#The Cobbler: Sara McIntosh

I began making shoes in the early ’70s as an exercise in sustainability and part of the “back to the land” movement. We were growing our own food, milking a cow, building our log home and generally exploring all the aspects of a self-sufficient lifestyle.

It was with that mindset I tackled the project of making shoes. I needed a pair myself and my baby daughter was getting to the walking stage. I wanted to offer an alternative to the stiff, hard-soled baby shoes of the time and was interested in what I could do to make my own footwear, as well.

I started by taking apart a well-loved and well-worn pair of shoes (that were already starting to fall apart) and laid them out on the table in pieces. I then took those pieces and made patterns of them, placing those patterns on similar materials. With a few hand-tools and directions from local leather workers, I made my first pair of shoes. It was a revelation to be able to make something so fundamental and practical for myself!

I soon found myself making shoes for family and friends and quickly established myself as a shoemaker in our community. I opened a small shop in Bloomington, Indiana, in the spring of 1976 and kept that shop alive until 1981. I still hear from customers from those days, which is very gratifying.

From 1981-1984 I lived and worked from home in Minneapolis, MN. I was attracted to that city to be a part of a theater company and though that didn’t pan out like I thought it would, I continued to develop my shoemaking craft and entered the craft fair circuit. This was a great way to take orders for shoes and boots and still be a single mother, working from home.

In 1984 I moved to Arena, Wisconsin with my daughter and partner. We built a log home together on a beautiful 40 acre piece of land. Again, I supported myself and my family by making shoes for people in and around the neighborhood as well as traveling to art fairs around the country.

In 1989 I moved to the Southwest. I immediately fell in love with the landscapes and expansive territory. For the next 10 years I lived in New Mexico and Colorado, settling in Santa Fe, NM from 1999-2007. Santa Fe was a perfect place for a shoemaker. The tourists that were drawn to the artist mystique of that city were eager customers and kept an open studio thriving for 8 years.

Having my own craft that was portable allowed me to relocate to different areas and different communities. I loved the freedom of movement it allowed and thanks to the internet, clients could track my journey around the country. I moved to Chicago in June ’07 and count this as another adventure in the life of a cobbler: adapting to a big city environment and finding a customer base within and outside of this community. In 2011, I founded a shoemaking and leatherworking school and am having a great time teaching shoemaking and leather working to a variety of people–some of whom are flying in from Seattle, LA and NYC to learn at the Chicago School of Shoemaking.

I enjoyed a fabulous niche: I was one of the few people in the USA who made custom fit shoes and boots from scratch, by hand. That allowed  a great amount of freedom in fit and style and I am grateful for the chance to provide that service while satisfying my own need for creativity.

Though I no longer make custom shoes or boots for clients, I am delighted to teach others what I learned over the past 46 years to give them a head start in their own shoemaking journey. 

Sara McIntosh