By James Bash
For the Hollywood Star News
If you’ve ever dreamt of having a pair of shoes tailored exactly for your feet, you should consider taking a shoe-making class from Jason Hovatter. Hovatter is highly skilled craftsman who teaches a variety of shoe-making classes from his home in North Portland. With 16 years of professional experience under his belt, Hovatter can help you fashion the shoe or boot that will give you a pair of happy feet, and you can learn a new craft that you can hone for years to come.
The shoemaking technique that Hovatter teaches is a bit unorthodox by today’s standards in that it does not involve the use of lasts. Lasts are mechanical forms, usually made out of wood, that have a shape similar to a human foot. Most shoemakers are taught to use them. Hovatter, however, teaches you how to wrap duct tape on your feet to make a cast.
From the cast, you make a pattern that is used to cut the leather. Then you use a sharp, knife-like tool called a skive to pare the leather. Sewing the leather to the sole is part of the process that you learn to do by hand or with a machine, depending on the kind of shoe or boot that you will make.
“The first time you put your foot in the shoe, it will feel a little snug,” said Hovatter, “But the leather has some natural stretch and that adjusts. So wear is part of the making process.”
If you look on Hovatter’s website, you can find classes for all sorts of shoes styles, including Scandinavian Turn Shoe, German Turn Shoe, Oxford Dress Shoe, Internal Stitchdown Boot, Chukka Boot and the Welted Moccasin Boot. Classes run from three to five days and typically cost anywhere from $300 to $600.
“My classes are set up so that you can have any range of experience,” explained Hovatter. They work well for people who’ve never picked up a hammer to experienced shoemakers. I provide everything for each class. You will learn how to make your shoes, and you walk away with a new pair. I also tell people how to find materials and present options that are based on economics and ease of tool usage. I want my students to be able to make a pair on their own.”
Christine Heycke, who lives in Southeast Portland, loves the new pair of hiking boots that she recently made under Hovatter’s direction.
“They are a really sturdy pair of boots,” remarked Heycke. “One of the great things about Jason is that he has incredible patience. I’m kind of a klutz when it comes to stuff like this. He is very understanding and very generous with his knowledge. He loves to share what he knows. You’d think that some craftsmen would be protective of what they know, but he’s not that way at all, and I think that’s wonderful.”
Hovatter didn’t grow up in a family of cobblers. He picked up the shoe-making craft primarily on his own by trial and error.
“In my early twenties, I traveled around the country for about five years by hopping freight trains, walking and hitch-hiking,” said Hovatter. “I learned how to make all of my own clothes. I got involved with the primitive-skills community and made clothes out of tanned hides. That included pants, shirts, backpack, gloves and shoes. But shoes got me more excited. I made my first pair of shoes from elk hide. They took about three days to make, but it took only three days before they had holes in the soles. Later I stumbled on a used pair of Carl Dryer moccasins and took them apart. I learned a lot from them and the next pair of shoes I made lasted two years – after wearing them every day.”
Somewhere along his travels, Hovatter landed in Ashland and gained more expertise from shoemaker Bill Shanor. For a number of years Hovatter did custom shoes for Renaissance and Medieval festivals before moving to Portland in 2004. Besides teaching locally, he gives classes at the North House Folk School in Minnesota and at other schools that emphasize primitive skills.
He is finishing a book on how to make shoes and an instructional DVD that he hopes to fund through a Kickstarter campaign.