Duncan McHarg walks out from his white weatherboard house wearing a worn brown leather apron.
There are holes in its bottom, a sign of long hours in his workshop at the front room of the old house on Clunes’ Fraser Street.
It is hard not to immediately notice his shoes.
They are leather, a maroon colour, with off white strips down the side, and made entirely with Duncan’s own hands.
He leads the way into his home workshop, a room filled with hand tools, books, old papers and as one can expect, shoes.
A current order is sitting on top of a wooden table. They are attention grabbing on entrance to the room – a shiny leather shoe with a red upper that does not yet have a sole.
Duncan has been working on this pair of shoes for two and a half years. They are the product of more than 200 hours work. It is no wonder the price figure is into the four digits.
There is no sewing machine in sight. The entire shoe is made by hand.
Duncan admits it is fine, meticulous, time-consuming work, but that is what is appealing.
He is one of only two people in the world (that he knows of) who are creating shoes entirely by hand, using ‘old-world’ methods and techniques.
“All my life I have enjoyed doing very fine meticulous work where time wasn’t the issue,” he says, holding his most recent order.
“Before I was working for myself I worked at several small factories. That never really worked out too well,” he says with a laugh. “I would be too busy on the details and they just needed to get it going through.
“It is fine work and the old skills that have had me interested.”
People are getting really interested in where something has come from and knowing there is one person who has spent an enormous amount of time working on an item for them.Duncan McHarg, boot maker
A pile of old boot-making books with scruffy ends and worn covers sits under the main work table.
They hold the secrets of a trade and techniques that are long lost to commercial makers but kept alive by this man with a full grey-tinged beard and small gold-rimmed spectacles, in the packed front room of a humble Clunes home.
Duncan explains a pair of boots can take from 100 hours to more than 400 hours to create, hence the price tag that can be up to five figures.
But the shoes last indefinitely.
And people want them.
Duncan is currently working on two orders.
For one he is designing boots for a lady who has bunions. Every element of the shoe is designed specifically for her feet.
“I spend about one and a half to two hours measuring the person’s feet,” he says.
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“There are a whole bunch of measurements. I use a tool to take spot heights over bones and toe joints, heights of ankles.
“From all those measurements I carve up a pair of lasts and once I have got the lasts where I think I need them to be I then make a mock up of the shoes out of canvas (that I use a sewing machine for because it is basically a disposable shoe). I give these to the customer and they wear them around and take notes as to anything that needs adjusting.
“The first pair I made for this lady were below the ankles. After she had worn them for a while she reaslied she would like them above the ankles for a bit more support so I redesigned the upper. She had these for a couple of months and I kept modifying it until she said ‘yep, most of the time it doesn’t feel like I am wearing shoes’.
“That is exactly what I am after.”
It is then the process of making the real leather shoe begins.
Duncan’s drawings and boot designs hang framed on the wall. A shelf on the right holds a pair of magnificent tall black boots with incredible red and gold artwork and detailed buckles. These, he says, cost into the five figures, and he hasn’t managed to sell a pair yet.
The boots epitomise how the craft draws together Duncan’s varied interests. He designed and created the artwork, the buckles and the straps, using his experience in drawing and jewelry making.
The white stitching against the black leather highlights the incredible intricacy of the work.
It is that intricacy, he says, what is impossible to achieve with a sewing machine.
“By hand sewing you can sew finer than a sewing machine without compromising the strength of the leather. A sewing machine can get down to about 30 stitches to the inch before the holes are too big and it compromises the leather,” he says.
“I have done 48 stitches to the inch, but there are examples from the Victorian era of prize work to win a contract to make shoes for the Queen and things like that that are 64 stitches to the inch. It is incredibly strong, it just takes time.”
Duncan’s workshop tells a story of a battle against consumerism and the desire to buy more and buy cheap that is creating an ever increasing pile of rubbish.
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But he says during the past decade more people have shown interest in his craft and the idea of owning one pair of shoes that lasts so long.
“The Lost Trades Fair in Kyneton has gone absolutely ballistic. They had 23,000 people go through there back in March. Some people hang around with me for a couple of hours wanting to hear how the shoes are made,” he says.
“People are getting really interested in where something has come from and knowing there is one person who has spent an enormous amount of time working on something for them and they have worked with them on the design until it is exactly something they are interested in.
Some people hang around with me for a couple of hours wanting to hear how the shoes are made.Duncan McHarg
“It is very different to what it was like at the turn of the century. It sort of went a bit quiet towards the first 10 years of the 2000s but in the last decade I have noticed it definitely increasing in interest.
“It is still difficult finding people with the money to be able to afford something like this, but there are certainly plenty of people interested in hearing about it and finding out more. A lot of what I do at any event is talk and explain the processes and people then understand why there is a four figure price tag. They might not be able to afford it but at the end of it they do understand.”
Duncan will again be at the Lost Trades Fair in Kyneton at the racecourse on the weekend of March 9 and 10. The fair will run each day from 10am – 4pm.
More than 100 makers are expected to showcase their craftsmanship, forgotten arts and rare trades at the popular fair.
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