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Chicago shop reclaiming an old profession by teaching shoemaking and leather work

Chicago shop reclaiming an old profession by teaching shoemaking and leather work
Chicago shop reclaiming an old profession by teaching shoemaking and leather work 03:29

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Skilled craftsmen and artisans once dominated the shoemaking business before factories took over, but a North Side shop is bringing the art back to the people with new classes and lessons.

A shoemaking and leather arts school might sound obscure, but you'd be surprised at how quickly their classes have been selling out, and how many people they can fit into one studio.

Deborah Janssens is used to keeping her hands busy. She's the assistant manager for the Chicago School of Shoemaking and Leather Arts, which means she oversees keeping plenty of other hands busy too.

As of late, thanks to a viral TikTok, she and the entire teaching staff have been doing a lot more instructing.

"I'm running out of calendar space," she said.

It's not just TikTok. Since the pandemic, folks have been spending more money on leather, and arts and crafts, with both industries widely projected to increase their value by billions just in the next couple of years.

"It's a good problem to have. I'm not complaining about it," Janssens said.

But the school is now trying to figure out how they're going to adjust for the sudden influx of new students.

"I think we had over 1,000 new signups. I mean, we have had an exponential explosion. All sold out there, except for the classes, the two classes I just had yesterday," Janssens said.

More students means more classes, which means more of Janssens' time spent prepping materials and making more phone calls.

"A lot of sold-out classes. It always gives you a little bit of a moment of relief, because you know you're going to make rent," she said.

And of course, more leather.

"We're ordering more. We're ordering bigger. We're still figuring it out, because we're beginning to get the first rush of many more classes. So since we're selling off so fast, we need to order more leather," Janssens said.

The school has several suppliers, but only one of them processes their leather in Chicago. The Tannery Row storefront in the West Loop is only a couple stops away on the CTA, and for Janssens, getting to pay them a visit is always a bit of a treat.

"Our founder usually gets the fun job of going shopping for leather," she said.

Since the school's had to increase its number of classes by 50%, materials aren't the only thing Janssens is looking for.

Between herself and the other nine instructors, they have to create the patterns they teach to their students, which means she's also on the hunt for a little bit of inspiration, and she's hoping she can find it at The Tannery Row.

"Our students are always asking for a simple tote with the zipper, and it's high time I deliver," Janssens said.

The selection at The Tannery Row is extensive, and as Janssens shops around, she's not only thinking about what she's going to make, but if she'll be able to teach it.

"I want somebody to be able to finish in the time that they're given, and I want people to have a really good experience in that," she said.

With each piece of leather is a possibility for a new creation; and for teachers like Janssens, there's the potential for it to become a skill she can pass on to somebody else.

The school offers introductory classes through their website and Groupon. Those classes fill up fast, but Janssens said she's always working on how to fit more students in.

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