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Leather Quality and Properties - Page 51

post #751 of 1235

This is an absolutely fascinating discussion. The particular point at issue here is a perennial for Styleforum and, whilst the presenting issue relates to GYW - and gemming in particular - the context for this is the comparison between the factory method (or should I say 'mentality'?) and the bespoke method.

 

I think that the reason for the ubiquity of GYW in shoemaking is the demand for easily re-solable boots, made to standard sizes that came out of the conflicts of the 19th century. Napoleon created the Grand Armee, which had over 500,000 men under arms. The logistical challenges posed by an army of that size, the biggest in European history, were huge and so were the expectations of the soldiery. It was a Citizens Army, based on the ideals of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, each soldier was performing his duty as a citizen, and was therefore entitled to be provided with the things that fighting required. The same principles animated the armies that fought in the American Civil War. Governments that decided to go to war with mass conscript armies had to provide for them in ways that had never been countenanced before, in an era when mechanisation was making mass production possible for the first time. Long before GYW, Napoleon's troops were said to have worn boots made in Northampton, money truly 'has no friends'.

 

Without the impetus of war it is difficult to see how the factories and workshops of Northampton could have established themselves as quickly as they did in the latter part of the 19th century. I don't have any production figures to hand but the British military establishment was as reliant on Northampton boots as it was on the products of colonial meat imports, cotton from India and new technical innovations like canning. Without a boot designed to be produced on a production line, modern warfare would have been difficult to pursue effectively. It is broadly analogous to the development of production facilities for the Lee Enfield .303 or the Colt 45.

 

The argument, as I understand it, is that the factory method, which has GYW as its primary inherent weakness, will always demand cost savings in the interest of pursuing profit. Manufacturers often improve quality at the expense of cost when they introduce premium products with increased production costs - Toyota and Lexus spring to mind. But they do so in order to develop new markets and make more money. In fact it was one of the weaknesses of Northampton that it failed to understand the corollary, or accept the imperatives of the market; it kept production at home, used better materials than it needed to for market conditions at the time, refused to modernise production processes and consequently, more or less, went bust.

 

The devils brew of fibreboard, cardboard and paper are fairly ubiquitous in shoe production, I can think of at least a dozen shoe manufacturers who use these materials routinely. However, and this is the important bit, the best quality Northampton shoemakers don't use shoddy materials in their shoes. In fact, one could argue that it is precisely this rejection of the expedient that led to the decline of shoemaking in England, the refusal to acknowledge the modern world and its demand for fashion and disposability. Shoemakers in Northampton are a perfect example of the reasons why British manufacturing declined so rapidly after WWII. Captive markets gone, an insistence on sticking to the old ways of doing things, poor or non-existent marketing, and family and worker loyalties making it unthinkable that a firm would move production offshore.

 

English shoemakers have frozen themselves sometime in the period between 1890 and 1945. In those years it was producing GYW shoes by the millions, maybe tens of millions. It was making them to a military standard (not then always a synonym for useless and overpriced) which stipulated materials to be used, cost and quality; it was patriotic and refused to follow the expediency model to its logical conclusion. In many ways it behaved as a pre-industrial industry, following tradition no matter how “young” that tradition may have been, with GYW being the only real expedient (I mean that in the narrowest sense and am talking exclusively about the best makers).

 

Modern English GYW shoes are the inheritors of those traditions. Whilst GYW is an expedient (and it's difficult to see how millions of boots for the army could have been produced through two world wars without it), the quality of materials used by the best rtw makers in Northampton is at least as high as it ever was, and perhaps better. It's not for nothing that most of the firms we are currently familiar with (EG and AS being prime examples) have had challenging financial problems in the past. In a way they have been saved by the internet.

 

I don't believe for one moment that the workers in Northampton are the same as the workers in other factories, mere process-bunnies, and anyone who thinks they are should take a factory tour and see for themselves. The level of skill and pride amongst the workforce has to be seen to be believed. A previous post mentioned Cliff Roberts as a wonderful example of an artisan maker. There are many, many more like him in Northampton, people capable of making shoes by hand, using traditional methods handed down from parent to child. And, in a wonderful reversal of the norm, the management (lots are still family owned) encourages these familial transactions, not because they believe they will make them money, but because the tradition of shoemaking is so precious to them, and their pride in the people who make them is apparent from even the most superficial of conversations.

 

On another note I hope I'm not the first person to say this but I believe that the examples of DWFII's work that I have seen posted on Styleforum put him absolutely in the top tier of bespoke makers in the world today. I've seen nothing anywhere else that I could say is better. He is certainly working to the best of the West End standard and his waists are stunningly beautiful. His insight is built on decades of experience and he is right about GYW. I think we ought to raise a petition for DWFII to emigrate to England, say a city on the south coast, say Chichester so that he can make shoes for me!

 

Chichester

post #752 of 1235
Quote:
Originally Posted by chichester View Post

On another note I hope I'm not the first person to say this but I believe that the examples of DWFII's work that I have seen posted on Styleforum put him absolutely in the top tier of bespoke makers in the world today. I've seen nothing anywhere else that I could say is better. He is certainly working to the best of the West End standard and his waists are stunningly beautiful. His insight is built on decades of experience and he is right about GYW. I think we ought to raise a petition for DWFII to emigrate to England, say a city on the south coast, say Chichester so that he can make shoes for me!
Chichester

Thanks for the kind words.

Scotland maybe. My ancestors (MacSuibhne) are from Argyll and the oldest, still standing stone castle in Scotland was built by them--Castle Sween on Loch Sween.

Besides that, I have to be somewhere I can fish for chrome.
post #753 of 1235
Quote:
Originally Posted by DWFII View Post


Thanks for the kind words.

Scotland maybe. My ancestors (MacSuibhne) are from Argyll and the oldest, still standing stone castle in Scotland was built by them--Castle Sween on Loch Sween.

Besides that, I have to be somewhere I can fish for chrome.

 

So I can't tempt you with warm-ish beer and a medieval cathedral then?

post #754 of 1235
Quote:
Originally Posted by chichester View Post

the quality of materials used by the best rtw makers in Northampton is at least as high as it ever was, and perhaps better. It's not for nothing that most of the firms we are currently familiar with (EG and AS being prime examples) have had challenging financial problems in the past. In a way they have been saved by the internet.
Chichester

Talk to June Swann sometime--she was for years the Keeper of the Shoe Collection at the Northampton Shoe Museum and is perhaps the leading authority on shoes, shoemaking, and esp. the history of shoes, in the world.

Ask her about leather quality and about "64 to the inch."
post #755 of 1235
Quote:
Originally Posted by DWFII View Post


Talk to June Swann sometime--she was for years the Keeper of the Shoe Collection at the Northampton Shoe Museum and is perhaps the leading authority on shoes, shoemaking, and esp. the history of shoes, in the world.

Ask her about leather quality and about "64 to the inch."

 

I have been fortunate enough to visit the museum, though not fortunate enough to meet the incomparable Ms Swann.

 

DWFII  I wasn't referring to leather quality per se, I was thinking more of the use of leather for toe puffs and counters and that sort of thing, where the best makers seem to be moving away from plastics and other less than optimal materials. The quality of the leather available to shoemakers is, as we know, on a long-term decline. I was fortunate enough recently to see a pair of boots stitched at 18 to the inch (my calculation so may be + or - one) and was staggered by the quality. Needless to say it was produced neither using the GYW method nor in the last half century.


Edited by chichester - 11/3/13 at 9:43am
post #756 of 1235
I've never met her either...nor have I ever been to the museum. But one of my best friends in the Trade is master Al Saguto who is the head shoemaker at Colonial Williamsburg and the head of the shoemaking faculty there. He is one of the foremost shoe historians in the world in his own right. He was closely mentored by Ms. Swann and to the degree possible...with a large landmass between us...he has mentored me on history, and other shoemaking related things. .

Occasionally Ms Swann will post some tidbit or piece of advice, through Master Saguto, on The Crispin Colloquy, the bespoke shoemaking forum I created for my Guild --The Honourable Cordwainers' Company--some 15 years ago. She also contributes some reviews of books to the Crispin Courier, a newsletter put out on a quarterly basis by the HCC. I have two of her books, as well.
post #757 of 1235

It sounds like I will have to make a real effort to meet her, it would be a fascinating experience. Perhaps, I could also arrange a visit to Colonial Williamsburg, are such things encouraged?

post #758 of 1235
Quote:
Originally Posted by DWFII View Post

Talk to June Swann sometime--she was for years the Keeper of the Shoe Collection at the Northampton Shoe Museum and is perhaps the leading authority on shoes, shoemaking, and esp. the history of shoes, in the world.

Ask her about leather quality and about "64 to the inch."

Could you share a bit more info about this? I've heard from a number of old-timers in the leather industry that the quality of leather has dipped noticeably over the last few decades. Is this something to do with the raw materials? The quality of tannage? I wonder why something like the 64spi couldn't be replicated on leather like veg-tanned kangaroo
post #759 of 1235
Quote:
Originally Posted by dibadiba View Post

Could you share a bit more info about this? I've heard from a number of old-timers in the leather industry that the quality of leather has dipped noticeably over the last few decades. Is this something to do with the raw materials? The quality of tannage? I wonder why something like the 64spi couldn't be replicated on leather like veg-tanned kangaroo

Sometime back we had a great rush of excitement and speculation on the Crispin Colloquy about how this was done. Several people actually tried it...myself among them. Fellow in New Zealand or Australia actually came the closest, working with veg 'roo. I think he got close to 50 spi...all done by hand.

In my attempts with domestically available veg 'roo, silk thread and bristles made from 2# monofilament fishing line, I got close to 36 spi. But I can tell you it was crude, as who should...politely, charitably...say.

During this fevered round of experimentation, Ms. Swann wrote Al Saguto and told him that veg kangaroo was probably the only leather in the world today that a person might have a chance to do "64 to the inch" in....which he passed on to all of us in a CC posting.

The story she tells (if I can recall it correctly) ...and like any old man I'm probably repeating myself by relating this...is that in her position as Keeper of the Shoe Collection, she examined a number of pairs of shoes that were stitched at 50-64spi on both uppers and soles. One pair from Philadelphia had been made for an International Trade Exposition (World's Fair) and it had taken the shoemaker several years, wearing three (?) pairs of glasses, to complete. And he had never made another pair again.

Such work was never done for wearing but always for exhibition. But there was a great movement during the latter half of the 19th century to do this kind of "Prize Work" primarily as a defiant gesture to the forces of industrialization. To prove that no machine, no factory could match the quality and refinement of a skilled Tradesman (at that time, the term "Tradesman" was closer in meaning to an idealized version of "craftsman".) . Many Trades from woodworking to weaving to shoemaking shared the opinion that no "wage slave" cared enough...or was committed enough...to even come close. [BTW, the term "wage slave" is drawn from tracts and even Trade catalogues from that time.]

As for the leather quality dipping...why shouldn't it? How could it not? We can extol the virtues of bringing shoes to the masses (at a considerably lower historical proportion of the common-man's wages) through the good graces of the manufacturing sector. And believe it or not, I would be the last person to gainsay those virtues.

But along with that has come the dumbing down of everything from the quality of the leather to our ability to appreciate the nuances of quality itself. If, by virtue of expediency or the implacable pursuit of the bottom line, the demand for quality leather dries up, it can come as no surprise that the very existence of quality leather will be forfeit.

Or...as is common, esp. among those who prefer self-congratulation...we can/will just change the definitions of quality to be less rigourous.

And this kind of "slippage" is across the board...not just in the Shoe Trades but, culturally, across the board.

Nevertheless it is worth remembering that at one time there were literally hundreds of tanneries like Baker in existence from England to Europe to North America. At one time there were literally hundreds of grinderies making tools for shoemakers and saddlers and allied trades. At one time there were numerous linen mills producing long staple linen both for shoemakers and of course for lacemakers and fabric in general. Where are they now?

It's not a process that happens where we can see it...it's not a process that happens overnight. So no one takes notice until those leathers, those techniques, those skills--that knowledge, is gone forever.

"Not with a bang but a whimper."

--
Edited by DWFII - 11/6/13 at 5:28am
post #760 of 1235
Quote:
Originally Posted by chichester View Post

It sounds like I will have to make a real effort to meet her, it would be a fascinating experience. Perhaps, I could also arrange a visit to Colonial Williamsburg, are such things encouraged?

Colonial Williamsburg...in Virginia--ie The colonies" cool.gif...is, AFAIK, open to the public most days of the year. It is an amazing place--most of the original building from the 17th century are still intact and a stockpile of 17th century brick is kept to do repairs on them.

I'm not a great fan of "tourist traps" or "theme parks" but I was impressed. Very much so.

The only thing that detracts in any way is the current managerial meme of politically correct history. They won't display George Washington's uniform or his sword (or so I'm told) because it's too militaristic. Again this policy is "across the board."

Other than that, it may not be of much interest to people from countries that have hundreds, maybe thousands of buildings that are centuries and centuries old. But on this side of the pond we have a particular blindness with regard to the virtues of the past. Or the lessons we can learn from them.
post #761 of 1235
Quote:
Originally Posted by DWFII View Post


Colonial Williamsburg...in Virginia--ie The colonies" cool.gif...is, AFAIK, open to the public most days of the year. It is an amazing place--most of the original building from the 17th century are still intact and a stockpile of 17th century brick is kept to do repairs on them.

I'm not a great fan of "tourist traps" or "theme parks" but I was impressed. Very much so.

The only thing that detracts in any way is the current managerial meme of politically correct history. They won't display George Washington's uniform or his sword (or so I'm told) because it's too militaristic. Again this policy is "across the board."

Other than that, it may not be of much interest to people from countries that have hundreds, maybe thousands of buildings that are centuries and centuries old. But on this side of the pond we have a particular blindness with regard to the virtues of the past. Or the lessons we can learn from them.

 

And that, I think, is part of the attraction, to understand something of the cultural context behind the appreciation of history. Sure England has lots and lots of old buildings and, as I wrote above, I'm fortunate enough to live in a Georgian city with a medieval cathedral. But it can all be quite difficult to appreciate because the context is too familiar. So, for me, seeing a North American appreciation of the 17th century would be a real treat.

 

The George Washington stuff doesn't surprise me at all, it's everywhere now - a middle-aged adult obsession with the infantile. My stepdaughter turns 18 in a few weeks and we were just discussing what she's going to get as a present. We've decided on a Regency-period flintlock pistol, one that's been well used for preference. That kid gives me hope for the future!

post #762 of 1235
Quote:
Originally Posted by FosterandSon View Post

And that, I think, is part of the attraction, to understand something of the cultural context behind the appreciation of history. Sure England has lots and lots of old buildings and, as I wrote above, I'm fortunate enough to live in a Georgian city with a medieval cathedral. But it can all be quite difficult to appreciate because the context is too familiar. So, for me, seeing a North American appreciation of the 17th century would be a real treat.

The George Washington stuff doesn't surprise me at all, it's everywhere now - a middle-aged adult obsession with the infantile. My stepdaughter turns 18 in a few weeks and we were just discussing what she's going to get as a present. We've decided on a Regency-period flintlock pistol, one that's been well used for preference. That kid gives me hope for the future!

+1

cheers.gif

Oh, BTW, if you go, be sure to check in at the shoe shop and look up Master Saguto. Tell him Dee-Dub sent you.
post #763 of 1235

Thankyou, it's lovely to meet with a like-minded person. Apologies for responding above under my other username, I'd wanted to keep my participation in this thread to myself (if you see what I mean) and not mix up the personal with business. Best

post #764 of 1235
Quote:
Originally Posted by chichester View Post

Thankyou, it's lovely to meet with a like-minded person. Apologies for responding above under my other username, I'd wanted to keep my participation in this thread to myself (if you see what I mean) and not mix up the personal with business. Best

Well, if you're coming this way and happen make a wrong turn and find your self on the left-hand coast instead of the right, think about making the trek my way. You'd be more than welcome. I've had Frank Jones (Noble Footwear) and Colin Barnsley (Woodware Repetitions) visit and enjoyed them immensely. Nike is only a couple hours away (in Portland) and it's lovely drive through mountains and high desert to Redmond.

And...Oregon is one of the epi-centres of the brewing revival in the US. Some of our locals have won international competitions...for their ales...year after year.

BTW, I don't know how accurate it is, really but I loved Pillars of the Earth--the book, not the mini-series--as well as the sequel, World Without End. I've read both several times. I know nothing about architecture or mediaeval cathedrals but Follett's work was inspirational. Made me add the cathedral in St. Denis to my bucket list.

--
Edited by DWFII - 11/4/13 at 4:49am
post #765 of 1235

DWFII,

 

I'll be sure to take a left not a right, sounds like a beautiful part of the world.

 

Have never read either book but will give them a try and would strongly recommend Graham Robb's book about Paris. That the knowledge it took to build Notre Dame is now lost forever is fascinating and heartbreaking in equal measure. Reminded me to look at my local cathedral in a different way and saddened me that I will never know how they did it in 1199. It's what makes your work so important, the narrative thread of shoemaking requires real live people to continue do it or it just becomes history, something beyond living memory, dead.

 

Best,

 

Chi

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