to Lastmaker House, a historic building in the centre of Eastbourne.  The distinctive smells of wood shavings will greet them as they enter a workshop spanning the ground and upper floors which they’ll find fully equipped with specialist tools and materials.

They’re here to attend a training that is most likely the only one of its kind in the world, a four-day course to learn how to make shoe lasts.

Being trained in Last making at last maker house

Until recently, I never even thought about how shoes are made to fit feet and I’m not sure I was even aware of what a shoe last is, so it was an education to interview Steven Lowe, who’s rather a celebrity in the world of bespoke shoes and last-making.

A little background, put simply, lasts are shoe-shaped forms that can be made of wood, plastic or metal. They’re used as a 3D pattern on which to build a shoe. A mannequin for the foot, if you like.  The word ‘last’ was originally ‘laest’, old English for ‘footprint.’ Lasts were first employed around 400 BCE by the Greeks and Romans.

Most shoe lasts, by which I mean those used in the manufacture of the mass-produced footwear that we buy from a High Street shoe store, are created for a general foot shape with batches of shoes all fitted by that last.  But, of course, all feet are different and if you truly want shoes that fit you like a glove, the first thing you need is a last that is an honest representation of YOUR foot, or rather feet, since you’ll need one for each.  So let’s enter the fascinating world of custom, handmade shoes…

Making lasts requires both mental and physical exertion.  You have to measure the foot that the last is to represent and then turn a 2D measurement into a 3D shape.  It has elements of sculpting but the measurements must be exact.  There’s no room for freeform artwork here.  As such, last-making is a very precise skill.

Tools for last making

Saying you take a size 8, for example, isn’t good enough to ensure a good fit.  Each size 8 will vary depending on the last that’s used.  The proportions to various parts of the foot will differ for everyone and there can even be quite a significant divergence in width and length between a person’s left and right.

Different ethnicities have dissimilar bone structures so if you buy shoes made in China that might use lasts made for a Chinese person’s foot and you’re African or Caucasian, for example, they’re unlikely to be ideal for you.  This is why you might find a particular shoe brand that seems to fit you well, but then one day you find their new range is no longer as comfortable.  That’s probably because the lasts they were using wore out and were replaced.  Perhaps they changed their last manufacturer so now their mass-produced shoes have a different fit to previously.

The only way to have truly comfortable shoes is to have them made specially for you.  The first step in that process is to have a last made that’s an accurate replica of your foot.  You can then take your last to any shoemaker who can use it to make your shoes the perfect fit.  I’m talking bespoke shoe-makers, of course.  You’d get some funny looks if you were to take your last into Shoe Zone!

I was intrigued as to how Steven got into this business.  When asked by his career counsellor “what do you want to be when you grow up” did he answer “I want to be a last-maker”?  No, it was much more random than that.  Over to Steven…

 “I fell into it. I had to decide whether to stay on for sixth form. At the age of 14, I’d started working weekends at a local greengrocer so I’d had a taste of making my own money so I went to the job centre to see what might be on offer.  The firm John Lobb, an upmarket shoemakers,  ‘by appointment to’ and all that, were looking for someone junior.  I was aware of John Lobb as I lived not too far away from their shop in Mayfair (London) and I had some carpentry skills.  They took me on for a six month trial when I was 16 years and 1 month old.

“After six months of sweeping floors and making tea they noticed I was still there so they started me on a proper 3.5 year apprenticeship.  I’d be doing everything from polishing shoes to filing lasts into racks, posting parcels and making last alterations.  They didn’t teach everything I really wanted to know so in my spare time I’d take the opportunity to learn from some of the shoemakers who worked there.”

Steven started sitting with them, watching and became ‘that pesky kid asking all these questions.’  He soaked up every bit of knowledge and would then practice in his spare time. He learnt how to cut patterns and make uppers so he could design shoes and know where all the lines needed to be to make them fit well, stop the seams rubbing and so on.  Why?  “It makes you a better last maker to know how it all fits together.  I enjoyed it and still do.  I find making things very rewarding.”

Boot last

Steven was 21 when an opportunity arose that was to shape his life.  It involved him travelling to the US on a regular basis with two suitcases full of shoe samples and swatches to take orders for handmade shoes. Because it meant travelling alone to locations all over the US for up to six weeks at a time none of the older married guys wanted to do it.  Steven did.

“It was a very responsible position to hold at quite a young age but it got me out of the shop a couple of times a year.  I had to arrange each trip myself from start to finish.  I’d plan the itinerary, book the locations, prepare all my samples and send out invitations to around 3,000 existing customers for each trip urging them to visit me in my hotel and to invite a friend.  Our business relied heavily on word-of-mouth and recommendation and Lobb the Bootmaker being ‘by Royal Appointment’ had a great reputation and a lot of clients in the States.”

Given that the shoes aren’t cheap, I imagined he’d have dealt with a few celebrities through the years. When taking orders Steven’s first task was to take all the measurements to enable a last to be made so I asked Steve which famous tootsies he’s had the pleasure of quantifying.  I wasn’t disappointed…

“Yes, I’ve met quite a few famous people.  On one of my US trips Al Pacino was being fitted at a nearby tailors for his wardrobe for Scent of a Woman.  The film called for him to be dressed in particular clothing and he wore the resulting shoes I measured him for in the dance scene at end of the movie.  He was very pleasant but pretty quiet as he was getting into his role.

“I measured Madonna for a pair of brogues to match her tweed outfit when she was with Guy Ritchie.  There was also Robbie Williams and Val Kilmer.  Once, in the shop I downed tools to go and serve a customer and came face-to-face with David Bowie.”

Even away from the bright lights of London, Steven deals with celebrities who live in our area.  For one – who shall remain nameless due to client confidentiality – Steven uses vegan leather to make his stage boots. (Can you guess who it is yet?)

The diversity of skills Steven’s acquired over the last 40 years means he can cover pretty much anything shoe-related that people want:  through his company, Crispinians, he supplies lasts for those who want shoes made for them, shoe trees from existing shoes, lasts for people who want to make shoes as a business and custom shoes and boots.  And thenShoe lasts in dark wood, of course, he provides that unique training in last-making and has a separate website for that.

Steven and his wife moved from London to Sussex in 2005 to provide a better lifestyle for their sons.  They loved that the county offered so many activities close-by – sailing, hiking, camping, for example, with the city of Brighton & Hove and the towns of Hastings and Eastbourne offering more diversity.  The downside was the daily commute to London and it was a desire to spend that time with the family that prompted him to move his business to Sussex as well.

During a trip to Florence, Steven had discovered that Gucci had established their base by buying their own building and decided that if it was good enough for Gucci, it would work for him.  He found the ideal building in a great location near Eastbourne’s railway station.  The three-storey building that is now Lastmaker House once housed the Black Star Brewery and still has the barrel storage basement with vaulted ceilings. The block of flats next door is where the stables were.  It’s an historic building as befitting his trade and only two streets from the pier.

There’s a doorway at the bottom of the stairs that turns left but is bricked up.  Behind it are walkways that run beneath Eastbourne from station to pier.  Steven learnt this from the former owner’s daughter who told him how she and her friends would play down there with Eastbourne life going on above them.

Steven speaking at conferences

With decades of last-making under his belt, Steven is well known in his trade and is a celebrated speaker at events where he’ll talk about the various aspects of shoemaking.  In 2019, he spoke at the Independent Shoemakers’ Conference at the Old Swan Hotel, Harrogate – you might remember it as the hotel Agatha Christie famously ran off to.  The year before, he hosted the event and its 80 attendees in Eastbourne.  In December 2023, he went to Hamburg to speak at a conference of German shoemakers.  Some of them may be lucky enough to one day train with him.

Most of Steven’s last-making course attendees are already shoemakers who might attend because they’re not getting good fits for their custom shoes.  He also has amateurs attend if they want to make shoes for fun, or to start their own shoemaking business.  Although there are courses available that teach them how to make the actual shoes, the correct way is to get the fit right in the first instance. Steven’s course covers the skills of measuring and making the last and other elements such as the various ways shoes are constructed.

He believes he may be the only person in world offering last-making training as a specifically designed course available for anyone to book.  This is why Eastbourne sees shoemakers travelling the globe to train with him.  Aside from the countries already mentioned he’s taught students from Japan, Brazil, Australia, South Korea, Canada, Thailand and Singapore as well as from throughout Europe and the UK.

Are they good?  Well, considering his courses sell out, I think we can be sure of that.

If you’ve ever thought of shoe-making as a career, business or hobby, check out the forthcoming course dates – many already fully-booked – and start with the last first!

As this July marks Steven’s 40th year in the trade, perhaps he’ll run an anniversary offer on summer dates.  Why not enquire?

Last making course with Steven Lowe

Bespoke last-making training courses:  https://www.lastmakerhouse.com

Last, shoe and shoe-tree making service:  https://www.crispinians.com

Steven Lowe

Lastmaker House

21 North Street

Eastbourne

East Sussex

BN21 3HG

info@lastmakerhouse.com

info@crispinans.com

 

Author

  • Maria Bligh

    Maria Bligh is a journalist, published author, professional speaker, singer and artist now settled in Sussex, UK, having previously travelled extensively throughout the UK and overseas, including a period living in Geneva. Married to a successful musician and with a background that encompasses working in the music industry, finance, sales and presentations training, she maintains a diverse existence. Her interests encompass travel, nature, animals and the arts: music, theatre, painting, writing and philosophy. Maria now writes for online and print magazines. Having once maintained a regular full page in “A Place In The Sun” magazine, travel is an obvious interest, but her articles also cover a wide variety of subjects. She bills herself as “an observer of the human condition and all that sail in her.” Maria has frequently appeared on radio & TV as well as in print. Her humorous style has seen her travel the world addressing audiences throughout Europe, Asia and Australasia and as a cruise-ship speaker with P&O and Fred Olsen.

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