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If I am Not a Cobbler, What am I?

Chad Kimball cobbler handmade shoemaker

Nearly every person I meet and converse with about what I do says, “Oh, you’re a cobbler!”

In truth I am not a cobbler. I am a shoemaker, or, to use and older term, a cordwainer.

So what’s the difference?

It’s sort of like toads and frogs – all toads are frogs but not all frogs are toads (also, toad is kind of a weird word, if you say a few times. Toad. Toad… Toad…… Toad).

In history, the term cobbler was reserved only for those who repaired shoes.

I have a lot of respect for the craft of shoe repair. There takes a great deal of problem solving skills to resole some boots and shoes, and even more to patch up the uppers, if damaged. Cobblers even have to have a more varied set of tools and machinery than I do, and there is a great deal I can learn from them whenever I branch out and need to use some of them.

However, shoemaking is yet a different craft and requires a separate set of skills, knowhow, and problem solving ability. While all shoemakers can repair shoes, most cobblers cannot make them from scratch.

The difference is the same between a surgeon and a nurse, or an architect and a draftsperson.  It takes many years of study to master the craft and the art of shoemaking. While I don’t take offense when someone calls me a cobbler, even my dad does, I think it’s worth talking about the difference.

Why does it matter what we’re called? For me, the fact that so few people know the difference, and that they almost always call me a cobbler is a sign that we shoemakers are a rare breed. A dying one, even. But the cobbler is still here, if just slightly.

Imagine 500yrs from now. There are no more doctors and nurses. Just machines that take care of you, or better yet pills. Who knows? There is still person who hooks you up to the machine and helps ease your nerves, but the machines do all of the heavy lifting.

Would we still know the difference between a doctor and a nurse? Or would they simple all have the same name? Would we simply call them all nurses because that is the job that stuck around longer? Just 130yrs ago everyone knew the difference between a shoemaker and a cobbler.

Now let’s say, in that future, there’s still this small community of niche medical field people who believe in treating you personally, and making a difference that way. They check your heart rate. They take your blood pressure. They ask you how you’re doing, what you’re feeling, how long you’ve been feeling that way, what your diet is like. They take blood samples. They might even perform surgery. They use their intuition, and most of all, empathize with you. They check on you when you’re sleeping, and they allow your family to visit and even sit with you.

Even if machines take over in the future – I don’t see how special care would ever disappear completely. It has clear advantages. Only, it would be enjoyed only by those who decide to try it, or who are fortunate enough to know about it.

That seems to be where we are with the art of shoemaking. My hope, is to bridge the gap between those who know the difference, and have handmade shoes, with those who don’t and think they can’t afford them or think there isn’t much of a difference between machine made  and handmade.

For me, it’s also important to know the difference between cobblers and shoemakers because it is how we keep the crafts alive. Once there is no difference between the two, there is less knowledge about the two, which tends to equate to less respect for either. After all, they are the same thing….

Did you know there is only one book written on how to make shoes after 1900? Just one. And before that there are hundreds, literally.

I really hope that you, like me, get the chance to wear boots and shoes that are handmade. For me it changed everything and is why I make them now.

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