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Traditional cobblers repaired footwear. Most cobblers were Chinese although a few Indian and Malay cobblers also adopted the trade in old Singapore. Cobblers were found throughout the island and many worked along five-foot-ways. Later, some cobblers made slippers and shoes themselves and were known as capal makers and shoe makers respectively.
Cobblers became popular after Singaporeans switched from clogs to modern footwear sometime in the 1950s. They either worked in the open or in tiny cubicles along street pavements or along five-foot-ways. Traditional cobblers usually occupied a specific locations for years although some were itinerant and cycled a cart laden with footwear repairing tools around housing estates.
Traditional cobblers used different kinds of knives, hammers, nails, pincers, shoe brushes, shoe lasts, shoe polish, threads of different colours, needles, adhesive and scissors. They stored away their tools in boxes or baskets. They also kept with them rolls of leather, synthetic leather, varieties of vinyl soling material and rubber pieces. Their work hours were flexible but they usually started their day early.
The Traditional Cobbler
Traditional cobblers replaced old soles, stitched up torn slippers and replaced heels. To patch up or replace soles, first they would select suitable material according to the customer's footwear. The outline of the shoe shape was traced on the selected material with a pencil. The cobbler would cut it and finally stick it on with a strong adhesive to the shoe. The edges were trimmed with a very sharp knife. Sometimes it was reinforced with a row of small nails. Heels were replaced in a similar manner while torn slippers were stitched up neatly where required. They charged around S$1.50 to mend a pair of shoes in the late 1970s and would make around S$300 a month. Their earnings for the day depended much on the rains.
The Capal Maker
The capals a.k.a chapals or "sandals" are leather slippers used by Malay men as a part of their traditional dress. The cowhide leather for capals was imported from Australia and sold locally by some Chinese shops. The capal maker would cut out an oval larger innersole and three smaller sole pieces for each foot using standard patterns from tin sheets. He machine-stitched the leather and the thong to the soles. The three soles were glued together and hand stitched to the innersole with a white coloured waxed chord. Brass nails were finally hammered into the heels to reinforce them and make them attractive. In the earlier days Malay women also wore the capals but it went out of fashion with time although today, some are still worn by some Malay men in Singapore. A pair of capals cost around S$30 today.
The Shoe Maker
Traditional shoe makers were usually found around Clyde Street making different types of shoes and sandals. The shoe making business was usually a family trade and several family members could collectively make shoes together. A contract to supply a certain number of shoes of a particular design to shops or emporiums helped sustain the family business. The shop layout usually looked like that of a production line. Each member of the family would complete a certain process then handover the shoes to the next member to do the next task in shoe making. The whole process of cutting and sewing depended on skilful fingers. Later machines were used to do a part of the job before the factory-line production became the norm.
Some traditional cobblers can still be found in places like Holland Village and at the City Hall MRT entrance. This handful of traditional cobblers are slowly dwindling in number as their business are dominated by shops such as Mr Minute. The streetside cobbler has to be a jack-of-all-trades to survive. They make everything from capals to custom-made shoes. These highly skilled cobblers can also design, construct or repair orthopaedic shoes in accordance with a foot specialist's prescription.
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The information in this article is valid as at 1998 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.