Midlands-based Bill Bird Shoes may be better known for creating bespoke shoes for people with walking and fitting difficulties but we like our equestrian friends to be well shod too!
This is why we sponsored the Ally Sadler Trophy for Best Shod Horse at Saturday’s Moreton Show, one of the biggest one-day agricultural shows in the country.
Here is Mrs H M Bailey and her horse Kempez Cwnere, who is also known as Badger, receiving their engraved silver salver from judge and expert farrier Steve Arnold and Vicki Gumbley from Bill Bird Shoes.
Mr Arnold said the reason Badger’s shoes were singled out for this prestigious award was because they had been excellently crafted by hand, rather than machine. This is something the talented shoemakers at Bill Bird Shoes pride themselves on as well.
We were delighted to chat with our loyal client David Graham recently. David’s career in theatre, TV and film spans almost 60 years and today he is probably best known for providing the voice of Parker in Thunderbirds – both in the iconic TV series of the 60s and the recent film sequels – Grandpa Pig in the hugely popular children’s cartoon series Peppa Pig and the Wise Old Elf in Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom series that regularly appears on Nick Jnr.
David Graham said: “I have the highest regard for Bill and his team. The quality of work is excellent.
“People who don’t know I have a foot problem would hardly be able to tell. Someone in the profession would notice but no-one else. I’ve had at least 15 pairs of shoes from Bill Bird and I usually see Bill in London at Grey Flannel where I buy my clothes.
“Bill has enabled me to walk with a handicap more or less normally. The quality of his work is excellent. I have nothing but praise for him. Bill is such a nice bloke and I’m glad he’s got such a marvellous team.
“I am very grateful to Bill that his shoes have allowed me to pursue a successful career without anyone being any the wiser.”
Bill Bird Shoes in Gloucestershire is really pleased to publish our first newsletter and we hope you enjoy reading it. We’d love to hear your feedback, so get in touch to let us know what you think. We look forward to hearing from you.
And if you fancy sharing it with your friends, colleagues and family, please feel free.
Shoes for people with fitting and walking difficulties, has been the job title at Bill Bird Shoes for years but it took us a long time to arrive at it. It is an accurate statement inclusive of the whole range of reasons our clients come to us, without being off-putting to anyone. At Bill Bird Shoes in Gloucestershire and London we have found out just how important the right use of language is when communicating with the public. Words and phrases that now trip off our tongues as simple common sense, actually took years to find.
For instance, we have clients, not customers as a regular shoe shop does; and not patients as an orthotist or podiatrist does. Why? Because our clients are not just buying something ready-made, nor surrendering to our expertise as a patient does to a podiatrist. More like the relationship between a client and architect, we help the client discover what they want and what is right for them and then we make it, conferring with them all the way
Footwear for Special Needs
During the 80s and 90s, The British Footwear Manufacturers Association (now Britfoot) published an annual booklet called Footwear for Special Needs. This put thousands of people in touch with the shoemaker they needed and it helped give us shoemakers low-cost, effective marketing before the advent of the internet.
The Britfoot publication also popularised the term Footwear for Special Needs, a phrase that describes the work that we all do without carrying any social stigma. Before that, terms like surgical boots, orthopaedic shoes and even therapeutic footwear had associations of an ungainly appearance and the fear of social exclusion. The public could be even more scathing with words like hospital boots and cripple shoes.
The term bespoke describes all that is best in made-to-measure shoe design and making. About ten years ago we placed it in front of the word orthopaedic and the combined term – bespoke orthopaedic – immediately carried a new meaning. Every aspect of the shoe is designed and prescribed for the individual’s condition and needs, paying as much attention to achieving the best possible style and elegance as it does to comfort and treating the client’s condition.
Finding the right words
In 1991, Kate, a journalist and copy-writer (and later Bill Bird‘s wife) joined our firm as workshop manager. As well as designing our still-used and very successful scheduling system, Kate also wrote our first brochure, which has since evolved into the one that we use today.
The process of writing and re-writing it helped us to find the words that best described what we can do, what we can’t do, and how clients can benefit from our service. This not only gave us an informative document to send out in answer to enquiries, it also helped us to be more clear and consistent when answering telephone enquiries. The copy used in our brochure also provided the original framework for our first website on Microsoft Front Page in the late 1990s. It still does so today.
In 1993, Kate came up with the phrase that encapsulates the essence of our service and is still used on our website – ‘Wearing shoes can become a pleasure again, whatever shape your feet are in.’ Some ten years later we finally arrived at the words that describe what it is we actually do. That is, we make ‘shoes for people with fitting and walking difficulties’. Or as they say elsewhere ‘we do what it says on the tin’.
Bill Bird Shoes in the Midlands and London handcrafts fashionable, made-to-measure shoes and boots for problem feet. Contact us to find out how we can help transform your life.
In March 1987 the idea of making handmade orthopaedic footwear privately for people with fitting problems went from a being a side-line to becoming a serious and viable project – and Bill Bird Shoes was born.
Bill Bird has been interested in craftsmanship since he was small when his mother taught him to use a saw and hammer to keep him out of her hair. Over the years he became proficient in working with wood and always thought that was where his future would be.
First hand experience of foot deformity issues
Bill said: “I completed a degree in architecture at UCL in 1976. However, I have a congenital foot deformity that became so problematic during my studies that my interest in finding a way of making shoes that could help me walk in comfort without looking odd began to overshadow any other aspirations I had. Within a month of graduating I met Gerry Brady, a shoemaker at John Lobb, the Royal appointment bootmakers and I became fascinated by what he did.”
Gerry told Bill about Tom Steenhoven, a very skilled boot-tree and last maker in the basement of Lobb’s who was looking to pass on his knowledge. According to Gerry, Tom had been through 20 apprentices in 15 years and none had stayed more than 2 weeks. Bill started working under Tom and soon realised why.
“Tom was hyper-critical of all I did. If my work was good he would make no mention of it; but I had just been through a three-year architecture degree where my tutors were just the same so I was well prepared. I was keen, Tom knew his stuff and we got on very well.”
Honing his woodworking skills
During the next 11 years, Tom retired and Bill went on to work in Lobb’s woodworking shop, Henry Peen in Soho. There he became skilled in making boot trees and hand-carving wooden lasts.
“In those days there were many small shoemakers in London who would send any customers with foot deformities to Peen’s for bespoke lasts. I empathised with them because of my own foot condition and began developing my skills in orthopaedic last-making to a high degree. Soon I began taking on a few private clients, providing them with a complete orthopaedic shoemaking service.”
Here’s to the next 30 years!
Moving to the Cotswolds in 1986 Bill continued to travel to London to work at Peen’s four days a week. Initially he tried a couple of work spaces in Blockley to make shoes and lasts on the other two days. When Unit 49 became available he took on the lease and here Bill Bird Shoes remains. And so may it reside for another 30 years!
The team has grown significantly over the years – just take a look at our personal biographies to find out more about us.
Every pair of boots and shoes made by Bill Bird Shoes is individually and specifically made-to-measure for clients, most of whom who are unable to wear off-the-shelf footwear because of foot problems. To find out more, please call 01386 700855.
The team at Bill Bird Shoes in Gloucestershire make handmade shoes, mainly for people with problem feet. Recently a challenge was set: to make wedding shoes for Bill Bird’s son and daughter-in-law for their wedding in February 2017.
In this blog, Bill talks through the process of making made-to-measure wedding shoes for Henry and Lydia.
When Lydia said, “How many girls get a wedding dress made by their mother and shoes made by their father-in-law?”, I thought, “How many men get to make the shoes that their son and daughter-in-law get married in?” The wedding dress was exquisite by the way and I knew it would be… so what a delightful challenge!
I had already made shoes for Henry several years ago and what better way to fine-tune a bespoke last than to study a well-worn shoe that had been made on it and make adjustments accordingly. Henry’s wedding suit was a dark grey so with a little consideration he chose navy blue, the shade so dark it looks like black unless against a truly black leather. Henry’s handmade shoes, crafted at Bill Bird Shoes’ workshop in the Cotswolds, would be full Oxford brogues with wing-caps and counters.
Choosing the leathers
Lydia’s shoes would be a far greater challenge as they would be going through all the stages that any new client would go through. Lydia and Henry came up from London in October with my daughter Millie, to choose leathers, choose styles and to have Lydia measured. She brought with her a much-loved but after 10 years, totally worn-out pair of Carvelas from Kurt Geiger. We could keep them as a starter for the style and with two tones on the upper plus a third for piping, we were soon going through our extensive range of kid and calf leathers.
We finally came up with a fine, dark tan calf for the vamps, a mid grey suede kid for the quarters, to be trimmed with gold kid rolled-edge piping. They were to be made with 2.5mm oak bark leather soles with 60mm stacked, slightly shaped Cuban heels. I did the sketches and it really was exciting.
Lydia came to Bill Bird Shoes’ London Clinic at Grey Flannel on Chiltern Street one afternoon in November so we could evaluate her lasts with a thermo-plastic shell. She stood in these mock-ups and we took measurements to ensure that the last behaved in the shells the same way that her feet did.
With a few adjustments the lasts were ready. Emily cut the patterns then Russell and I began to take in the complexity of turning a gold kid rolled edge around such tight curves, against a delicate grey suede!
We experimented with a few prototypes before braving the final piece. We got it wrong and changed the design so that the top quarters were of one piece continuous at the back so that the rolled edge could be done as one fine edge from the inside facings all the way around to the outside facings. This worked well and soon the uppers were ready for lasting.
This was my job again and I had a deadline for both Henry’s and Lydia’s shoes to be ready for a fitting on our visit to London over Christmas. We were all excited but I felt the anxiety I always feel at this stage as within a few moments I would find out how good the fit was. Henry’s were an excellent fit of course as this was his second pair.
With Henry banished from the room (a tradition that forbids the groom seeing his bride’s wedding attire until the Big Day) we tried Lydia’s shoes. To my relief they fitted, clasped her heels well despite the low cut and were only slightly too tight on the joints. Back in the workshop, I added to the lasts where necessary and finished off both pairs by mid January so that they could sit on the lasts for a few weeks.
Lydia came up to Chiltern Street early in February to pick up Henry’s shoes and to try on her own. They fitted perfectly and she danced up and down to prove it. My job was now done and all that was left for my wife, Kate, and I was to get to the Bath Guildhall on time!