As a child, Dean Westmoreland took great pride in cleaning and polishing his football boots, just as his mother had taught him to do. “We didn’t have much, but what we did have, we tried to look after,” he says. This attitude, respecting and caring for our belongings – and especially for our shoes and boots, which are, after all, the most important items in our wardrobe, taking us on all life’s journeys, great and small – now stands Dean in good stead for his work as a master cobbler, and for his new role on BBC1’s The Repair Shop, joining Jay Blades and the team of expert crafters restoring treasured items to their former glory.
Exploring family, social and universal history as the craftspeople use their skills to bring cherished objects back to life, The Repair Shop has captured the imagination of millions of TV viewers.
“And rightly so,” says Dean, who has his own cobblers shop, Yorkshire Sole, at Shipley Market Square. “I have been pinching myself because it’s so surreal.”
Dean made his TV debut in the famous Chichester Repair Shop barn last month when he took on the task of repairing the running shoes that sprinted athlete Audrey Brown to silver in the 4x100m relay at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, watched by Adolf Hitler.
They were brought in by Audrey’s grandson Tom Wenham, from Ilkley, a coach for Team GB men’s lacrosse. Audrey had died in 2005 aged 92, and had left Tom the bespoke leather running spikes wrapped in a tea towel, but they were so damaged that he had not dared to touch them. Dean worked hard on the 85-year-old leather. “I thought they were just going to fall to dust, but you could see they were well made, so I had an inkling that they could stand being repaired,” he says.
The running shoes had a turn shoe construction, a historic type of shoemaking that almost nobody in this country knows how to do any more.
“That was difficult to replicate,” says Dean. “There were a few tricky bits, but everybody helped out where I needed it.”
On presenting the repaired shoes, Dean found that he too was moved by Tom’s reaction. “When you know the story, it does add a lot of weight,” he says. “The emotion you see on camera, it’s real. That’s another unique thing about the barn. No one is acting, because these items have such depth.”
He came to the attention of The Repair Shop producers thanks to fellow expert crafter Dominic Chinea who, in May last year, posted a picture of his old Red Wings boots next to his new pair, commenting that he had no idea what to do with them. “I messaged him offering to repair them, saying you would be surprised what we can do – they are not dead yet,” says Dean. “A couple of weeks later, I got an email from production, which I thought was a prank, and it went from there.”
So it was that the Shipley cobbler found himself making a five-hour drive down to Chichester. “The production crew are incredible, the camera guys, the runners and the people making it tick. They made me feel really welcome, as did the experts,” he says. “It is super unique because you are never around so many disciplines in one space. But, despite everybody having a different medium, they all have the same mindset, or there is a crossover in mindset in how you tackle things and repair things.”
Back home, Dean, who is 37, lives in Clayton with his fiancée, Leigh, and sons, seven-year-old Oscar and four-year-old Otis, in the same house that he lived in as a child. “We actually managed to buy it, which is pretty cool,” he says.
He grew up there with his mother, Soraya, who works for a bank, plus his older sister and two younger brothers. Dean is the only cobbler in the family. After school at Thornton Grammar, he studied for a degree in music production at Leeds College of Music, and began working for JJB Sports in Bradford. “With my first wage, I bought a pair of Clarks shoes. I have just always had an affinity with shoes, I guess,” he says.
He joined Timpsons shoe repairers in Bradford aged 23 and had four years of training with the firm, working in the Kirkgate Centre shop with his teachers and mentors, Rachael Bell and David Balderston. David sadly died 10 years ago, but Dean still remembers the apprenticeship with fondness and gratitude. “David had spent 40 years in the trade. I got on really well with him, and Rachael, who still works for Timpsons in Kirkgate,” he says. “I think the relationship helped me love the craft, because I had such a good time with them.”
There he learned how shoes and boots were made. “You were shown how to strip them down, the old soles and the old heels, and see how they are built and see the differences between different brands and different types of shoe,” he says. “I realised that, the more I know, the more there is to know. I saw some of the competition work by the older guys at Timpsons, the brass pin work, which was just like art work.”
Dean went part time in 2010 to finish his music degree (he still plays his guitar when he has time) but kept on with the cobbling. “Goodyear welted shoes are the best to repair,” he says. “The construction and the cost of making them makes them a better-made shoe.” He also prefers to wear welted footwear, in particular Red Wings for work. He is a Red Wings authorised repairer and also specialises in the repair and recraft of Crockett & Jones, Trickers, Loake, Cheaney, Church, Oliver Sweeney, Barker, Jeffery West, Sanders and other prestige brands.
“But at the minute, I’ve got some Converse on – it’s my day off,” he says.
In 2016 he won the J Rendenbach UK Shoe Repairer of the Year award and a year later opened Yorkshire Sole. “The first six months, it was just a buzz, and then the next 12 months were extremely difficult,” he says. He closed for 10 weeks during the first lockdown, then could open up as an essential business, but there was no one about, he says.
Now, however, folk want their shoes and boots repairing more than ever. “I think people have been walking a lot,” he says.
So Dean is looking for extra staff and has found someone who has done an apprenticeship in shoemaking, which is handy because he is keen to move into making his own bespoke shoes and boots, from scratch. “I am already making for a few bespoke customers,” he says. “When I spend so much time repairing, it’s difficult to take on many, but there are people wanting them.” He wants to pass on his expertise as a cobbler to a new generation, saying: “It should be passed on. It’s just finding the people who are interested in it, and there are people out there.”
Dean knows that he is fortunate, especially as so many businesses, including shoe repairers, have closed, never to open again. “I feel very humbled by it,” he says. And he is bracing himself for a surge of interest and clients at the Shipley shop, thanks in part to his new-found fame. Jay Blades gave him some sound advice: “Enjoy the ride.”
The Repair Shop is available on BBC iPlayer. Yorkshire Sole is at Market Square, Shipley, visit www.yorkshiresole.co.uk. Follow Dean on Instagram @yorkshiresole