Amara Hark-Weber’s impeccable, handmade shoes are in a class by themselves
By Lynn Ascrizzi
In our modern era of mass-manufactured, big-brand footwear, a person’s desire for a pair of new shoes can be quickly satisfied. Does this mean that the curtain is falling forever on the one-of-a-kind, handcrafted shoe?
For an answer, take a look at the masterful, custom footwear being made, one at a time, by Amara Hark-Weber, a leatherworker who seems to inhabit a rare planet in the shoemaking universe. Her enterprise, Hark-Weber Handmade Shoes of St. Paul, Minnesota, boldly goes where few custom shoemakers have gone before.
Her business motto? “Never the same shoe twice.”
The footwear styles she creates – many of which offer daring color combos and delightfully risky patterns and shapes – are clearly high-powered, far-out creations. “I try to take traditional footwear concepts and give them a more modern color palette and play with texture. I work independently as an artist-craftsman and forge my own pathway,”she said.
She lives in a recently purchased home shared with her partner, Ben Amel, a project manager and exhibit builder at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Her workshop-studio, conveniently close to the new residence, is located in a house owned by her artist mother, Mary Hark.
Her small, but highly-productive shoemaking studio is set up in a corner of the basement, a space that is far from dank and dark. The organized, well-lit area comes with quality shoemaking tools and machines, solidly built work benches, stocks of leather supplies, a cluster of shoe lasts dangling from the ceiling, a windowand lots of green growing plants, which as Hark-Weber explained, “are important for my psyche. They create a nice working atmosphere and are good company.”
In many ways, she belongs to that heroic tribe who hand-build impressively crafted cowboy boots, in places like Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and beyond. In fact, she too, has crafted that iconic, Western footwear. But, the distinct niche of her one-woman operation is the artisan-level, bespoke shoe.
“There are not that many U.S. custom shoemakers,” she said. “But we do exist!” She guesstimates that about 100 of them are scattered about the country. “I think there is a resurgence and interest in quality, custom shoes and an interest in making shoes as a craft or a trade, even if you don’t do it as a full-time job.”
She emphatically pointed out that custom handmade shoes are “a very, very different product from a manufactured shoe. The materials used are different. The processes that actually make the shoes are different. The way the shoes fit in the end, is different.”
What does a handmade shoe feel like when you slip it on your foot?
“The shoes I make are not ‘squooshy,’ like a tennis shoe,” she explained. “They’re firm, and they curve with the curvature of your foot. So, they replicate the foot. People worry about arch support. But, I take into consideration the bottom curves of the foot. My clients will say, ‘Wow, this feels so different from anything else I’ve had on my feet.’ ”
That day in early spring, she was busy putting a toe box on a pair of elastic-side boots. “They’re something like a Chelsea boot. They have black and purple detailing. They’re comfortable pull-ons. I love them,” she said.
Her diverse styles range from casual, laced shoes to walking boots, and include more formal, menswear-inspired shoes. “Everything I make is really a derivation of both Oxford and Derby shoe styles,” she said.
The Oxford, she explained, is a laced-up shoe, in which the vamp (the section of the upper that covers the front of the shoe) is on top of the quarters (the part that covers the sides and back of the foot). On a Derby, the laces come over the vamp and the quarters are on top of the vamp.
No one shoe in her collection, she said, is more popular than another. “Every pair is very different. Orders come in color waves. Now, I’m working on all black shoes. Before that it was brown, like a cognac color.”
Her products appeal to both men and women. Half of her clients are women. And, she makes shoes for all age groups. “A number of my male clients recently wanted a pair of custom boots or shoes to go with their wedding,” she recalled.
How do people discover her work? “I don’t advertise. They find me. I don’t know how. I fall in love with my clients,” she said.
FEET AS ARCHITECTURE
Hark-Weber’s careful, customized fitting process puts her a step ahead of the mass-produced shoe or boot. Working with the complex architecture of the human foot is the foundation of her individualized footwear.
“Every shoemaker has their own philosophy. I measure feet with a combo of my teachers’ techniques and from my own experience. Every workshop has its own way of fitting. For this, I need to meet clients, face to face. Sometimes, I travel to them to take measurements.”
Of utmost importance is the shoemaker’s last: the three-dimensional form on which a shoe is built. “I use both wood and plastic lasts, but I’m transferring to wooden. They have a lighter weight and are more pleasant to shape.To me, the last is a kind of abstract model of the foot,” she said.
“I feel like I’m always correcting myself,” she continued. “Every pair gets a little bit better. The more you learn, the slower you go. When I look back on older shoes, I can see the problems I was trying to solve.”
SEARCHING FOR TOOLS
“It’s hard to find shoemaking tools,” Hark-Weber said. “You have to luck out. Most of mine are old, vintage tools that I got at antique stores.”
In her search, she found two quality shoe toolmakers in Russia and Ukraine. She discovered Ratmir Tools of Chekhov, Russia, on Instagram, under the handle @ratmir_tools. And, she also ordered tools from Starko Tools (tools.starkoshoes.com), run by Viktor Starko, in Zolochiv, Ukraine. “They’re both really great — the best ones I have.”
Another favorite tool source is Dick Anderson of Thornapple River Machine Works, based in Ladysmith, Wisconsin (firstname.lastname@example.org). “He makes shoe and bootmaking tools, lasting stands and awls. He is great! I like to support people who have workshops, like me, and are making things. If I want a specialty awl, Dick can custom make that. They last forever.”
And, she cited toolmaker George Barnsley & Sons, Ltd. of Sheffield, England (georgebarnsleyandsons.co.uk). “They make all kinds of leather tools for all kinds of leather work,” she said.
Last, but not least, on her toolmaker list is Terry Knipschield of Knipschield Custom Knives in Rochester, Minnesota. “He makes knives for all kinds of leatherworkers. It has taken me years to find this stuff!”
She also works with sole-stitching machines and an edge or side iron. “Side irons should be very smooth. You use them to apply wax, heat and pressure, to smooth the edge of the sole,” she explained.
To her, tools of the trade are like cherished friends. “I have about 10 hammers that I use constantly. The different head shapes are used on different parts of the shoe. I love hammers! I’m always looking for the perfect hammer.”
Hark-Weber primarily works with European-sourced leathers. “I have a lot of leather samples,” she said. She orders French calfskin from Orion Calf, Ltd. (orioncalf.com), distributors of calfskin for Tannerie d’Annonay, in southern France (tannerie-annonay.fr/fr/).
And, she also uses a lot of leather from Kolde Leder of Vienna, Austria, (koldeleder.com) and A. A. Crack & Sons (aacrack.co.uk), based in Northhampton, England.
Leather linings are sourced from all three of the above businesses. “Some people want either a softer or more structured shoe or work shoe,” she explained. For kidskin, she uses Shrut & Asch of Boston, Massachusetts.
“When I first started, I made footwear for my mom, and for friends and their friends. Things snowballed from there. I’m so lucky that my clients are so adventurous,” she said, of the special, one-on-one design collaborations she makes with her clientele.
“A lot of times, my clients will come with a general idea, and we’ll come up with something we couldn’t conceptualize on our own. Some people have a design vision and some want a brown shoe. Usually though, it’s pretty collaborative.”
Footwear prices range from $900 to $2,000. “I ask for one-third down, earnest money. The price can always go up, if people want exotic leather. Not very many clients ask for that. Probably, half my business is pretty local. The other half is from all over the U.S. I also have a few international clients in Iceland, South Korea and Denmark,” she said.
She agreed that, compared to commercial footwear, handmade shoes are pretty pricey items. “I’m a working artist,” she said, without apology. “Look at other handmade objects — look in terms of the art world. The closest thing to my handmade shoes would be a bespoke suit. In terms of time, cost and materials, my shoes are really a labor of love.”
At this stage of her growing business, handcrafting high-end shoes is not a big moneymaker. “I make ends meet. It varies from year to year. When I first started out, I charged a bare minimum. As the business grew, I increased prices. Every year, I make investments in my workshop. Most of my profit goes to refining the business.”
“Shoemaking is a strange business model,” she added. “The only way to make more money is to make shoes better. The only way to grow is to go deeper.”
She supplements her income with one-on-one tutorials, speaking events, teaching shoemaking at various art schools and universities, and by one-on-one classes given in her studio.
Typically, it takes her two to seven months to finish an order. “Right now, it’s closer to five or six months,” she said. “I never want to push speed. That will downgrade quality.” When she isn’t teaching, and instead, working full-time on client orders, she noted that her output is from two to four finished pairs of shoes per month, or about three pairs on average.
“Shoemaking is a truly living tradition, passed down by different teachers. The metamorphosis comes with students who take what they’ve learned in someone else’s workshop and figure out a way it can work for them. It’s such a dynamic craft,” she said.
“Everything is kind of steady,” she reflected. “I am able to do a full-time job. I’m super lucky to have wonderful clients — privileged to do my own work.”
EARLY FOOTSTEPS TO SHOEMAKING
Amara Hark-Weber of St. Paul, Minnesota, took her first serious steps down the shoemaking path in 2013. In only six years, she has gone from making glued-together, concept footwear created for her MFA thesis at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, to creating distinctive, handmade footwear crafted with beautiful precision.
In the last year of her MFA studies, however, her path took a sharp turn. She was involved in a car accident and suffered traumatic brain injury. “It was difficult to finish the visual communications and design program at the Art Institute,” she recalled. But despite a grueling rehab schedule, she managed to graduate on time.
While recovering, she elected to take a shoemaking class offered at the Art Institute through their fashion department. She loved it.“Shoemaking has a lot of the same elements as the things I had to do during rehab therapy. It was challenging and rewarding. At the time, I was unable to do things I had done before. But the head injury made me fearless, because I had nothing to lose.”
In 2013, she spent a month studying with master bootmaker, D.W. Frommer II of Redmond, Oregon (bootmaker.com/bespoke.htm).
And, around that time, she attended The Boot & Saddlemakers Trade Show in Wichita Falls, Texas. There, she talked to a number of cowboy bootmakers, including Lee Miller of Texas Traditions in Austin, Texas. “I always try to talk to people who know more than me,” she said.
In 2014, she traveled abroad to sit at the workbench of handmade shoe master, Janne Melkersson of Melker Shoes & Boots, based in Orrviken, Sweden. (melkershoes.com). There, in three weeks of intensive, 10-hour-long daily classes, she completed two pairs of shoes and a pair of riding boots. And, she gained a much deeper understanding of the skills needed to grow further, she said.
Then, in the fall of 2016, Hark-Weber studied for three weeks in the workshop of Hungarian-born, shoemaking master, Marcell Mrsan, of Savannah, Georgia (savannahcordwainers.com). “It was a lovely workshop. I slept on the workshop floor to save the costs of a motel. He was an excellent teacher. He takes the craft side seriously, and his passion is second to none,” she said.
And, she studied making high heels with Los Angeles-based, footwear artist-designer, Chris Francis. In 2017, she received a Rare Craft Fellowship Award from the American Craft Council (ACC).
“Last year, I went back to spend time with Janne Melkersson. Other than that, I’ve been quietly working. If you ever stop learning, that’s the time to quit,” she said.
SO, YOU WANT TO LEARN SHOEMAKING?
Is custom shoemaking an endangered art form?
“I think it was in danger of dying. But, I don’t think that anymore,” said Amara Hark- Weber, who owns and operates Hark-Weber Handmade Shoes, in St. Paul, Minnesota. But, she acknowledged that certain difficult and laborious shoe-crafting techniques are threatened with extinction, because of the dominance of mass-produced footwear.
“There is, however, more and more interest in shoemaking, and different shoemaking schools are popping up around the world,” Hark-Weber said. Occasionally, she offers her own shoemaking workshops, most of which are one-on-one courses given in her own studio. But, she warned, making hand-built, one-of-a-kind shoes is not a walk in the park. “It’s so hard,” she said.
Wannabe shoemakers can begin by checking out the following online sources for shoemaking instruction, from introductory workshops to classes offered in a state-of-the-art teaching facility in Cleveland, Ohio: liveabout.com/tips-on-where-to-take-a-shoemaking-class-2988936.
Or, you can check out:shoemakingbook.com/shoemaking%20schools.htm “This list is incomplete, and some places are no longer teaching. People need to do their own research. Schools pop up and pop down. You can always talk to a shoemaker and see if they’re offering classes,” she advised.
Hark-Weber has given a number of shoemaking classes. She has taught at places like Penland School of Craft, located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Madison, Wisconsin, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Quest University, Canada. “I mostly teach one on one, by having students work with me in my studio,” she said.
To find out if she is offering an upcoming, shoemaking class, those interested can email her at email@example.com.
Hark Weber Studio
Amara Hark Weber
621 Kent Street
St. Paul, MN 55103
Visits are by appointment only.