Until recently I had a view that Made-in-England footwear brands were rather stuck up. In a way, my theory was justified: these are heritage companies, widely recognised as the best footwear manufacturers in the world – anyone’s ego would be inflated. They produce the type of shoes reserved for landed gentry and wealthy, old-money types, or so the thinking goes. But a recent visit to Crockett & Jones in Northampton changed my perception entirely.
I was greeted by the delightful Mr. James Fox, Marketing Manager at Crockett & Jones – a particularly pleasant chap, and part of the new-wave of modern strategists at the company but with one eye on Crockett & Jones’ storied past.
Interestingly, Crockett & Jones was founded in 1879 in Northampton by Charles Jones and his brother-in-law, James Crockett, with a grant of £100 each from the Thomas White Trust, “to encourage young men of good character in the towns of Northampton and Coventry to set up business on their own”.
Crockett & Jones’ success is well documented. Producing the finest quality footwear from the off, in the early the days the brand benefited hugely from the factory’s geographical location in Northampton – a town situated on the country’s main trading routes through to London. Its reputation for quality and its locational connectivity meant the company’s growth quickly snowballed. Not even WWII could stunt its meteoric rise, with Crockett & Jones manufacturing 1,000,000 pairs for the armed forces under instructions from the government to switch the majority of the production to military footwear.
Another lesser-known secret to the brand’s success is its family-owned lineage, with a 5th generation Jones’ family member working in the business today and a 4th generation, Jonathan Jones, serving as Managing Director. This long-term view and understanding of what the company stands for and what makes its customers tick is something that can’t be taught.
The 8-Stage Manufacturing Process
First things first, Crockett & Jones specialises in the manufacture of high-quality Goodyear-welted footwear across three ranges: its Hand Grade Collection, Main Collection and Shell Cordovan Collection. Despite much of the production process evolving over the years (with the introduction of better machinery and new health & safety regulations) much of the factory looks just as it did when it was first built.
Upon entering the factory the first thing you’ll notice is the volume of staff – the production process is extremely labour-intensive, with every single pair of shoes requiring a highly-skilled workforce to carry out more than 200 separate operations during an 8-week period. This is no fast-fashion manufacturer; this is hand-made, artisanal work with minute attention to detail.
1. Pattern Cutting
Prior to production the design department produce the patterns for the last; the wooden form on which the shoes are made. From the pattern a prototype sample is made and test fitted. Any adjustments are then made to the patterns and a final sample pair is produced. It is crucial to ensure that the patterns fit correctly before starting on bulk production.
In the Clicking Department, at the 1st stage of production, the shoe uppers and linings are cut. The “Clicker” is a highly-skilled operative, named after the “click” sound which the hand-cutting knife makes as it is removed from the leather. The Clicker is responsible for examining the leather for any defects, scars or growth marks before each pair is cut by hand. A good clicker needs to be knowledgeable about the nature of leather in order to maximise the usage whilst retaining the highest quality.
At the next stage of production the uppers are “closed”. Closing involves many different operations: from punching of the holes for brogue styles and edge staining, to hand-sewing and machine-stitching prepared sections together to form the shoe upper, before fitting the eyelets. The Closing Room machinists require excellent hand and eye coordination.
This is the preparation of “bottom” part of the shoes. The insoles and soles are cut from bends of leather or rubber sheets using large heavy presses. The leather insoles are prepared for “Lasting” by attaching the material rib, to which the welt will eventually be attached. The heels are built in-house with leather or rubber lifts and top pieces. At this stage the appropriate lasts are selected to be matched with the closed uppers.
The lasting process is where the shoe begins to take shape. The upper of the shoe is tacked to the rear of the last to ensure the back height is correct and is then pulled over the last with the lasting machine, before being side lasted by hand. It is vital for the toe laster to ensure that the shoe upper is fitted accurately to the last.
An important process in this department is “Welt Sewing”, where the operative stitches the welt (a strip of leather) to the rib on the insoles. The welt is a key element in the Goodyear-welted process. The bottoms of the shoes are filled with cork and wooden shanks are inserted to provide support beneath the insoles, before the soles are stitched to the welt. This method allows for the soles to be removed for repair without affecting the uppers.
After the soles have been attached the shoes undergo a process of “Bottom Levelling”, which rounds the soles to the shape of the last.
In the Finishing Department the heels are attached, trimmed and then scoured with emery paper for a smooth finish.
Edge trimming is a meticulous and physical process whereby the sole edges are trimmed to the specific shape of the last. This is done “free hand” like many other operations in Goodyear-welted shoemaking.
The soles and heels are then stained and hot wax is applied to the edges to provide a waterproof seal and a good shine. Various decorative finishes are applied to the soles, such as wheeling and crowing, before a final polish.
8. Shoe Room
In the Shoe Room the uppers of the shoes are hand polished to create the rich depth of colour in the leather. Crockett & Jones call this “antiquing” and “burnishing”. For some leathers this has to be repeated multiple times with the shoes being “mopped” in between each coat of antique. The lasts are then removed from the shoes, the leather soles are stamped with the Crockett & Jones brand and in-socks are fitted.
Finally, the shoes undergo a scrutinised check for quality control before they can be passed for lacing and boxing.
A Labour of Love
It should be patently clear by now that Crockett & Jones produces incredibly well-made footwear. From the sourcing and grading of the finest leathers through to the eagle-eyed inspectors looking for the slightest imperfections in the finishing room, the craftsmanship and attention to detail throughout the manufacturing process is without peer. The company truly deserves its reputation for producing some of the finest shoes in the world.
However, it was the employees I spoke to working at the factory who best summed up the brand for me. Unrehearsed, their passion for not only the company but making the best footwear possible was palpable. Clearly proud – and rightly so – of Crockett & Jones’ heritage and the products they were making with their own fair hands. Like a tailor delivering a final fitting for a bespoke suit, each pair of Crockett & Jones shoes represents the blood, sweat and tears of its employees.
I spoke to one lady who had worked their for 30 years, her husband too. She was brimming with pride, boasting of the brand’s achievements and her husband’s footwear collection. Gone were my concerns of a stuck-up industry reserved for wealthy gentry and old money. When you purchase a pair of Crockett & Jones shoes you’re also buying into a piece of history. This is footwear that someone has given part of their life to, and has crafted lovingly with a sense of pride.
The benefits of buying hand-made British shoes don’t stop with how they look and the history behind them, though. They also offer genuine value for money, even at their higher price point. The painstaking Goodyear-welting manufacturing technique allows the shoes to be resoled as often as necessary – Crockett & Jones even offers a repair service for around £125 – so you can feel safe in the knowledge that if you look after yours properly, they will last you a lifetime.