Leatherworker passes on family shoemaking techniques

  • Molly Grant works at her sewing machine in her Cordwainer Shop in Deerfield. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • A selection of Cordwainer shoes in Molly Grant’s workshop in Deerfield. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Molly Grant works at her Singer sewing machine in the Cordwainer Shop in Deerfield. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Molly Grant holds one of her custom made shoes in her workshop in Deerfield.

  • A sign in Molly Grant’s workshop in Deerfield. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • A selection of custom-made Cordwainer Shop shoes are lined up in Molly Grant’s workshop in Deerfield.

Monitor staff
Published: 1/28/2017 9:18:00 PM

On a battered Singer sewing machine more than a hundred years old, Molly Grant carries on her late husband’s family legacy.

“He was pretty special to teach it to me. And now I have to keep it up,” Grant, a shoemaker, said in her Deerfield workshop.

The name of her business – the Cordwainer Shop – refers to the craft. Cordwainers make new shoes from leather. (They are not to be confused with cobblers, she notes wryly, who strictly repair.)

The shop first started in the 1920s by her husband Paul Mathews’s father, Edward Mathews, in Massachusetts, before the family relocated to Deerfield after stumbling on the town while driving home from a vacation in Maine.

Grant joined the Cordwainer Shop clan in 1989 after meeting Paul Mathews at the League of N.H. Craftsmen’s annual fair in Newbury. Already an experienced leatherworker – she made handbags, and still does – Grant apprenticed under Paul, and they married five years later. He died in 2009.

Some of the shoe patterns date back to the 1920s. Others were developed later by Paul and his son, Robert Mathews. With Grant now at the helm, some of the shoes now carry intricate etchings, courtesy her apprentice, Claire Renaud.

But all follow the same basic template: a low heel, a rounded toe.

Edward Mathews studied foot health at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and his findings have dictated the Cordwainer Shop’s tradition ever since.

“His determination – correct – was that a low heel and a rounded toe are the healthiest for the human foot,” Grant said.

Each shoe starts with a measurement of the customer’s feet. Next comes cutting leather into pieces that will later be assembled to make the shoe, minus the sole. Afterward, there’s skiving – that’s paring the leather to make it thinner – and stitching the pieces together. With a heat lamp, Grant will warm up the toe’s leather to crimp it, or round it out.

Afterward, an apprentice stitches on the sole. Then a last – a wooden foot – goes into the shoe, and the two are dropped in a low-intensity oven in the basement for a few hours, where the leather will tighten in the right shape.

Last up is the detail work. Grant will trim off the excess sole, and with a burnishing tool – a heated piece of metal with a wooden handle – color the edge of the sole.

All of the shoes are finished with customer’s name in the left shoe, and the Cordwainers Shop’s logo in the right – including one last detail.

“When my husband used to do this, he always put his initials on the sock lining. And I continue to do that,” Grant said.

There are no shortage of orders for Grant’s shoes, but she still bumps up against the fact that the shoe-making industry has, aside from high-end craftspeople like her, entirely left the United States.

Leather is still easy to find, but shoe boxes, heel counters, and even laces, are getting tough to find, or are imported from elsewhere for a premium.

“People don’t generally think about how hard it is to make a shoe and how hard it is to get all the fixtures,” she said. “It’s an uphill battle.”

Lately, Grant has started switching gears. She and her husband used to give workshops, but shoemaking was always primarily their business.

But after years spent on the road criss-crossing the country for craft shows to make sales, Grant is putting more of an emphasis on teaching, and less on making.

She still travels, but less, and most often to teach. And she’s also now hosting three-day workshops where people work in her yellow farmhouse and, over the course of a week, make their own, custom-made pair of shoes.

“You can’t believe the number of people that say to me ‘oh my god, I’ve always wanted to make shoes,’ ” she said.

Grant said she loves it. It’s a different way of appreciating her craft.

“It brings out of you ‘I know more than I thought I did,’ ” she said.

And it’s also a way to carry on for Paul.

“I learned from him that when you have a craft, or whatever it is, it’s kind of like a duty to share it.”

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3312 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)

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