At the age of fourteen Bill Bird had a foot problem that was making walking more and more difficult. The pain and discomfort of this condition not only led him to a career as a top bespoke orthopaedic shoemaker in the UK but to a starring role in a video teaching programme about his work, aimed at a worldwide audience.
Now aged 68 and a leading light in his profession, Bill recently attended the launch of the programme at a special showing to an invited audience of British and international footwear specialists at a gala dinner in London.
Bill’s wide-ranging skills and knowledge were amassed over more than 40 years as a shoemaker and last-maker in London’s West End and through his own thriving small business and workshop near Moreton in Marsh.
The filming was done at his workshop following an idea from Cotswold philanthropist Richard Paice and produced by Herefordshire based filmmakers, Artisan Media.
The series of 23 teaching videos – the result of 250 production hours – are now available worldwide on their own YouTube channel. As Bill’s legacy to all aspiring specialist shoemakers, they are also completely free of charge.
Bill Bird Shoes has taken delivery of three machines that will help improve results, achieve greater precision and provide greater safety for our bespoke shoemakers.
The shoemakers in Gloucestershire solve fitting and walking difficulties for people across the UK by handcrafting made-to-measure footwear. The team was offered a state-of-the-art Italian skiving machine for upper leathers free of charge – the only problem was that it was at the German School of Orthopaedic Shoemaking in Dusseldorf!
This did not deter Bill Bird shoemaker Chris and his dad Mick, who drove the 22-hour round trip to pick up the machine and return it to our workshop in the Cotswolds. And very grateful we are too.
Extra safety, greater confidence
The second machine we bought from our dear friend and fellow shoemaker, David Xavier, who died in 2016. It is a German-made combination leather trimmer and skiver that allows us to trim heavy soles, among other things.
A drill press completes the list and this allows us to achieve really accurate drilling, which is especially useful when adding heels or making lasts, the wooden blocks around which shoes are made.
Previously we would have carried out the tasks by hand with hand drills and knives and there was the danger we would cut the leather uppers – or ourselves – if we slipped. These big, heavy, solid machines can be relied upon to steady the work and give even the least experienced of us the confidence to do an excellent job every time.
We are so proud to announce that Chris Thorne of Bill Bird Shoes in Gloucestershire scooped the David Xavier Award at the 20th Independent Shoemakers Conference in Eastbourne recently – with his first ever pair of shoes.
The annual award, in memory of Midlands’ shoemaker and dear friend David Xavier, challenged budding shoemakers to make footwear to accommodate a medical condition.
Chris previously worked as an upholsterer in the vintage car industry for many years before joining Bill Bird Shoes. Although Chris has been making lasts here for a few years now, his winning entry, a pair of dark tan Derby brogues, the first pair of shoes he had ever made by himself.
Chris also produced an eye-catching portfolio describing the process he went through including his many mistakes and learnings along the way. He was presented with a silver trophy, £300 cash and £300 in leather vouchers.
Adele Williamson, an apprentice bespoke shoemaker at Tricker’s of Northampton, was named runner up. Adele’s entry was a pair of very elegant zip up the inside ankle boots to her own design.
Adele graduated with a BA from DMU in Footwear Design and Illustration in 2016 before being taken on by Tricker’s, which has been producing distinctive and carefully crafted shoes and boots since 1829. The contest attracted six entries and was a close run thing between the two of them.
Voting was made by the 80 delegates of the conference rather than by a panel. Each delegate had a little wooden last shape to tuck into a brown envelope next to the contestant’s entry.
Today is the 30th anniversary of taking up the lease of Unit 49 – wow! That’s a lot of water under the bridge!
The first pair of Bill Bird Shoes was made in the attic of 5 Bovill Road, London SE23 1HB as early as 1984.
I moved with my family to Mickleton, Gloucestershire, in September 1986. Henry was 10 months old, Camilla was 4 1/2 and Thomas was 7 1/2.
I worked in the back of Andy’s Blockley Cobbler shop in Blockley village from November 1986 until about June 1987. I used the north half of Unit 31 in Northwick Business Centre around the corner from Apt Design and Development after that.
I mostly commuted to London 4 days a week, sleeping overnight in Peen’s workshop in The Elephant and Castle area of SE London. Lobb’s owned Peens and I still worked for them at the time. I occasionally made lasts and shoes for the proto-business during that period.
Derek Smith and I started to build a workshop in the north half of Unit 31 in the summer of 1987.
When the opportunity of Unit 49 came up, we jumped at it and left Unit 31 gradually over the next couple of months.
I still commuted and worked for Lobb’s until May 9th 1988 when Mr Eric Lobb found out about Bill Bird Shoes and banished me. That’s when the business became a full time enterprise. Thank you Mr Eric. Without you doing that, it all may have just remained a part time hobby!
I started going to Freeman Tonkin, 34 Chiltern Street, across the street from Grey Flannel in spring 1987 for one day a week. They were a specialist shoe shop for people with fitting and walking difficulties and I did the bespoke work for those they could not fit off the shelf. That kicked off our client list big time!
I think the designated birthday of Bill Bird Shoes should be set as March 3rd 1987 to reflect the development of the business before Unit 49, especially as that’s about the time we set up on Chiltern Street. So… Happy 31st, Bill Bird Shoes!
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.
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!