Daphne Board has an artist’s skill and an immeasurable compassion for people with bad feet. She’s been making custom shoes by hand for more than a dozen years.
Today in her studio two stories above Holyoke’s industrial canals, she’s sitting on chair with a shoe-last, a block shaped like a foot, tucked between her knees. She explains what’s she’s doing as she hammers.
“As you stretch the leather around the [shoe] last, you’re taking some of the elastic quality of the leather out and that helps keep the shape of the shoe,” Board says.
Board’s mission is two-fold: in this modern age of disposable goods, she wants to make sturdy handmade repairable shoes. And some of her customers are people who have bad feet. Fallen arches and arthritis, she argues, should not mean they have to wear ugly, mass-produced moon boots.
“It’s tricky because there are things you can do to the shoe to make it more like an orthotic, like giving a lot of arch support or putting in metatarsal pad,” she says. “This is a dialogue actually that goes back-and-forth on the shoe forums, because a well-fitting shoe can help alleviate the problems you have with your feet.”
Board makes just three or four pairs of customs shoes a month, unless she’s making shoes for a theatrical production, then it could be a dozen. In her studio, two stories above Holyoke’s industrial canals, she’s work on getting the sizing right for a new shoe.
“[This shoe] last is a 6 AA, but I’ve built it up through the instep and the forefoot. The heel is a 6A. The forefoot is closer to a 7, 7-and-a-half,” she says. “A lot of my clients fall into this category of having feet that don’t fit into standard sizes.”
Board’s studio is narrow and long. Well-worn wooden floors have been walked on by people from a variety of trades over a couple of centuries. Yet it is yet so 19th century – or even older – to be a shoemaker.
This is a labor-intensive job where you need serious upper body strength, good eyesight is key, and Board says if her knife misses when she’s cutting leather, there’s the risk of bleeding all over everything.
Blood aside, her success as a shoemaker started with sewing. In elementary school she was “that kid” who made her own clothes, including a pair of turquoise sweat pants. She went on to study textiles and then costume design.
At the ripe old age of 38, she’s now a master shoemaker and is teaching the trade to others. Alongside her on this day is apprentice Lisa Davidson, a good 20 years older than her teacher. It was a two-month apprenticeship that’s lasted a few years.
“I tried to end it,” Board jokes. “I tried to say just, you know, show up on Fridays, we’ll hang out, well talk about shoes. But Lisa’s like, “‘No! I still need to learn from you.'”
Davidson adds that she doesn’t want it to ever end.
“There’s so much to learn still,” Davidson says. “I haven’t made any tall boots. I’ve only made one pair of heels!”
When or if the apprenticeship ever wraps up, Davidson will continue making shoes. It may not pay the mortgage but she’s gained a focus and some professional respect.
Recently, while working on a pair of shoes where she lives in Connecticut, she says her hands weren’t strong enough to stitch through the soles, so she took the shoes to a local cobbler who had a machine called an outsole stitcher.
“I took them out of the bag, and I said, ‘Would you be able to stich these on the outsole stitcher?’ And he said, ‘You made these shoes? I was trained to do this in Portugal.'”
Davidson says he admired them, and he stitched them for her.
“I was getting my wallet out to pay him and he just put up his hands,” she says. “He wouldn’t let me pay him.”
Finished shoes do come at a price. Daphne Board sells hers for $600 to $1000 a pair. She justifies that price tag by suggesting you check the back of your closet and do some math.
“How many pairs of shoes do you have? How many do you wear?” she says.
Board says to take all the money you spent on the shoes you don’t wear, “Add it up, figure out what the cost is. Can you afford a pair of handmade shoes that fit you? That you will wear?”
Board is also once again a student. Taking bad feet and beauty to a new level, she will soon take the exam to become a certified pedorthist – someone who makes shoes using prescribed orthotics.
She has to accrue 1000 hours of training, and she confesses, that’s left her little time to take care of her own feet. She hasn’t made herself a new pair of boots in years.