In Conversation with Shoemaker Kenneth McClure
Growing up in rural Northern Ireland as one of six children, nothing was wasted. Clothing was handed down, and adjusted, and handed on. “We lived in a multi-generational farmhouse, my first memory of learning to sew was my granny teaching me to darn her stockings, in her bedroom at home. I remember my dad’s workwear, boiler suits and corduroy trousers being repaired, patched by my mum, and even the soles of his Wellington boots were re-gripped with the aid of a metal skewer over the gas hob. There was a feeling that something had to be worn out, when I was young, and you didn’t let an item go to waste.”
This waste-not mentality is clear to see in Kenneth’s shop, Noble & Wylie, which is not only a place to buy a beautiful pair of quality, handcrafted shoes, but also a place for well-loved shoes to be returned and mended. Having working at the studio before he reimagined it as Noble & Wylie, Kenneth was inspired by the satisfaction customers received from seeing their beloved shoes repaired, and it was a contributing factor which led him to take over the business in the first place. “My customers have always brought their shoes back for repair, it’s the deal with my workshop really, and what attracted me to taking it over, years ago. Being able to return a pair of refurbished shoes to a customer, knowing they’ll get worn and used for as long again, is what it is about.”
Another attraction of taking over the workshop, set up in 1978, was Kenneth’s understanding of the connection his customers have with their most prized possessions.
“Shoes were coming in for repair that had been made in the 80’s and 90’s, that were so cherished by their owners. I had a pair of hand dyed veg tan shoes sent in last year that were made in 1982, as old as me. It takes more work to keep those old shoes alive, but is very satisfying.” Very little has changed about the way the workshop operates since it opened over 40 years ago and which already had a strong ethical model in practice when Kenneth started Noble & Wylie. “Vegetable tanned leather has been used since the very start,” Kenneth explains, “for me it’s the most ethical material to use. Tanned using natural vegetable matter, hand dyed in the workshop, it’s clean and uses a product that would otherwise go to waste as part of the meat industry, as would most leathers.” The workshop has been using the vegan alternative ‘Lorica’ since the 90’s and is still offered by Noble & Wylie. Despite often researching for new leather alternatives to use, from ‘leathers’ made from pineapple to mushrooms, for Kenneth, none have come close to the quality and longevity of Lorica.
Influenced by the textiles manufacturing heritage of Northern Ireland and the stories of flax-growing and linen-weaving from his childhood, Kenneth has made it his aim to support local manufactures throughout his time working in the textiles industry, and carries this ethos into his shoemaking practice today. “It wasn’t until I was a teenager in the late 90’s that I realised there was little of it in action” he explains “and I believe this realisation is what triggered my journey into craft, and rooted a deep appreciation for the hand skills of the people.” Despite the growing appeal to consumers, of shopping locally, it still isn’t commonplace to be sourcing materials from the UK. When asked what influenced Kenneth’s considered ethos towards sourcing and production he answered "No Logo’ by Naomi Klein had a huge impact on me, and led me to focus on garment production in the UK, for ease of transparency and keeping ethics close to hand.”
Kenneth is concerned about the amount of materials and manufacturing sourced abroad in 2021. “It is disheartening when you realise how much of what has built, and been built in, the UK and Ireland has been lost, sold abroad, and scrapped over the last 40 years of de-industrialisation.”
There is however, a resurgence in production of textiles in the UK which Kenneth suggests is partly due to rising costs and import charges abroad, as well as higher standards and expectations about brand transparency. There is growing consumer pressure on the fashion industry requiring it to deliver sustainable solutions, one of which being to move production more locally. “People are showing that that is what they want. Right now in the UK there is a growing interest in local produce, for valuing the person who has made your item, having a direct relationship with the maker, and people are becoming more aware of the true cost of making a garment, pair of shoes, leather wallet, whatever it is.”
Kenneth elaborates on what he has learnt from the experience: “Around 2007 I was working on a couple of projects aiming to make simple, beautiful garments with a low ethical footprint, that would be valued and handed down through the generations. Sourcing British and Irish woven fabrics was difficult at the time, and I found that the cost for good quality, natural fabrics (such as linen which was truly handwoven in Ireland, and Organic hand woven tweeds from local sheep’s wool) were such that the final garments, when marked up by the brand, were priced to a level considered beyond the reach of the average UK consumer.”
Kenneth notes that there needs to be a change in consumer perspective and a fresh take on the way we individually review our relationship with our clothes. “The fashion industry on the high street in the UK is corrupt, frankly. Someone, somewhere is getting abused, and being taken advantage of. I don’t want to be a part of that. We need to budget fairly and significantly for our clothing, and value it highly, as people did and always have done, right up to the explosion of fast fashion in the 90’s. Traditionally 25% of a person’s income was spent on clothing, they had much fewer items. Their garments were valued, cared for, and lasted years. We need that mindset again.” Kenneth cites Instagram as a source of personal inspiration on mending and recommends accounts such as @robertacummings, @theboromannorwich and @sambinstead.
When it comes to sustainability, Kenneth believes that whatever we make, it is vital to “respect the materials, the energy and life that has gone into them, and in doing this, make the products as best you can, make them to last and make them repairable. Whether this is boots, a jacket, or a bag.”
Kenneth discusses how he has noticed a “strong conscious shift toward considered purchasing and the rise of ‘slow fashion’” in the past few years; a much needed response, he says, to the “exposure of the damage being done by big brands, high street fashion, in their production of garments, abuse of cheap labour, and in the poor quality synthetic fabrics.”
In stark contrast to how factory-produced, fast fashion shoes are manufactured, Kenneth makes all his shoes by hand, offering a bespoke service and high quality selection of leathers, including Vegan. His aim is to make 4 to 5 pairs of shoes, sandals or boots per week but as Kenneth points out, the business is a “one-person show” and therefore there can be other demands on his time. It takes about half a day per shoe, although the making time can vary dramatically, depending a lot on the materials and size.
Starting out, although Kenneth took to the artisan process quite instinctively, there was still a few pieces of specialist leather work machinery which terrified him.
“The sole stitcher, which stitches the uppers to the runner (or midsole), is an absolute beast stitching through 8-10mm of material, and took a few months to use confidently. Even today if I’m feeling a little tired I’ll put off sole stitching for another time.” And secondly Kenneth describes the finishing machine as “completely unforgiving”.
Despite being a self-professed perfectionist, a trait which lends itself well to such a precise craft, Kenneth has deliberately shifted his outlook in order to become more flexible, “and accept the natural way of things, whether that is a grain on the leather which doesn’t show up fully until lasted, or the stitching of a vintage machine that goes slightly awry.”
“There is a freedom to be had with letting go of ‘perfection’, and control, and this allows for creativity to arise. Hand dyeing vegetable tanned leather is a great teacher of this, especially when making force-lasted shoes, as the leather dye moves when fully saturated and drying out. The dyes can sometimes take on their own life, often producing the most beautiful and admired pieces.”
Kenneth McClure sees great value in the stories and character of old shoes. On his wedding day he chose to wear his dad’s loafers which were bought on his honeymoon in the 70’s, not because he had to, “but because they told a story, and with that they had beauty beyond that of any new pair I could have bought.”
“There’s a kind of sacred beauty in an old item… I often describe my customers’ boots or shoes as ‘old friends’, because they’re like that, they travel with you, they’ve taken you there, and you know you’ll have more adventures with them in times to come.”