or Connect
Styleforum › Forums › Men's Style › Classic Menswear › A Tour of Northampton
New Posts  All Forums:Forum Nav:

A Tour of Northampton

post #1 of 226
Thread Starter 
I am working on a magazine piece about the shoe industry in Northampton. The piece will not come out for a while, but I just returned from the research trip.

Most of what I have to say I will save for the article. But a lot of what I saw will not be of interest to the magazine (readers or editors) but possibly will be of interest to Style Forum members. Ditto the pics. So here goes.

My first stop was Edward Green. The current factory is in a sort of suburban area, but within the Northampton town limits. The street it's on is mostly populated by car dealerships.



FYI, there are only five factories still in Northampton town: Green, Lobb, Church's, Crockett & Jones, and Trickers. The are a few others in the surrounding towns in the county. I was told by a number of people that the height of the trade, around WW1, there more more than 100 factories in the town. In 1945, there were 42. Today, five.

Anyway, Green moved into its current factory around 2002. Until then the early '90s, they had been at the same location forever, which is now the Lobb factory. The current facility is modern, large, light and airy. Apparently, it was built as a shoe factory in the '60s, then was converted to a factory that made maritime fire extinguishers, and EG converted it back into a shoe factory.

The first stop was the conference room. (Sysdoc, if you are reading this, I was authorized to take every photo that I took on this trip!) It was filled with shoes -- and just any shoes, but the actual sample shoes that are photographed for the catalogue:







I interviewed Hillary Freeman at some length (thanks for being so generous with your time!) One of the points stressed was the difference wrought on the company by John Hlustik, who bought it when it was about to go under in 1982. Hillary pointed to a few of his changes as being really significant:

  • Movement away from black shoes and toward brown
  • Switch from aniline to crust leathers
  • Development of antiquing
  • Refinement of the lasts
  • Improvements in finishing
Now, your first reaction may be to call BS and think she is exaggerating in a way that favors her company. Maybe. But I talked to a lot of people, including many of her competitors. And I found that there is a tremendous reverence for Hlustik in Northampton. People give him credit not just for reviving Edward Green but for saving the entire industry, or at least making it better.

Anyway, to illustrate, she showed me a pre-Hlustik shoe:





Not a bad looking shoe. But note the totally uniform color, the somewhat blobby last (303 as I recall), the uninspiring sole and waist treatment, and the slightly slap-dash finishing. Contemporary EG shoes are miles ahead of that one.

Then she got to talking about Top Drawer. She stressed that many improvements have already been made into the line since it was restarted a year or two ago, and many of the practices that Top Drawer had introduced had also been introduced into the standard line. Now, I had been a skeptic of Top Drawer back when I saw the first new examples in 2006. But the newer ones are much better, and much more worthy of the high price. The waists -- still machine welted -- are a lot tighter, the heels neater, and the finishing overall just much better:





The pics could be better, but it's hard to get much closer than that.

Next, I went through the factory. First stop, clicking room.



All those plastic bins contain the patterns for shoe parts, basically the templates (graded by size) for the pieced of leather that get stitched together to make a shoe. These thingies:



All Edward Green shoes are clicked by hand, using a knife like this:



These things are kept incredibly sharp, and must be sharpened constantly. Sharpening is itself a skill, not unlike keeping a kitchen knife in working order, only more difficult.

The other method is to use forms, like cookie cutters (I forgot the correct name), and a pneumatic press that punches them through the leather. This is faster, but it has two disadvantages. First, making the forms is a huge expense. Second, they cannot be so easily sharpened, and they cut less precisely, with more "hair" at the edges. More on this later, when we get to Alfred Sargent.

Nearly all the skins that Green (and others) use is from veal calves, averaging about eight months old when killed. Northampton used to be a huge tannery site but no longer. All the best leather now comes from the Alps (France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy). Here is a full skin of black boxcalf from France, which will make three or at most four pairs of shoes:



Look at this closeup and you can see grainy patterns called "growth," i.e., literally where the calf had a growth spurt:



Shoes like Chelseas and wholecuts must avoid growth at all costs. Broguing can hide growth somewhat. But still a lot of growth-marred skin just gets tossed.

Some clicked pieces with no growth:



Clickers at work:





The next step is "skiving." This is shaving off some leather around the edges of each panel. This makes the needle go through more easily in closing, and it makes the edges lie flatter and smoother (less bulk) on the finished shoe. See the gray edge? That's where leather has been shaved off:



Broguing and gimping are added by a special machine. Take a toe cap:



Select the bit that punches or cuts the pattern you want:



For instance, left bit: small gimp, right bit: large gimp (this pic is actually from Tony Gaziano's production line at Alfred Sargent):



Run it through the machine; this is done by eye and hand. That is, the curves are totally human created. The sweep of a wing tip, for instances, has no machine pattern. It depends on the skill of the operator.



Next, the panels are glued together. The glue is not meant to hold them together for the long term, nor could it. It's meant to hold them, together for closing.



Linings are glued/taped in:





Then the shoe is closed. Again, all the curves are turned by hand and eye:



Most closing is done by machine, but not all of it. The Dover aprons, famously, are sewn by hand:





Time for lasting:



Almost. First, the insole is cut, and that white ridge is attached (again, I forgot it's name). The welt is sewn to that ridge. This is a key difference between a hand-welted and a machine welted shoe. On a hand-welted shoe, the insole is much thicker, and the ridge is literally carved out of the leather; there is no separate piece. I think this helps account for the handmade shoe's superior lightness and springiness.



EG shoes are mostly hand-lasted:



But a machine can stretch the toe much tighter than the hand:



A lasted shoe. Note the color of the leather. That's crust burgundy. The color you see out of the box is applied with polish, by hand:





Time to rest. The shoes are left on the last for a week or so, and shrunk-wrapped to protect the uppers from the rigors of what is to come:



Wooden shanks:



Cork filler:



You can see that the welts are already on. I don't know what happened to my shots of welting, but they are gone. Oh well. I got plenty at other factories. TK.

Attaching the outsole:





Cutting the channel:





Sadly, at this point, my camera battery died.

But before it did, I passed by a couple of stations of interest.

Ever wonder who writes the model/size/last number by hand in your pair of Greens? Now you know!



Finally, Top Drawer has its own room, the Holiest of Holies as it were:



There are a lot of differences now, but the main thing is the finishing. This is where it all happens:



More to come.
post #2 of 226
Awesome!
post #3 of 226
Manton, great pictures and write up thank you for sharing!
post #4 of 226
THANKS, Beautiful pictures. Will look forward to additional posts . Speed
post #5 of 226
Spectacular post, Manton. How would you compare Top Drawer to Lobb Prestige?
post #6 of 226
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by mafoofan View Post
Spectacular post, Manton. How would you compare Top Drawer to Lobb Prestige?

It's sort of an arms race. At this point the combatants are Lobb, G&G and EG. Lobb Prestige came first and was the best hands down. Then EG introduced Top Drawer and it lagged at first. G&G came next and it was better than both. EG has since refined Top Drawer, making it at least as good as G&G and better than Lobb Prestige. For now. What's interesting -- and exciting -- is that they all have an eye on one another and are doing their best to get and keep that #1 spot. The quality improvents at all three are palpable, but so are the price increases.
post #7 of 226
Quote:
Originally Posted by Manton View Post
It's sort of an arms race. At this point the combatants are Lobb, G&G and EG. Lobb Prestige came first and was the best hands down. Then EG introduced Top Drawer and it lagged at first. G&G came next and it was better than both. EG has since refined Top Drawer, making it at least as good as G&G and better than Lobb Prestige. For now. What's interesting -- and exciting -- is that they all have an eye on one another and are doing their best to get and keep that #1 spot. The quality improvents at all three are palpable, but so are the price increases.

Improvement to Lobb Prestige? I'd love to hear what they are. The prices are getting insane though. EG standard shoes are selling for what JLP cost 4 years ago. It looks like all my future shoes will be Aldens.
post #8 of 226
Manton how would the waist of EG TD lain compare to G&G's?

from what i saw in tokyo of the EG TD they were still a notch behind
post #9 of 226
Thread Starter 
That black and white spec I posted was the lastest generation of TD. It compares very well to G&G, and possibly has the edge. Possibly. A year ago, I would have said that G&G blows TD out of the water. I can't say that any more.
post #10 of 226
What a fabulous post! I greatly look forward to more in the series.

Many thanks!

-Rob
post #11 of 226
i'd say close call! i would hate to have the casting vote!
post #12 of 226
Perhaps someone can educate me about this: I don't understand the point of all the beautiful sole detailing. Don't get me wrong, it is beautiful, but it get's all scraped up after you've worn your shoes for a while.
post #13 of 226
Awesome post. Looking forward to your posts about other factories. P.S. I think the white ridge you refer to is known as "the feather".
post #14 of 226
Quote:
Originally Posted by mafoofan View Post
Perhaps someone can educate me about this: I don't understand the point of all the beautiful sole detailing. Don't get me wrong, it is beautiful, but it get's all scraped up after you've worn your shoes for a while.

If there were no beautiful soles, what would some of us brag about? I agree with you though, a lot of extra cost goes into those beautiful soles that is more or less disappear after several wears.

Very nice post Manton!
post #15 of 226
Great post manton!
New Posts  All Forums:Forum Nav:
  Return Home
  Back to Forum: Classic Menswear
Styleforum › Forums › Men's Style › Classic Menswear › A Tour of Northampton