‘Quality materials, excellent pattern cutting and good bottom finishing. And the fitting, shoes that don’t fit hurt like hell.’ says Crockett & Jones’s James Fox. The question I asked him – you might have guessed – is ‘just what makes a good pair of shoes?’ James is the right man to go to for a thorough answer, he’s one of the directors at C&J and married to Philippa Fox (nee Jones), daughter of Jonathan Jones, the fourth generation of the family to own and manage this storied English shoemaker.
And storied it is, the Crockett & Jones factory is steeped in history. It’s occupied the same spot in Northampton (England’s fine shoemaking hub) since 1789, remains one of the largest traditional Goodyear welted shoemaking workshops in the country and the only one still run by its founding family. At its height, C&J employed over 1,000 craftspeople, 300 of which were hand-stitchers.
Though the factory doesn’t house quite so many employees today, it’s still one of the busiest in the business. Crockett & Jones produces 2,500 pairs a week, all to the same meticulous standards. The production process mixes age old skills and the craftsman’s eye with intelligent use of specialised machinery. The result is a sleek pair of shoes (or boots) that are true to tradition with a contemporary outlook.
The Jackal paid the factory a visit to unpick the process behind its new ‘Chelsea XI Black Edition’ boots, which are as sturdy to wear as they are mean to look at.
The Chelsea XI starts life as a piece of fine European calf’s leather, plus a filling leather lining. Like all Crockett’s shoes, they’re cut by hand in the factory’s clicking department. Every ‘clicker’ shapes his own knife on a lathe from a piece of hacksaw blade, and cuts the boots’ uppers from a template produced by C&J’s in-house pattern makers. The process is called ‘clicking’ because of the noise the knife makes as it leaves the leather.
Crockett’s boots will then be ‘blocked’, which heats and presses the leather to follow the natural contours of the foot. Each piece is soaked in water first, to prevent it from cracking during the process. There’s no exact science here, Crockett’s staff develop an instinct for the right amount of water, heat, pressure and time to apply – using hand and eye.
In the closing room, shoes will be stitched together along their side and back seams, guided by one of Crockett’s long-serving ‘closers’. Each seam is ‘fitted’ (sealed) with glue first, to ensure it runs gently through the sewing machine straight and true.
Lasting is the shoemaking equivalent of laying down a fine wine to age. Once fitted with a yellow resin shoe-shaped mould or ‘last’, all of Crockett’s shoes will be left to rest for a number of weeks, to take on their chosen shape. The leather adapts naturally to the proportions of the last over time, moulding to a shape akin to the wearer’s feet. Crockett has dozens of lasts in its archive, all of which suit different shaped feet, and different kinds of shoe. A casual loafer will take a more rounded, smoother last than a chiselled business shoe, for example.
Now for the process that made Northampton’s shoes famous. Crockett’s boots reach the welting department, which attaches each boot’s Goodyear Welt, so the soles can be replaced when they’re worn out. Crockett’s Stitchers make it look easy, but the welting machine requires a fearlessly steady hand as you run each shoe through it – get your line wrong, and you’ll write the boots off.
In the finishing room, the boots are passed to Charlie, Crockett’s longest serving employee. He started aged 16, and 48 years later he does the toughest job in the factory. Once he’s edge-trimmed the soles to perfection, they’re ink stained, antiqued and then burnished to bring out the leather’s natural lustre. One final quality check, and it’s time for the boots to leave the factory, and take a walk on their new owner’s feet.
The Chelsea XI Black Edition boots are £450, crockettandjones.com