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shoe construction...behind the veil
Techniques The current president of John Lobb has famously said "We have turned our backs on the machine." You can dislike the styling of John Lobb shoes but anyone who is really and truly concerned with quality--the quality of life, the quality of shoes--has to admire that sentiment. Especially in the case of behaviors, and artifacts, and skill sets that human beings have been evolving for literally thousands of years...that on some level are almost genetically part of what makes us human...machines bring little of real worth to the table. If they can handle some processes better and more accurately than human hands they also make those hands meaningless. They homogenize standards of quality, learned and perfected skills, ways of thinking and perceiving, achievement and ultimately, even lives. And the result is almost always a dumbing down of the very things that make us unique.
Machines, and our fascination...obsession, really...with them and all they can do, are a perfect metaphor for an Age of Relativism. In a world of machines...there is no "good, better, best." Only endless copies and the hoopla of promotion. It is no coincidence that the manufacturing technique that I have the most problem with--gemming--is hidden from the consumer's eyes. Or that it seeks to covertly substitute materials that share few of those attributes of quality for Traditional materials and techniques that are perceived as too expensive, too time consuming and too hard to deconstruct to effect an optimal profit margin.
And, most disingenuously...to my mind...it is a technique which seeks to represent itself as the legitimate offspring of those older, more deliberate and more "human" sensibilities. Which it definitely is not. At the same time, it is no coincidence that those makers with the very best reputations for attention to detail, care and forethought--quality, IOW--nearly always (in every instance that I am aware of) insist on hand welting for their premier lines. To me gemming represents everything that is reprehensible about manufacturing, marketing, and the surrounding hype and price that defines "Style."
When a shoe is handwelted we have a leather to leather bond. Ideally all those leathers will have not only a tight and compact connection, one with the other, but the materials themselves will share common attributes such as temper and flexibility and so forth. The end result is stable, flexible, reasonably impervious to wear and the elements...and, like Occams Razor, simple! It is the same philosophy that makes a welded bond of iron to iron preferable to a riveted joint. The same principle that makes using epoxy (even the most technically advanced epoxies) to connect structurally critical beams in a tunnel so irresponsible.
When a shoe is gemmed, we have a leather to canvas to glue to (often) fiberboard bond. Fundamentally any connection is only as strong as its weakest component. At the most basic level a gemmed shoe is held together by glue. Is it going to explode? No. I never said it would. If worn in a light rotation in carefully controlled environments, a gemmed shoe may last a lifetime. The same could be said of a shoe comprised entirely of paper, however.
Is it a reasonable approach to mass marketing (if not mass hysteria)? Yes, it probably is. But the only reason to implement a Goodyear welted shoe...as opposed to a hand-welted shoe...is to cut the cost of manufacturing and increase the profit margin. ["Margin" in all I have said refers to the disparity between all manufacturing costs--human and material--and the walk away booty.] But none of that puts it in the same league as an all leather shoe that is constructed along the same lines as a hand-welted shoe. I mention this because there are machines...for those so enamored...that will do a credible facsimile of a hand-welted inseam. Given that, there is, in fact, no good, functional, technical reason to choose the Goodyear method. It does not make a better shoe. Make no mistake, even the most altruistic manufacturer does not choose a construction method solely because it will allow the masses to better afford a pair of shoes. They choose it because it maximizes some part of the profit stream and sometimes affords access to a market niche that they would otherwise miss.
As mentioned in another thread, I spent a lot of my early years doing shoe repair when I was not making boots. I saw a lot of problems with Goodyear construction but I never anticipated having to document those issues. As a consequence I didn't take photographs. At the same time, I don't do much repair these days--one pair of boots or shoes in a six month period is a lot. So imagine my delight... About two months ago, I took in two pair of ostrich boots from the same customer...different manufacturers. They had been purchased roughly at the same time...I would guess within months of each other. They received roughly the same amount of wear...and may have even been in an alternating rotation, as who should say. That said, they were used...regularly. They may have been "ridden hard and put up wet" on more than one occasion. They did not live in a closet. The customer requested new outsoles. Both had holes in the outsole and dust underneath...inside and up against the bottom of the insole. Upon taking the old soles off, I noticed and photographed the following: In these two photos you see that the boot has been gemmed. I have circled areas where the glue holding the gemming to the insole (cardboard) has given out. And another area where the gemming has simply deteriorated ...rotted. This boot would need to be "re-crafted" to be returned to its original size and shape accurately. Replacing outsoles, I was guessing as to where the inseam should be. In this photo you see the other pair of boots. Here the insole is leather and a machine has been used to welt the boot. Functionally, and even visually, the result is not much different from a fairly crude version of hand-welting. There was no section or area where the welt had come loose or the inseam had failed or the insole had broken through. Coincidentally, about a month later, I took an order for a pair of shoes. The customer brought in several pairs of his favourites and while it was evident that the customer took care of his shoes, he implied that they were part of a larger rotation. I did not tear them apart. They had never been repaired. If I recall correctly, he said the pair below was less than five years old. This photo is of a pair of highly touted, brand name, English shoes that were GY welted. What you are seeing is irrefutable evidence that the gemming has slipped...and not even in an area that gets a lot of strain. What are you and I, dear reader, to conclude from these examples...this essay, as who should say? Well, if past is prologue, some will take offense and will consider it a personal attack. Needlessly so in my opinion, for two reasons... No one who is not a maker has to take responsibility (or defend) the choices of those who are. If you made the shoes, well, that's one thing. If not...its no reflection on you or your character. Very simply, it is what it is. And beyond that, I simply don't have a dog in this fight...never have. I have deliberately refrained from promoting my business to any great extent and I have even more assiduously avoided attacking or even mentioning other makers...large and small. I don't personally care how a person spends their money or even what they think is the very thing of the age. But having said that, I would wish that folks understood what they pay for. And that they understood that what they are getting is very often is not the time-honoured skills and traditions and quality that they think they ought to be getting. That they've been sold. That's my only conclusion...my only message--it is what it is.
Edited by DWFII - 7/31/16 at 6:14am
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