Tools of the Trade: Sarah J Coombes Shoemaker

by Brianna Read This month’s instalment of Tools found me in the charming rabbit warren of the Nicholas Building in the heart of Melbourne. This wonderful building is home to many talented folk of a creative bent but I had come to visit the studio of cordwainer (and CWC memberSarah Coombes. The term cordwainer is a name given to artisans who craft shoes, different to a cobbler who traditionally repairs them…

I didn’t know quite where to start with the tools of this trade, there are so many of them! Sarah’s beautiful, light filled workroom (which she shares with fellow hand crafter Phong Chi Lai) is packed with tools of every kind, there is serious machinery and workbenches covered with tools and materials. Sarah walked me through the studio introducing me to the bare essentials of her toolkit:

Hand skiving knife - starts as a flat length of metal about 25cm long without a blade edge, this has to be honed by hand, this makes each knife blade shape quite different as it is shaped by the technique of each maker.

Lasting pincers – these come in a range of shapes and are used repeatedly throughout the lasting process to stretch the leather around the last and hammer onto the insole.

Shoemakers hammer– a smooth rounded hammer on one side and curved edge the other, both sides are used for many different processes from neatening edges during lasting to hammering on the soles to the shoe.

And lastly the tool known to Sarah as Edith – a beautiful seventy year old Pfaff industrial post sewing machine, whose age has apparently not impaired her speed…They sure don’t build them like they used to!

Recently some of Sarah’s summer sandals made their way to Northcote shopping treat A Quirk of Fate and when I ask if they are available at any other retailer Sarah discusses the enjoyment she takes in the process of meeting with a client and crafting a pair of shoes just for them.

Given that many of her designs include time consuming details, such as hand stitching, I get the impression that this practice is very much about the crafting, this footwear is the ultimate in fast fashion antidotes. In addition to the high levels of hand craft involved in the making of each pair of shoes Sarah has also enlisted the talents of Melbourne jeweller Tessa Blazey to create metal embellishments for her designs, adding another tier of the bespoke to each pair leaving the studio.

Visiting the creative space of an artisan like Sarah whose trade has a long and rich history prompted a slew of questions about how she learnt to use such an extensive toolkit, a trade after all is usually something you must learn from another… Next month’s post will be the last for the year and Sarah has inspired the perfect wrap-up topic: masters & apprentices…


Brianna Read is a designer/maker based in Melbourne. Her knitwear label Jack of Diamonds  employs traditional hand-made techniques in combination with machine knit technologies. Brianna’s multi-faceted creative practice encompasses design, production, works for exhibition and machine knitting workshops