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The Female Shoemaker who made heeled women change their minds

In 1902, Caroline Groves’s great-great-grandfather was one of the 150 craftspeople that moved with CR Ashbee to the Cotswolds village of Chipping Campden from the East End of London. Ashbee, a prime mover of the Arts and Crafts movement, had a vision for a new kind of creative community. While the project ultimately failed, unable to draw the clientele from London, today, Caroline is keeping the spirit of her craft ancestry very smartly kicking.

The bespoke shoemaker, perhaps the only one of her kind making women’s heels, is a consummate craftswoman. And although her workshop is based in a Cotswolds cottage with rich, green views, she frequently takes the train to London or a flight to New York to meet clients.

That she is working as her craftsperson like her grand­father obviously gives her pleasure. “I always thought there was some sort of lovely parallel that I’m based here and my craft has always been informed by him and subsequent generations of my family, and I still have to go up to London to make sure I get my work.”

She counts as her clients successful businesswomen, little old ladies “who’ve always been fortunate to have their shoes handmade”, Russian oligarchs’ wives and film stars such as Judi Dench and Whoopi Goldberg (“she’s crazy about shoes”). The former French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld uses her shoes in her fashion shoots, while novelist Audrey Niffenegger is a long-time fan.

Boxes of lasts (the wooden foot shape incorporating clients’ measurements and style elements) fill the workshop; one client has over 20 pairs of lasts; some boots, sandals, peep toe and various heel heights.

Each shoe is painstakingly made from beginning to end. Oak bark- tanned leather is soaked, mellowed and then wet moulded. Toe puffs for structure and support are cut, soaked, mellowed and skived. There are no shortcuts here. No factory insoles, soles or heels.

“I’m not decrying people who do that,” says Groves softly. “Very often they have more of a design aesthetic. But for me it’s all about the craft, not about the production.”

Groves shows me one heel, beautifully built-up from stacked pieces of leather, and strengthened by an invisible metal pin. It’s a long way from the veneer of leather stretched around a plastic core that most of us are familiar with. When one of her handstitched shoes is finished there will be no glues, nails or tacks.

In a single year, Caroline, aided by two assistants, will make ­between 50 and 100 pairs of shoes. “Even small factories are producing that in a morning,” says the 58-year-old. “My clients know to keep a pair on order regularly.”

Unsurprisingly, an entry level shoe costs £3,000. A pair of boots Groves shows me featuring heels hand-carved in English walnut, handwoven silk from Suffolk and over 30 hours of 22-carat gold hand-tooling by a book binder would start closer to £12,000.


“When people say, ‘It’s so expensive’, I completely appreciate that the service costs a lot of money. But I don’t see it as expensive, it’s a question of what you can afford. I certainly can’t, but for those who can…” says Groves, bringing to mind the film stars and oligarchs’ wives.

“As costly as my shoes are, it’s not ­reflected in profit margins. I’m not a business person. I’m in business because I’m a craftsperson,” she says.

Groves began leatherworking in her 20s after having her first child. Living across the road from a taxidermist meant there was a steady stream of hides to work with. Then, after an apprenticeship with a saddler followed by a former Lobb shoemaker, she started out on her own in 2004. “I would take apart vintage shoes to see how they were made – I particularly love shoes from the late Thirties and early Forties,” she says. A beautiful vintage boot sits on a table, clearly having been dissected. “I still consider that I’m learning,” she says.

Given Groves’s time-honed skill, I don’t hold out much hope of ­being able to master a fraction of the techniques involved during our brief meeting. But as she lets me at a piece of kid leather with a knife, I at least get to fully comprehend how accomplished her mastery is.

“One of the main skills for a shoemaker are knife skills. Being able to skive – taking an edge off the leather in order that it can be folded before ­stitching.”

Despite how easy Groves makes it look to thin the leather, I quickly realise it is not. More enjoyable is applying the rubber solution that tacks together the folded edge ready for stitching and taping it down with a closing hammer. But my clumsy heavy-handedness sees me quickly demur from more attempts out of respect for the poor piece of leather, and Groves herself.

“It takes time, and I had some good teachers,” she says generously. Still, there is clearly some frustration for Groves that often shoe designers are lauded over shoemakers like herself. “I try to educate people all the time without being defensive. But why isn’t it good enough to be a craftsperson? Why does everything have to be by a designer? I would like to see craft claim something back. With good craftsmanship there will inevitably be design.”

But what Groves offers is virtually unique, and I would argue more thrilling than any new season collection. What starts as a creative conversation, evolves via a bespoke last, a mock-up and then, finally, one labour intensively made shoe. The result is entirely one-of-a-kind. “It’s not an exact science,” says Groves. “So you’re making and remaking. Doing and redoing.

“The very last thing is pulling the last out and it can be quite fraught pulling that big brick out of sometimes a very delicate shoe. You want to be able to do it quite swiftly so it does not distort the shape of the shoe. And there’s ­always a gasp of relief when it comes out.”

Check Caroline out for yourself. Visit her web page:

Credit: Telegraph UK.


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