IT’S a fact: women love shoes.
It’s also a fact that most women will own enough footwear to furnish a small army.
Yet there is only one female shoe manufacturer in Sheffield – Bridget Tingle.
In many women’s eyes, Bridget has the perfect job – for more than three decades she has spent her life among shoes.
In her rather Dickensian workshop Bridget stitches, cuts, designs, glues, binds, bonds and bashes shoes into shape. This is a one-woman band at its best.
But in spite of its modest setting – a Crookes terraced house – Guat Shoes is in worldwide demand, as Bridget explains.
“There has been an increase in demand for these shoes. The internet has helped but also many of my shoes are not made from leather so they are popular among vegetarians and vegans.”
But the surge in the popularity of Guat shoes points to more than just a fashion fad – it shows that more and more people are taking up vegetarianism.
“I did lots of research about material that was breathable like leather but wasn’t made from an animal,” said Bridget.
“I use a material called lorica, which was originally designed for fishermen in Japan because leather disintegrates in salt water.
“It’s a product that was produced by the petro-chemical industry but it breathes and wears very well and you don’t have to polish it like you do with leather. Leather’s good but it cracks and ages because it’s skin.”
Guat Shoes make leather shoes as well, though their leather is ethically-sourced.
“I only buy leather that’s a byproduct of the meat trade,” said Bridget.
Her point is proven by the row upon row of shoes lined up on her shop wall. There are boots, shoes and sandals in every colour imaginable.
“It’s always nice to make something in bright colours and I do make quite a lot of multi-coloured shoes as well.”
Guat shoes are all flat. There are no stilettos, platforms or wedges though Bridget has started making a pull-on boot, similar to the Ugg boot.
“Sometimes I base my designs on current trends because that is, after all, what the customers will want, so I make a pull-on boot, which is very popular.”
Bridget designs all her shoes from scratch in the shop, taking inspiration from the season’s fashions.
“Above her head on the wall is a collage of cut-out pictures of shoes.
“I do that for ideas when I’m designing. I try to design a new shoe every year and once I have the design I make a mock-up of it,” she said.
The success of the mock-up determines whether the shoe is made for sale.
As she speaks, Bridget stitches another pair of shoes. On first sight, the material between her fingers looks nothing like a shoe – it’s the cut-out, pre-formed ‘upper’ of a shoe but within hours this curiously-cut piece of lorica will be shaped on a last, glued and knocked into shoe-shape.
“This is called making the uppers,” said Bridget, as she presses a sole from a huge press. “I’m dreading the repetitive strain injury that I’m going to have when I stop doing this.”
The technology at Guat shoes is very traditional – little of it resembles the slick, high-tech machinery one would see in a big brand factory.
“This is a very basic way of making shoes and one that was used for years before big advanced factory production took over.”
Bridget moved to Sheffield in the 70s, to study geography at the University of Sheffield and learnt her shoe-making skills from another shoemaker after graduating.
“I just happened upon the business. It started off as a part-time business that I could run while raising two young children.”
That was 1978. She’s still here, 33 years on. And with Radio 4 blasting away in the background, Bridget seems quite content with her small enterprise.
“It’s great – and I especially enjoy doing festivals and craft fairs. I always sold a lot of shoes at craft fairs but it was a hell of a lot of hard work because you had to take so many shoes with you – there was always someone who wanted a style in a size you didn’t have with you.”
Bridget concentrates on her shop and website now for business, which is just as well, as she only lives up the road.
“I walk to work every day, so it’s a good job I make shoes.”
Guat shoes are all handmade.
All shoes are resoleable and can be repaired at the shop itself.
Materials are sourced from the UK, where possible and if customers wish the entire shoe can be made of vegan - non animal - materials.
Guat use a material called Lorica, which is durable, man-made and water-repellent. Lorica looks and breathes like leather, only it isn’t from hide.
The material is a combination of microfibres and resins such as cellulose fibres, polyamide and polyutherane.