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Creating stylish and durable leather products is the job of precision shoe and leather workers; keeping them in good condition is the work of repairers. Among the workers who do leather work and repair are custom orthopedic shoemakers, saddlemakers, and luggage makers. Although these workers produce different goods, their duties are actually quite similar.
Depending on the size of the factory or shop, a leather worker may perform one or more of the steps required to complete a product. In smaller factories or shops, workers generally perform several tasks, while those in larger facilities tend to specialize. However, most leather workers eventually learn the different skills involved in producing leather goods as they move from one task to another.
Leather workers must first check the leather for texture, color, and strength. They then place a pattern of the item being produced on the leather, trace the pattern onto the leather, cut along the outline, and sew the pieces together. Other steps may vary according to the type of good being produced.
Orthopedic shoemakers, for example, attach the insoles to shoe lasts (a wooden form shaped like a foot), affix the shoe uppers, and apply heels and outsoles. They shape the heels with a knife and then sand them on a buffing wheel for smoothness. Finally, they dye and polish the shoes. Custom shoe workers also may modify existing footwear for people with foot problems and special needs. This can involve preparing inserts, heel pads, and lifts from casts of customers' feet.
Saddlemakers often apply leather dyes and liquid top coats to produce a gloss finish on a saddle. They may also decorate the saddle surface by hand stitching or by stamping the leather with decorative patterns and designs. Luggage makers fasten leather to a frame and attach handles and other hardware. They also cut and secure linings inside the frames and sew or stamp designs onto the luggage exterior.
Shoe and leather repairers use their knowledge of leatherworking to give worn leather goods extended wearability. The most common type of shoe repair is replacing soles and heels. Repairers place the shoe on a last and remove the old sole and heel with a knife or pliers or both. They attach new soles and heels to shoes either by stitching them in place or by using cement or nails. Other leather goods, suitcases or handbags, for example, may need seams to be re-sewn or handles and linings to be replaced.
Leather workers and repairers use handtools and machines. The most commonly used handtools are knives, hammers, awls (used to poke holes in leather to make sewing possible), and skivers (for splitting leather). Power-operated equipment includes sewing machines, heel nailing machines, hole punching machines, and sole stitchers.
Self-employed shoe repairers and owners of custom-made shoe and leather shops have managerial responsibilities in addition to their regular duties. They must maintain good relations with their customers, make business decisions, and keep accurate records.
Working conditions of leather workers vary according to the type of work performed, the size of the factory or business, and the practices of each individual shop.
Workers employed in custom leather goods manufacturing establishments generally work a regular 40-hour week. Those in repair shops work nights and weekends and often work irregular hours. For those who own their own repair shop, long hours are common. Although there are few health hazards if precautions are followed, work areas can be noisy and odors from leather dyes and stains are often present.
Shoe and leather workers and repairers held about 24,000 jobs in 1994. Self-employed individuals, who typically own and operate small shoe repair shops or specialty leather manufacturing firms, held about 7,000 of these jobs. Of the remaining workers, about half were employed in the manufacture of footwear products, and an additional one-fifth were employed in production of leather goods such as luggage, handbags, and apparel. Another fifth worked in shoe repair and shoeshine shops.
Precision shoe and leather workers and repairers generally learn their craft on the job, either through in-house training programs or working as helpers to experienced workers. Helpers generally begin by performing simple tasks and then progress to more difficult projects like cutting or stitching leather. Trainees generally become fully skilled in 6 months to 2 years; the length of training varies according to the nature of the work and the aptitude and dedication of the individual.
A limited number of schools offer vocational training in shoe repair and leather work. These programs may last from 6 months to 1 year and impart basic skills including leather cutting, stitching, and dyeing. Students learn shoe construction, practice shoe repair, and study the fundamentals of running a small business. Graduates are encouraged to gain additional training by working with an experienced leather worker or repairer. National and regional associations also offer specialized training seminars and workshops in custom shoe making, shoe repair, and other leather work.
Manual dexterity and the mechanical aptitude to work with handtools and machines are important in the shoe repair and leatherworking occupations. Shoe and leather workers who produce custom goods should have artistic ability as well. These workers must have self-discipline to work alone under little supervision. In addition, leather workers and repairers who own shops will need to have a knowledge of business practices and management as well as a pleasant manner when dealing with customers.
Many individuals who begin as workers or repairers advance to salaried supervisory and managerial positions. Some may open their own shop or business.
Employment of shoe and leather workers is expected to decline through the year 2005. Inexpensive imports have made the cost of replacing shoes and leather goods cheaper or more convenient than repairing them, thus reducing the demand for shoe and leather repairers. These workers are also adversely affected by the rising cost of leather and higher rents in the high-traffic areas in which more shoe repairers are relocating. Some of the more expensive, fine leather products will continue to be repaired, however, and this demand will moderate the employment decline of shoe repairers. Consumers are also buying more comfort-soled leather shoes, which should also increase demand for the services provided by shoe repairers. In the future, though, most job openings in this occupation will arise from the need to replace experienced workers who transfer to other occupations or leave the work force.
Prospects for workers employed in the manufacture and modification of custom-made molded or orthopedic shoes are better than those for most other leather workers. This is a result of substantial expected growth in the elderly population and an increasing emphasis on preventive foot care. The employment effects of these trends may be limited, however, since the demand for orthopedic footwear is increasingly fulfilled by manufactured shoes that are modified to specification instead of totally custom made.
Data on earnings of shoe and leather workers are very limited. Their earnings vary greatly depending upon the place of employment. Beginning workers often start near the minimum wage and can advance in just a few months. Owners of shoe repair and custom shoe manufacturing shops can earn substantially more.
Other workers who make or repair items using handtools and machinery include dressmakers, designers and patternmakers, and furriers.
For information about the custom-made prescription shoe business, and about training opportunities in this field, contact:
Pedorthic Footwear Association, 9861 Broken Land Pkwy., Suite 255, Columbia, MD 21046-1151.
For information about opportunities in shoe repair, contact:
Shoe Service Institute of America, Educational Library, 5024-R Campbell Blvd., Baltimore, MD 21236-5974.
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