- BY KARA LARSON -
It’s a cozy studio, lined with beautifully constructed shoes and hearty tools and two friendly dogs. Custom-made lasts hang from the ceiling like a fixture, diffusing a fluorescent light and begging to be tapped to incite a slight sway. In the rugged details of this workshop, there’s something real and honest—a palpable dedication and reverence to the exacting craft of shoemaking. It is here that Amara Hark Weber spends a good portion of her day meticulously patterning, skiving, soaking, cutting, poking, trimming, inseaming, hammering, and a million more –ings that transform her innovative designs into tangible, impeccable shoes.
The beginning of Amara’s shoemaking endeavors came about as a solution to an unexpected accident. Two years into attaining her MFA in Graphic Design at the Art Institute of Chicago, Amara was in a car accident that resulted in a head injury. Finding it difficult to do the work she was doing at the time, she took a shoemaking class—and simply kept going with it.
She learned quickly in her new venture, working long hours and dedicating herself to her craft. Making has always come naturally to Amara, but more than that, she aspires to never stop learning, expanding her skillset, and looking for opportunities to improve. She aims to embrace the feelings of overwhelm that a new technique or material can inspire, knowing that she’ll be better for it in the end.
"The trick is keeping your eyes open to the problems," Amara begins. "If you see your mistakes, no matter how small, the next time is going to be a little better. I think progression will stop if you’re not seeing where improvement can be made. And that means maintaining a critical eye, which is kind of painful, but also totally necessary. You can’t be too proud to identify and acknowledge the problems in your work."
Amara’s heightened awareness of mistakes is also a response to the permanence of working with leather. The longer she works on a shoe, the more is at stake—the more time, money, and materials. At present, Amara is making between two and three pairs of shoes a month for clients and each pair has around 40-60 hours of work invested in them. Beyond the custom-made pairs for individual clients, Amara always has a designated practice shoe in the shop that takes on an assortment of new techniques and unfamiliar materials. She explains, "I’m not going to give a client something I haven’t done successfully first. I can’t talk about the shape of a last if I don’t know what it feels like."
Nearly four years into making and selling custom shoes and teaching shoemaking classes all around the country, Amara is finding the balance between running a successful business and making shoes of the highest quality. Amara refuses to compromise on the quality of her materials, placing great importance on the fact that she uses only first and second grade leather from a variety of established tanneries. For every pair of shoes, the materials alone typically range from $200-300, so even though her shoes are costly, for the amount of work she invests in each pair, Amara is hardly paying herself properly. She offers, "Handmade shoes are really expensive, but there is a reason for it. It’s a labor-intensive process that uses expensive materials. The more people know about the materials and process, the better they can understand the price point and nuance of the product."
Amara recognizes that custom shoes are unaffordable for a lot of people, but poses the question, "By the same token, how many shoes do you have that you don’t wear? You can take all of those shoes that you don’t really wear because they fit weird or you kind of like them, but they pinch your toes, or they feel good, but they’re too ugly, and instead just buy one pair of shoes that you really like, that fits you properly, and they’re going to last as long as all of those combined."
This is the real intention of Amara’s work—to design and make quality shoes that fit and last. Her demanding work is only the beginning of the shoes’ journey; once her process is complete, her shoes can realize their true purpose as stylish protectors and adventure facilitators. And yet, the final step of the process is one comprised of equal parts satisfaction and nervous anticipation for the foot it was created to envelop.
Amara admits that custom shoemaking is unpredictable and unnerving in that she can never be 100% sure that the shoe will fit in the way that she anticipates and in the way that the client expects. She explains that each person’s body changes and has sensitivities that she can’t know or predict. Converging with these anxieties is the satisfaction of the moment when the shoe goes on and takes its first walk around the shop.
Amara shares, "There is this sequence that happens where the shoe usually goes on a little tight, much tighter than a manufactured shoe because it is made to fit. This is scary for both the client and for me. Then it pops on. The client takes a moment just to feel. They kind of retreat into their body just for a split second. Then they stand, take a lap around, and nod. It’s a really special moment for me, and makes me incredibly happy."
No matter how many pairs made, for a custom shoemaker, this nerve-wracking reveal is one that never really lessens in intensity. Amara shares, "I talked to my Swedish teacher Janne about my nervousness before a client comes, and he said that even after 45 years in the trade, he doesn’t sleep the night before shoes are picked up."
Amara finds it important to keep in contact with her teachers and credits them for instilling in her the necessary skills and techniques to set her on a proficient path. She continues to tailor their insight to inform her own style, both in her approach making and to teaching. "Two of my teachers are European—one is Swedish, one is Hungarian…I’ve been super lucky in that I’ve been taught by some of the best shoemakers who teach. One of them was very sweet, like, "well, if it works, it works." And one of them was stern and direct, like, "that is wrong." So, when it comes to teaching, I’m always really clear my process is just the way that I do it, but there are so many ways. Because I’ve had multiple teachers, I’ve learned many different ways, and then I’ve taken them all and kind of meshed them into the Amara way."
In her own shoemaking classes, Amara allows this openness to different perspectives to permeate into her approach to teaching. Though she is hoping to scale back, Amara spends about half her time teaching at various colleges and folk schools around the country, and in every class taught, her objective is to allow the students to be as involved and inventive as possible. There is no set plan or kit or pre-cut pieces—from design to execution, every student has the opportunity to genuinely absorb the art of shoemaking.
Even when teaching larger classes, Amara welcomes the chaos of creative freedom. "I have taught classes with twelve students where every student designs their own completely different shoe. For me, as a teacher, holy smokes," she laughs. "By the end, my brain is about to explode, but every student sees all of these different constructions and then they can ask each other questions and discuss and that makes for a way stronger learning experience. And also, you’ll walk away with something that you actually feel like you made. You know, that’s not my design. That’s the exciting part about designing and making—it gets to be all yours."
This lack of restrictions in a shoemaking class isn’t a common experience, especially in the United States. In fact, Amara knows that in general, there are very few people who make shoes—and even fewer people who do it well. "I know of makers who are promoting themselves as professionals, but whose work is not ready to come out of their shop and be sold. They haven’t developed as craftsmen or artists. But, with more interest in the trade, there will be more support for all of us. Because there are so few shoemakers, one of the battles is letting people know that we actually do exist, and are doing good work." Amara adds, "I am a naturally optimistic person, and am eager and happy to share what I do. My mom always told us that a rising tide raises all ships. But, when I see weak work being promoted, it kind of saddens me because if someone who is unfamiliar with what a handmade shoe can be sees a half-baked product, it lowers expectations."
When it comes to sharing the magic of shoemaking, Amara is authentic, straightforward, and uncompromising to the craft. There’s a purposeful tenacity to Amara—a dogged creativity that pushes her past any unexpected hiccups and hindrances. This drive is embodied in her shoes. They are flawless—not a wrinkle or inconsistency in sight. Clean and meticulous, yet, they are the product of a messy, complicated, and arduous process. Amara admits, "I will say, this is generally a men’s trade. But you don’t have to be particularly strong." She’s sitting on her work stool, wrangling with the leather outsole on her practice shoe to make a tiny hole. "I’m not a large person, but I have strong hands. And if you’re doing things correctly and using the right types of leather and your knives are properly sharp, it’s not that demanding. I mean, it is demanding, but it’s your job, so you have to get used to it. It’s not like you’re so special or anything," she laughs.
In watching her work, getting a taste of what it means to be a real shoemaker, and learning about who she is and how she fits into the world, there is no denying the existence of something special in Amara’s St. Paul studio. Some serious making transpires here and that’s a captivating thing to witness firsthand. The true sense of purpose in Amara Hark Weber’s craft evolves in her time spent designing, experimenting, and making, which adds up to one thorough creative process. Though most parts of the shoe will never be seen, Amara finds fulfillment in making each step of the process as strong and as beautiful as possible. "This may sound odd, but the inside workings of my shoes are usually as beautiful, if not more beautiful than the final product. I find this incredibly gratifying. It’s almost like I go on a journey with each pair, and it’s just between us. The final product is a result of this journey, but most of it is really only a moment. It’s kind of like memory. We are the result of the actions that we take, but these actions are just moments that pass."