The Brothers Crisp – A Renaissance in Artisanal Shoemaking
photos and profile by Caryn B. Davis
French legend has it that in the third century Roman brothers, Crispin and Crispinian were disowned by their noble family after converting to Christianity. As outcasts, they travelled from village to village preaching the gospel by day and making shoes for the poor by night. Eventually they made their way to Soissons, France and set up shop but were discovered, arrested, and condemned to death for their beliefs by the Emperor Maximian Herculeus.
Rictiovarus, who was the governor at the time, was charged with this task and unsuccessfully had them stabbed with awls, boiled in oil, and thrown into the Aisne River with millstones around their necks in an attempt to drown them. When all that failed, and he was unable to carry out his orders, Rictiovarus committed suicide. The Emperor decided to take matters into his own hands and had the twins decapitated, a swift and easy solution indeed.
The brothers were martyred in 286 A.D. and became the patron saints of cobblers, shoemakers and leatherworkers. October 25th was deemed St Crispin’s Day or the “Shoemaker’s Holiday,” where a feast was held in their honor, and all shoemakers closed their doors for the day to celebrate.
The Brothers Crisp in Hartford, Connecticut are by no means martyrs nor a religious operation, but they do make a darn good pair of shoes. The founder and owner, Josh Westbrook simply liked the siblings’ story enough to name his company after them. Westbrook is among a rare and bold new breed of cobbler who is designing and manufacturing shoes in-house, the old fashioned way, as perhaps Crispin and Crispinian once did before their unfortunate demise, with “every cut and stitch executed by human hands”.
The shop is located inside an old warehouse surrounded by wood flooring, brick walls, and large windows that allow the natural light to pour in. Amongst piles of leather and shearling, rubber soles stacked upon shelves in brown, tan, and black, machines from the last century used to sew shoe panels together, and long tables for cutting patterns, a variety of casual, dress, and outdoor shoes, boots, and slippers are crafted. All of the styles are moccasin based, but not in the traditional sense where we immediately think of the Native American foot covering made from deerskin and adorned with fringes. In this case it is the method in which the chukkas, boat shoe moccasins, camp moccasins, laced up Mocsfords, and boots are constructed.
“What defines a moccasin is its one piece of leather that wraps under your foot, cradling it and holding it in place. On a normal shoe the whole bottom would be a different piece,” says Westbrook.
Westbrook decided early on that he wanted to replicate the moccasin style of shoemaking because he liked the look and feel; but he also wanted the challenge of making hand-sewn shoes, which most moccasins are.
“If I made other kinds of shoes I would be competing with a larger industry and factories. There is a lot less competition in this market because sewing shoes by hand takes time. I wanted something as close to a hand crafted trade as I could get,” Westbrook says.
Prior to becoming a cobbler, Westbook did a little bit of everything in search of the one “thing” that would be both gratifying and lucrative. He sold home improvement, financing, credit card processing accounts, and worked in information technology (IT), and other cubicle confining businesses before the bubble burst, chewing him up and spitting him out. Gladly, throwing caution to the wind, he travelled throughout the United States going from music show to music show before deciding a happy medium was needed.
Westbrook has always been fascinated by how simple everyday items are made and the root of where they come from like bread, cheese, jeans, and of course shoes.
“It started as a love for sneakers-watching basketball stars sponsoring them-which led to them becoming a status symbol for youth. I love that it’s something everyone needs, but you can have fun with the styles,” Westbrook says.
Deriving inspiration from his colleagues at the Hartford Denim Company where they manufacture jeans by hand, Westbrook decided shoemaking would be his new vocation.
“I liked that ideology of making something by hand that others could use,” he says.
He attended a week long one-on-one intensive at a school in Oregon and left knowing how to measure a foot, build up a last (or mold), and make a shoe from start to finish. Initially it took him more than a week to make his first pair of boots, but he has since perfected his craft and can now produce a pair in a day. With help he can make 15 pairs in less than two weeks if he is rolling out an assembly line.
“We have a rotating cast of people who have been apprenticing with us; and as we continue to grow, I hope to bring them on full time,” says Westbrook.
The styles are always evolving into different variations of the same basic shoe and some that are completely new. Michael Hunter, a curator of fine art and fashion, collaborated with the young cobbler to design a pair of boots for his store on Martha’s Vineyard.
“He picked the color ways and fabric,” says Westbrook.
But Westbrook has no problem coming up with artisanal footwear on his own. He sells about 20-40 pairs a month, which start at $250 and does have the ability to take on custom work to suit a particular palate.
“We look to the boots of our grandfathers as well as the sneakers we wore growing up in the 1990s. We appreciate both tough construction and elegant design. While we embrace classic style, we are always searching for the element that will define the next movement in footwear,” says Westbrook. “We see the potential for a new look in everything from a swatch of leather dyed by a generations-old tannery, to a tweed coat thrifted from a Hartford strip mall.”
People have been making shoes in one form or another since primitive times to protect the feet from jagged rocks, burning sand, and harsh weather. In ancient times the Egyptians made sandals from plaited papyrus leaves, while the Greeks and Romans used rawhide. But shoes were not just worn for protection. The Chinese used them to bind feet as a sign of beauty. Nobles in India wore them to signify wealth. In Japan the type of shoe worn dictated the social status of the wearer and their vocation. In the Hebrew culture they were used legally to solidify a bargain. Each society adorned their shoes in different ways reflecting the taste, artistry, and prosperity of the wearers.
Shoes were made using the same hand tools cross culturally until 1845 when the Rolling Machine was invented, replacing the lapstone and hammer which were used to pound sole leather. A year later the sewing machine was invented, and 12 years after that a machine specifically for sewing the soles of shoes to the uppers hit the market. In 1883 with the advent of the shoe lasting machine, shoes could now be sewn entirely by machine. Production increased from 50 pairs a day to 700, and the shoe industry began to thrive with shops and storefronts opening nationwide.
Although the Brothers Crisp do utilize antiquated, yet exquisitely functional Singer sewing machines to stitch certain parts of their shoes together, there still remain those pieces that they always do by hand.
That said, Westbrook and his business partner, Jeff Devereux are always seeking new ways to make their production process more efficient but without compromising craftsmanship, artistry, or integrity.
“We have an initiative that will bring bespoke footwear to our customers. Bespoke footwear is when a last is made to fit an individual person’s foot so the shoe produced is just for that person. It costs thousands of dollars to make. We are working on technology solutions to be able to bring that to a wider market but without that cost,” says Devereux.
“We are always asking ourselves how we can bring a fresh perspective to the legacy of honest, artisanal shoemaking. We value the innovative technologies and techniques that allow us to streamline our industry but we acknowledge heritage, without confining ourselves to tradition,” adds Westbrook.
The Brothers Crisp try to source all their materials from responsible companies like themselves in New England or other parts of the United States, which is not always possible especially when it comes to leather, as Italian leather is still a superior product. But they do shy away from manufacturers that are not environmentally or socially conscientious.
“At the end of the day I wanted a trade and to be creative. But it’s good to be in touch with some of the most basic elements that got us where we are as a society like agriculture, animal husbandry, building cities, etc.; and shoes came before a lot of that,” says Westbrook. “Wearing shoes is one of the things that make us human, and it’s a fun way to be creative.”
For more information or to purchase shoes log onto www.thebrotherscrisp.com.