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An Interview with Doug Strong of Talbot's Fine Accessories

 

Q: First off, why shoes? That is to say, if your original medieval handicrafts interest was armouring, what made you decide to pursue Medieval cobblery?

DS: I learned how to make shoes as an outgrowth of making armour. In order to make armour for the feet (sabatons) the shoes have to be the right shape. Modern shoes cannot be used as a basis to build sabatons that look right.

Q: can you tell us a little about where you learned how to make medieval shoes, and how long you have been do so?

DS: I first began making shoes sometime in the late 1980s, and it really was an outgrowth of my interest in armouring. I was driving from Chicago to Milwaukee to study armouring with Aaron Toman and Wade Allen (of Valerius Armouries), and they had discovered a lot of shoemaking supplies left over in the factory they were using as their shop space. They also found that their leather supplier has a lot of shoemaking supplies. At this time there was simply nothing readily available in the way of medieval footwear in the USA, and without the presence of the Internet, finding overseas vendors was all-but-impossible. Consequently, most people were using modified moccasins, moccasin boots or various forms of non-descript ankle boots. I can't tell you how many "cavalier boots" were just motorcycle boots that had tall leather uppers stitched on!

By this point Aaron and Wade had taken the state of their armouring to a much more advanced level - a level that most armourers have just begun to match in the last seven or eight years. So it seemed horrid to have this carefully replicated leg harness end in a pair of jack-boots! Basically, it meant that, if they were going to have the right footwear with their armour, they were going to have to figure out how to make it themselves. I was fortunate enough to in the right place at the right time. It was basically a convergence of interest and opportunities.

Q: How many surviving shoes from the period 1000 - 1500 do we really have? Is there anything about them or their construction that might surprise the average reenactor?

DS: Footwear isn't like linen gowns, where much of our reconstruction must come from looking at artwork. There are thousands of surviving medieval shoes out there! In fact I own dozens of original shoes myself. The reason we do not see more of them in museums is that frankly, after nearly a millennia in a refuse pit, they are just ugly! Many of the surviving examples look like old, rotten banana peels--black and desiccated. These are not the sorts of things that most museums want to display.

But there is a lot to be learned from these shriveled husks. The most unusual feature that I have found on the shoes I have handled is the number of pieces from which they were made. Medieval man was a great conservationist of resources and you can see it in these shoes, which are often pieced together out of little bits. No leather was wasted. The other thing I found surprising was how thin the soles were on the surviving examples. They really are just leather slippers. I must admit that I feel it necessary to make the soles on the shoes I designed much thicker so as to provide reenactors with modern feet a modern level of comfort. They will also last longer with the thicker soles.

Q: What made you decide to develop a premium shoe line with Revival?

DS: Moving from custom work to design work was really a natural evolution that followed changes in my life. I ran a custom shoe business for more than a decade and have probably taught more people to make shoes than anyone else in the medieval reenactor community. I have written more than a dozen books and created numerous videos on how to make medieval shoes and boots (talbotsfineaccessories.com) I have taught classes all over the country and have sold thousands of copies my shoemaking instructional materials to people on every continent in the world except Antarctica (so come on Antarctica, someone buy my books! It's the perfect project while you're snowed in your research lab.)

By profession, I am a high school principal and will be completing my doctorate in a little over a week. Sadly, that means I simply no longer have the time to make shoes for individuals. Nevertheless, I still gets order requests on at least a weekly basis. Part of the reason the folks at Revival Clothing approached me was that they were unhappy with their current designs and has asked me to critique them. I knew the pattern well, as it had been adapted from one of my old patterns used by a former student who ran a business called Alistair's Footwear. Unfortunately, there were a number of refinements that I had adopted in the ensuing decade that had never gone into Alistair's patterns, and they made the final product close but not correct.

After I gave them my feedback, the Revival folks came back with an intriguing proposition: what if I helped them design an entire new line of leather goods? I jumped at the chance. It was just the opportunity I was looking for. Here was a way that I could still be helping reenactors get quality footwear at a reasonable price without spending all of my free time in my workshop. I had previously had the chance to work with Revival as a consultant and fit model when they designed their gambeson, so I knew that their business model was to combine quality and authenticity with a practical price-point that the average reenactor could meet. Because Revival has been able to meet that goal and maintain a standard of high quality, I felt confident that they would be willing to let me design a range of footwear that would meet my own high standards without making any compromises. It was a perfect fit (just like our shoes).

Q: What makes it &quote;premium&quote;?

DS: For me, there are three key elements that give the new line the "premium" label:

1. Historically Accurate and Documentable Design: each of the shoes in our line is base on specific historical examples. In many cases the originals are pieces that I have personally owned or handled.
2. Superior Materials: Our leather is barrel dyed and the color permeates the leather. This is not only much closer to a medieval process and finish, but it keeps the leather soft and supple. It also means the product does not get the plasticized surface coating that is often used for other "medievalesque" footwear.
3. Historically Accurate Construction: each shoe is hand sewn using the authentic edge/flesh or grain/flesh stitches used in the Middle Ages and renaissance. In the case of the ankle boots we have opted to use a later period technique with nailed soles so that we can have thicker soles. The deciding factor in this was the on-going request from reenactors who use the boots in combat, and want the more solid foundation while in the field. As I alluded to earlier, another key point is the construction of the toes on our footwear. Our toes are finished like proper medieval shoes, and don't use a single stitch to finish their toes. This technique was invented in the mid 1990s run by Alastair's Footwear, as an expedient to make shoe construction faster, because turning the toes properly is difficult and time consuming. Unfortunately, the modern 
"innovation" isn't just inaccurate, it's mechanically weaker. That single stitch can break easily and the opening at the end of the toe is not water tight. I was adamant with Revival that we the time to make the toes of our shoes better, and they readily agreed.

Q: How has designing an off-the rack shoe line been different from running a custom-shoe business?

DS: The biggest difference, and no small challenge, is that our shoes need to fit a wider variety of feet. When I ran a custom shoe business, I made specifically fitted shoes for specific feet. I have made shoes for people with special foot needs (extra toes, fused ankles, etc...) I have also made shoes for people who have unusually shaped or sized feet (16 EEEE, AA width heel and D width ball, flat feet, etc...) We simly cannot do that with a shoe line, so our shoes are made to fit most people. For those for whom custom shoes are necessary, I generally recommend people to contact armalnn.com, where another of my former students continues the types of shoemaking that I used in my custom footwear business.

Q: What made you choose this particular ankle boot and turn shoe to launch the new leather goods line?

DS: The boots and shoes I chose were selected for their usefulness across a relatively broad period of time. Revival's core line has been the High and Late Middle Ages, so I obviously wanted to fit as much of that period as possible. Once that decision was made, I also selected beautiful, classic examples of shoes from within that period. There are some really cool examples of footwear that I would like to add to the line but many of them are only appropriate for a very limited period of time (i.e. 1250-1275.) As the line expands and grows, you may see a few of these unique shoes appear.

Q: If you read internet forums, there is a lot of "common wisdom" amongst reenactors about the relative merits and liabilities of turned shoes verses nailed or welted soles. Can you explain what the real versus perceived advantage of each is?

DS: That is a difficult question. Each has its advantages...

The turn shoe is the most authentic option. They are wonderful for most applications. I fight in a pair of turn shoes and wear turn shoes for most of my reenactment interests.

Having said that, I realize that some people have very sensitive feet, need to wear orthotics inside their shoes, need more support when they fight, or the like, and the nailed sole is great if you want a more rugged, thicker soled option. If you have to walk on a lot of gravel or stones they are perfect. The other advantage is that if you need to replace the sole because it has worn out, any shoe repair store understands nailed soles and can replace it easily.

Welted construction is an historical technique that is bit like both turned and nailed shoes, and yet neither. It is authentic, and quite distinctive, for later period shoes and it easily accepts thick soles. The real drawback comes in its appearance, which reads as very modern to the eye, especially when applied to a High Medieval shoe. A nailed shoe, while using later construction methods to create a more rugged product, at least still appears medieval.

Long story short, if your first goal is authenticity, stick with the turn shoes. If you want to look authentic but need more durability, go with the nailed shoe. Save the welted soles for those designs to which they are historically correct.

Q: There is also a lot of discussion about colored shoes depicted in illuminations vs. the color of surviving artifacts. Who would be most likely to have colored shoes and why? For authenticity purists, which colors should be their first choice, and why?

DS: This is a tricky question. Certainly there are illuminations and paintings of people wearing colored shoes. However there are no surviving examples of leather shoes in colors. There are some surviving cloth shoes in red and other colors. All the surviving examples I have ever encountered have been brown or black. The black may actually be a dark brown that has darkened further due to the passage of 500 years while being submerged in earth/mud/water... So the most conservative answer for the authenticity purist would be to select brown shoes, followed by basic black for portrayals with a little more status.

Nevertheless, for most people, especially if your portrayal is the mercantile or knightly class, I say go with the colors! Be heraldic! Be dramatic! Buy two pairs in different colors and wear a one color on each foot with parti-colored clothing. One rule of thumb for medieval fashion in the Late Middle Ages is that ostentation and conspicuous display is a way to show your importance, wealth, or illusion thereof! So embrace that idea and coordinate your shoes with your clothing!

Q: Finally, what's on the horizon?

DS: Lots of exciting new things; some which I think will be a pleasant surprise! But without tipping the hand too much, our next addition to the footwear line will be the Gaston Phoebus Hunting Boot. This boot is based on the circa 1400 illuminated manuscript commonly referred to Gaston Phoebus' Book of Hunting, and will be the prefect completion to the Gaston Phoebus wardrobe that Revival already offers. This is an above the knee boot with buckles along the calf and ankle to give a fitted look and feel. I have just seen finished prototypes and am very pleased with the boots; I can hardly wait to have a pair for myself!


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