- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 22, 2017

LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) - The story of Mattimore Harness is one of old and new combining in different ways.

The shelves, walls and floors are filled with decades-old equipment used in practicing a trade - handcrafting shoes and boots - whose heyday has come and gone. But the new creations that leave the workshop find their way to customers around the world thanks to that modern invention, the internet.

Meanwhile, the next generation of young shoemakers has been coming to Tom Mattimore’s workshop to learn the traditional craft from one of its longtime practitioners, reported the Laramie Boomerang (https://bit.ly/2lLynO5).

“I love teaching,” he said on a recent weekday afternoon.

At the time, employees Yashi Gorji and Mike O’Connell, both students at the University of Wyoming, were working through the crimping process, when wet leather is stretched over a boot-shaped board and smoothed into place to form the front of a cowboy boot.

Gorji has worked for Mattimore for the last year and said she loves taking a boot from a drawing on a piece of paper to an actual piece of footwear.

“Designing is my favorite part, and then watching it come to life,” she said.

A half-made pair of boots Gorji is working on feature an image of her own design stitched in colorful leather.

“I let anybody who works for me make their own shoes or boots,” Mattimore said. “It’s the quickest way for them to learn.”

On shelves behind Gorji and O’Connel in the crowded workshop were dozens of lasts, or foot-shaped molds that a leather shoe or boot is built around. The last determines the size and shape of the shoe as well as the height of the heel.

Almost no one in the United States still makes lasts, and some of Mattimore’s are more than 100 years old. When he was just getting started, he bought a collection from a man in Texas selling off his equipment.

Most of the floor space in Mattimore’s shop is taken with large pieces of ancient-looking and industrial-sized machinery piled with shavings or strung with thread, leaving a narrow walkway circling the collection. The various tools of the boot-making trade take on the specialized cutting, pressing, punching, trimming and sewing chores.

“Most of my tools are really old,” Mattimore said.

As he toured the collection, he pulled out pieces of footwear in various stages of construction - boots modeled after those worn in the pre-World War I British cavalry, made for a customer in England. Shoes in a design popular in the 1880s, for a customer in Canada. Boots mimicking those worn by Frederick the Great of Prussia in 1780. Baseball shoes of the style worn in 1870.

He makes shoes for World War II buffs, Civil War re-enactors, opera groups and theater departments.

“People just send me a picture and expect me to make it, and I do,” Mattimore said. “So, they keep sending me pictures. That’s all I really need.”

Mattimore first ventured into leatherwork when a harness he bought didn’t fit his horse. He drew on skills learned in childhood to rebuild it.

“Everything useful I ever learned in life started in the Boy Scouts,” he joked.

He started making harnesses for friends, then branching into dog collars and leashes, buying equipment as he went. Mattimore started repairing shoes and boots before making and selling his own. Eventually, he made a business of the work, allowing him to leave a career in construction about 30 years ago.

He said almost everything he makes is sent out of state.

“I ship all over the world,” he said. “God bless the internet. It gave a bunch of small guys a real shot at making a living.”

Jennifer James was a student at Rutgers University studying theatrical production when she spent six weeks in Laramie learning to make shoes with Mattimore. One of her professors used to work at the University of Wyoming and knew Mattimore through UW theater productions.

“I jumped at the chance,” she said.

James stayed with Mattimore and his wife and made six pairs of shoes while in Wyoming. Mattimore sent her home with her own pair of lasts and a bag full of materials.

“Tom is very generous with his knowledge and was really eager to share all his knowledge and tools and supplies,” she said.

These days, James is based in New York City and makes costumes for theater productions.

“Shoemaking, especially handmade shoes, is definitely a dying trade,” she said.

Perhaps it is, but in Mattimore’s shop, the old trade still takes on new life.


Information from: Laramie Boomerang, https://www.laramieboomerang.com

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