BRATTLEBORO — If your feet aren’t happy, more than likely neither are you.
“Most people who come to me leave with a changed experience,” said Terri Walton, who has handcrafted custom-made shoes for the past 17 years. “It’s transformative. What’s going on with their feet has limited the amount of joy in their lives. I want to give them back their mobility, their sense of who they are, so they’re not focused on their feet all the time.”
For a decade she worked out of her home studio in Townshend, but is now in the Cotton Mill in Brattleboro.
“Everything at the Cotton Mill is by appointment,” said Walton. “We have plans to open a small retail space in Florida, but everything will still be made right here in Vermont.”
Walton is a certified pedorthist, or person who is trained in the management and treatment of conditions of the foot, ankle, and lower extremities requiring fitting, fabricating, and adjusting of footwear.
Walton, who also has a medical background, evaluates a customer, usually face to face, though in the past year, COVID-19 restrictions have limited her contact with her customers. She listens to them, watches them walk, evaluates their current footwear and asks them what their goals are.
“I like to see what is going on for a person and steer them in a direction that is most helpful for them,” said Walton.
She takes measurements of feet and observes any physical problems that might be happening with a person’s feet and ankles.
“We are one of the few companies in the country that make custom shoes,” said Walton. “A lot of the people who come here can’t make it through the day.”
Their discomfort could be due to a birth defect, an accident, a sports injury, their age or their physical health, said Walton.
But with the right pair of shoes, she said, “We can bring them back to a place of mobility.”
Frank Sopper, of Dummerston, said he’s been a customer long enough to own four pairs of Walton’s shoes, and now a pair of sandals, also.
Sopper said he was born with a condition that causes his joints to hyper-extend, making it hard to find shoes that support his ankles and feet. When he was a child, he wore orthopedic shoes and as he got older, athletic shoes seemed to do fine.
But Sopper, now 65, was experiencing pain in his feet and ankles and blisters due to his condition.
“I kept going to orthopedic surgeons, hoping they would one day make an artificial ankle,” he said.
The best the doctors could do, said Sopper, was recommend he find someone to make him a pair of custom shoes.
“Where in the world am I going to get a pair of custom shoes?” Sopper said he asked himself. “Italy? Hong Kong?”
But when Sopper went online, he quickly learned that one of the best in the business was basically right in his own backyard.
“She knows everything a top orthopedic surgeon knows and she also knows how to make a pair of shoes,” said Sopper, who at one time was a writer for the Reformer. “My first pair of shoes were transformative. I could walk again and be on my feet for long periods of time without pain and discomfort. Turns out, I didn’t need new ankles, just a pair of custom shoes.”
He noted that while they aren’t “dainty,” the shoes are “beautifully made and beautifully crafted.”
Most of the time, around the house or running errands, Sopper wears his new sandals.
“The sandals are absolutely as comfortable and do the job as well as the shoes,” said Sopper, who noted he does have heavier custom-made shoes for hiking or doing yardwork.
“It is worth the investment,” he said. “If you can’t walk in comfort, it limits you in a lot of ways, or you just put up with the pain.”
An initial appointment with Walton averages about an hour where Walton evaluates the customer’s feet and stride, takes a foot mold and makes drawings. From those measurements and observations, she crafts a pair of custom orthotic shoes.
That amount of work and attention to detail doesn’t come cheap. A pair of Walton’s shoes can cost $600 or more, as much as a major car repair.
For some people who have been walking in pain for many years, it’s a small price to pay.
But Walton wants to offer more to her customers.
“Looking at the feedback I’ve received from my customers over the years, many of them don’t want to wear their custom shoes to the beach,” she said. “They want a life that is open to different experiences.”
Walton began to float the idea of custom-made sandals for her customers who wanted something a little more casual, that they could slip on to go to the beach with the kids or wear around the house.
Still, the off-the-bench handmade sandals are not inexpensive. They can run between $200 and $320.
Walton realizes not everyone can afford that, so she has a goal of expanding production at her facility to include a full line of sandals that are more affordable, handmade but not custom-made, and based on the knowledge she has developed after nearly two decades making shoes.
“We have great hopes that people will be wearing our sandals and custom shoes for years to come,” said Walton.
She has two dedicated apprentices working with her now, Samantha Schiela and Carrie Potter-Earle. Walton hopes to add more employees
“I like working with my hands and I love knowing these shoes are going to people who really need them,” said Schiela.
Before the pandemic, said Walton, many of her customers came from all over the country to spend a few days in Brattleboro and get fitted with new shoes.
“They’re happy to come because they know there is a world of things to do in Brattleboro,” said Walton.
Most of her business is via word of mouth from satisfied customers. She also gets some referrals from podiatrists and other medical practitioners.
“Some of my customers, I’ve been making shoes for them for my entire 17 years,” said Walton. “Many of them are now wearing our sandals. We build an orthotic base right into the sandal, just like with a custom shoe.”
Walton got into the business because she couldn’t find shoes to help her with her own pain.
Years of soccer-playing resulted in osteoarthritis, and difficulty walking. Fed up and unable to find relief, Walton simply decided to build her own pair of one-of-a-kind shoes for her one-of-a-kind feet.
“I learned primarily from Randy Merrell,” said Walton. Merrell was making custom shoes when he founded Merrell Shoes in 1981, with Clark Matis and John Schweizer. He now makes custom boots out of his shop in Vernal, Utah.
“It started out this self-serving thing to fix myself,” said Walton. “But then I felt I needed to share it with everyone else.”
As it turns out, Walton’s interest in custom shoes might be genetic.
She is the great-granddaughter of Clarence Collins, who employed more than 100 people making shoes at the Collins Shoe Factory in Danville, N.H., in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The factory burned to the ground in the 1930s.
Walton notes that on the other side of her family, her great-grandfather was a shoe maker in Norway.