Made in China Since the Qing Dynasty: Beijing Shoemaker Taps into The Future

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Cobbler Cai Wenke puts the finishing touches to a 'thousand-layer' cloth shoe at the demonstration workshop of the Neiliansheng shoemaker in Beijing
Cobbler Cai Wenke puts the finishing touches to a 'thousand-layer' cloth shoe at the demonstration workshop of the Neiliansheng shoemaker in Beijing, China August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
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BEIJING (Reuters) 

In an ornately decorated building in central Beijing, cobbler Cai Wenke painstakingly makes shoes by hand in a process that has hardly changed since the business first started in 1853

Neiliansheng has made shoes with traditional ‘thousand-layer’ soles and hand-stitched fabric uppers since the Qing dynasty, which ruled China until 1912.

 

A traditional 'thousand-layer' cloth shoe is seen at the Neiliansheng shoemaker's workshop in Beijing
A traditional ‘thousand-layer’ cloth shoe is seen at the Neiliansheng shoemaker’s workshop in Beijing, China August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

 

Among its satisfied customers, it counts politicians and celebrities, from Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping to Jackie Chan.

The shoes, first designed for court nobility commonly carried around in sedan chairs, are made with more than 40 types of tools, in a specific sequence of more than 90 steps. Each pair usually takes about four to five days to finish.

 

Cobbler Cai Wenke inspects a pair of 'thousand-layer' cloth shoes at the demonstration workshop of the Neiliansheng shoemaker in Beijing
Cobbler Cai Wenke inspects a pair of ‘thousand-layer’ cloth shoes at the demonstration workshop of the Neiliansheng shoemaker in Beijing, China August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

 

Cai, 39, learned the trade almost a decade ago, and skillfully demonstrated the craft, nailing the white cotton fabric to the sole, which is formed from 35 layers of cotton interwoven with hemp thread in a criss-cross fashion.

After the shoes are made, colorful or patterned cloth is sewn on. A pair of these classic shoes costs about 500 yuan ($73).

 

A handmade 'thousand-layer' cloth shoe and tools are seen at the demonstration workshop of the Neiliansheng shoemaker in Beijing
A handmade ‘thousand-layer’ cloth shoe and tools are seen at the demonstration workshop of the Neiliansheng shoemaker in Beijing, China August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

 

Neiliansheng, which has changed hands many times over the years, now makes more than 300 varieties of the shoes, all based on the same design conceived 150 years ago.

 

 

New, more fashionable styles such as open-toed sandals and prints featuring characters such as Hello Kitty and Angry Birds cater to younger customers, while shoes embellished with feathers and pearls are used by Chinese opera performers.

“To make good shoes, one needs qualities such as conscientiousness, persistence and concentration,” said Cai as he sat at a small table, finishing off another pair.

 

(Reporting by Thomas Peter and Thomas Suen; Writing by Karishma Singh; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

 

A customer tries on a handmade 'thousand-layer' cloth shoe at the showroom of the Neiliansheng shoemaker in Beijing
A customer tries on a handmade ‘thousand-layer’ cloth shoe at the showroom of the Neiliansheng shoemaker in Beijing, China August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

 

Nails and tools used in the production of 'thousand-layer' cloth shoes lie on a bench at the demonstration workshop of the Neiliansheng shoemaker in Beijing
Nails and tools used in the production of ‘thousand-layer’ cloth shoes lie on a bench at the demonstration workshop of the Neiliansheng shoemaker in Beijing, China August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

 

A handmade 'thousand-layer' cloth shoe is seen at the demonstration workshop of the Neiliansheng shoemaker in Beijing
A handmade ‘thousand-layer’ cloth shoe is seen at the demonstration workshop of the Neiliansheng shoemaker in Beijing, China August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

 

A traditional 'thousand-layer' cloth shoe is seen at the Neiliansheng shoemaker's workshop in Beijing
A traditional ‘thousand-layer’ cloth shoe is seen at the Neiliansheng shoemaker’s workshop in Beijing, China August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

 

A traditional 'thousand-layer' cloth shoe is seen at the Neiliansheng shoemaker's workshop in Beijing
A traditional ‘thousand-layer’ cloth shoe is seen at the Neiliansheng shoemaker’s workshop in Beijing, China August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

 

A traditional 'thousand-layer' cloth shoe is seen at the Neiliansheng shoemaker's workshop in Beijing
A traditional ‘thousand-layer’ cloth shoe is seen at the Neiliansheng shoemaker’s workshop in Beijing, China August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

 

A traditional 'thousand-layer' cloth shoe is seen at the Neiliansheng shoemaker's workshop in Beijing
A traditional ‘thousand-layer’ cloth shoe is seen at the Neiliansheng shoemaker’s workshop in Beijing, China August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

 

A traditional 'thousand-layer' cloth shoe is seen at the Neiliansheng shoemaker's workshop in Beijing
A traditional ‘thousand-layer’ cloth shoe is seen at the Neiliansheng shoemaker’s workshop in Beijing, China August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

 

A traditional 'thousand-layer' cloth shoe is seen at the Neiliansheng shoemaker's workshop in Beijing
A traditional ‘thousand-layer’ cloth shoe is seen at the Neiliansheng shoemaker’s workshop in Beijing, China August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

 

A traditional 'thousand-layer' cloth shoe is seen at the Neiliansheng shoemaker's workshop in Beijing
A traditional ‘thousand-layer’ cloth shoe is seen at the Neiliansheng shoemaker’s workshop in Beijing, China August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

 

Cobbler Cai Wenke works on a 'thousand-layer' cloth shoe at the demonstration workshop of the Neiliansheng shoemaker in Beijing
Cobbler Cai Wenke works on a ‘thousand-layer’ cloth shoe at the demonstration workshop of the Neiliansheng shoemaker in Beijing, China August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

 

A combination of pictures shows designs of the traditional 'thousand-layer' cloth shoe at the Neiliansheng shoemaker in Beijing
A combination of pictures shows designs of the traditional ‘thousand-layer’ cloth shoe at the Neiliansheng shoemaker in Beijing, China August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

 

A customer tries on a handmade 'thousand-layer' cloth shoe at the showroom of the Neiliansheng shoemaker in Beijing
A customer tries on a handmade ‘thousand-layer’ cloth shoe at the showroom of the Neiliansheng shoemaker in Beijing, China August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

 

Cobbler Cai Wenke works on a 'thousand-layer' cloth shoe at the demonstration workshop of the Neiliansheng shoemaker in Beijing
Cobbler Cai Wenke works on a ‘thousand-layer’ cloth shoe at the demonstration workshop of the Neiliansheng shoemaker in Beijing, China August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

 

Cobbler Cai Wenke works on a 'thousand-layer' cloth shoe at the demonstration workshop of the Neiliansheng shoemaker in Beijing
Cobbler Cai Wenke works on a ‘thousand-layer’ cloth shoe at the demonstration workshop of the Neiliansheng shoemaker in Beijing, China August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
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