The world, it seems, can’t get enough of our English shoes. These traditionally-made, solid-looking footwear styles have been in fashion for the last few years, and they show no sign of falling out of favour any time soon.
Built to last a lifetime, English shoes are designed to be repaired over and over again, and perfectly complement the more refined, tailoring based form of dress that today’s style-conscious gent favours.
To fulfil this worldwide demand, companies such as Church’s and John Lobb are expanding their manufacturing bases in the traditional home of British shoemaking, Northamptonshire. UK Plc is seeing a renaissance in home-grown manufacturing, which can only be a good thing.
Church’s recently announced they were starting work on expanding their St James factory. The two new plots of land will allow the 110,000 square foot factory to add a 130,000 square foot extension, doubling the manufacturing plant, meaning that it will increase its capacity from 250,000 to 300,000 pairs of shoes per year. Church’s already employs 650 people, with another 150 new jobs set to become available after this expansion.
Northamptonshire: The Home Of Shoemaking
The English town of Northampton was once the shoemaking capital of Europe, with 2,000 individual bootmakers working there towards the end of the nineteenth century. The town’s central position and proximity to the eleven rivers running through the county made Northampton an obvious place for cobblers to set up business.
Andrew Loake, Managing Director of Loake, says: “There was a leather industry in Northamptonshire long before there was a shoe trade here. Our understanding is that there were plentiful oak forests in the county and oak bark was used for tanning leather. So it was a natural progression for the shoe trade to develop in the same area.”
The subsequent availability of leather and Northampton’s strategic importance led to it becoming a centre of military bootmaking, with demand soaring due to the Napoleonic Wars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
A Sign Of Quality: Goodyear Welted Construction
The most famous Northampton technique is the ‘Goodyear welted’ shoe. Invented in 1869 by Charles Goodyear, Jr., the Goodyear welted process is the footwear equivalent of the off-side rule: until somebody sits you down and talks you through it, it’s quite hard to understand.
The process involves approximately 75 components and 200 separate operations. On average, the whole process, from start to finish, takes eight weeks to complete. The main benefit of footwear that is made using Goodyear welted construction is that it can be resoled repeatedly, giving the shoe a longer lifespan.
Essentially, the upper part of the shoe is shaped over the last and fastened on by sewing a leather, linen or synthetic strip – known as the ‘welt’ – to the inner and upper sole. The welt forms a cavity which is then filled with a cork material.
The sole is then attached to the welt of the shoe by some combination of stitching along the edge of the welt and sole itself, and a high strength adhesive like contact cement or hide glue.
“Goodyear welted shoes offer a near perfect balance of weather-resistance, durability, breathability and comfort. And of course, when it’s time to repair/resole them, they can easily be dismantled and rebuilt,” says Andrew Loake.
Yet while England may be famous for the Goodyear welted shoe, he adds that there are other construction processes to look out for:
“There are many other constructions, all with different benefits, for example: moccasins can be very light and flexible, but are not so durable or as well-suited to bad weather. Cemented-soled shoes can look very sleek, but will not feel so sturdy when walking on rough ground, will be less water-resistant and harder to repair.
Blake-stitches shoes have the soles stitched directly to the insoles. This means that, as the shoes are flexed, they can start to leak through the stitch holes. In our opinion, welted shoes provide a kind of ‘best of all worlds’ solution.”
British Shoemakers You Should Know
Still run by the Loake family, Andrew Loake’s great-grandfather, John, opened the first Loake factory with his brothers, Thomas and William, back in 1880. The premium grade Goodyear welted shoes continue to be made in Kettering, England, in the same factory that the three brothers built in 1894.
Manufacturing: Famous for their Goodyear welted shoes, they also offer moccasins, cemented-soled and blake-stitched shoes. Each pair takes around eight weeks to make. Loake estimates they have made over fifty million pairs of Goodyear welted shoes since the company began.
Repair Service: Loake charge £65 per pair, inclusive of return postage within the UK. This covers re-soling on the original last with new soles and heels, fitting new seat socks and re-finishing the upper part of the shoes. The repaired shoes are returned within twenty-one working days of receiving payment.
Famous For: The suede ‘Kempton’ chukka-style boots.
Shoe Care Tips
Once you’ve bought your British-made shoes, you’ll want to make sure you look after them properly. Here are a few tips:
Always use a shoe horn when putting on your shoes. This will keep the backs strong and sturdy.
Look to wear your shoes in dry conditions on the first few occasions – the fine grit picked up by dry leather soles assists water resistance.
Where possible, give your shoes at least twenty-four hours between wears.
Try to avoid excessive wetting. Should this occur always let the shoes dry away from sources of direct heat. Newspaper can be used within the shoes to help draw out moisture.
Invest in quality shoe trees (cedar wood versions are highly recommended) and use when storing your shoes to ensure that there is no loss of shape.
Before polishing your shoes always wipe them over with a dry cloth to get rid of any surface dirt.
Your shoes will benefit from a regular application of quality wax polish. This helps to moisturise the leather, keeping it supple and helping to prevent cracking.
Traditional British shoemakers have hundreds of years of experience and have been perfecting their craft and product over this significant period of time. It’s great to finally see these businesses getting the recognition they deserve as the world begins to increase its appetite for their premium selection of footwear. However, these companies and brands now need to seize this opportunity to build something that will outlast the fickleness of fashion.
It’s also important to remember that while these traditional processes are still very time-consuming and labour-intensive, hence the high price tags, the end product is robust and built to last, making them worthwhile investments. After all, a man is always judged by his shoes.
Why not let us know your favourite English shoemaker in the comments section below and the styles you currently have in your collection…