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!