Visiting the Grenson shoe factory

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Northampton is home to most of what remains of the traditional British shoemaking industry. Evocative names still have their factories here, some in their original buildings, some in modern ones. Some have changed owners, some are still family owned. Some have existed since the 1800s, others a bit newer. What hasn’t changed though are the traditional ways of making quality shoes. Hence, when heading to the UK for an Easter holiday I saw the opportunity to sneak in a day visiting a shoe factory or two in Northampton. First out is the Grenson factory!

The modern factory that Grenson moved into in 2013.

The modern factory that Grenson moved into in 2013.

The Grenson company has been in the business of shoes since 1886 when William Green set up the business. Initially having his workforce do their work in their homes and later in 1874, as business picked up and the industrial revolution unfolded, moving into factory premises. By 1895 the business had grown enough to establish a purpose-built new factory, and remarkably this is where the company stayed right through to 2013 when they moved into the current factory. During the passing 118 years the company become one of the first to register a trademark, when William Green and Son became Grenson, produced thousands of boots and shoes for the British and allied troops in two wars and continued doing their thing right up to the days when cheap Eastern imports made it harder and harder for British made quality to compete.

The rejuvenated Grenson came about in 2010 when shoe designer Tim Little bought out the owners and kickstarted the new and revitalised Grenson.

Our tour started with an intro in the Grenson showroom, where all the classic and new models are displayed. A wide range indeed, spanning the stalwarts of the brand, such as the country brogues, up to the up to date fashion models. This really brings home the dual nature of what a company like Grenson does today. On the one hand, there are the trends, the fashions and innovations, on the other hand, the fact that the company has been around since 1866 and there are certain expectations of shoes you must make.

It’s also worth noting that there are various categories of Grenson shoes and it may be helpful to be aware of these. These are G:Zero, the highest level currently, G:One, fully made in the Northampton factory, G:Two, made in Grensons factory in India and G:Lab, custom variants made in Northampton.

We were lucky enough to visit on a day when all the major operations were manned, so we were allowed to follow the process of creating quality Goodyear welted shoes from the very start to the final touches. I’ve visited shoe factories before and I’m quite familiar with the processes involved. This doesn’t stop me being deeply fascinated with how a pair of shoes come together, the machinery that is used and the dedication to the craft from all involved.

Please notice that there will be a number of still photos from the process, but there is also a video right at the end showing a number of the processes.

A vintage Singer machine in the Grenson factory.

A vintage Singer machine in the Grenson factory.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the machinery is that there are so many machines that are each dedicated to one totally specific task, be it putting an eyelet in the upper, folding and glueing an edge or just cutting the channel for a hidden seam. And even in a modern factory like this, it’s not as if the machines are all shiny and new either. Most of the machines in use are more or less antiques, but properly built and maintained they’re still performing flawlessly, dozens of years past the expiry of their warranty. This is in stark contrast to the totally modern premises, offering modern conveniences and healthy and safety aspects.

The process starts with the various leather pieces being cut by the “clicker”. I’ve often wondered where this name comes from and finally found out. Traditionally the patterns for the shapes to be cut are made with a brass edge and when these are placed upon the leather and cut with a freshly sharpened knife, there is a clicking sound as the knife reaches the edge. Nowadays it’s rare to cut in this manner, and Grenson only does this for the highest end shoes. It’s more common to use a hydraulic press and cookie-cutter shapes, or even computer controlled lasers. It still takes the experienced human eye to discern and avoid any flaws in the hide. This is very important, as a missed flaw may make itself known later in the process and can mean all the work done has been wasted. Flaws can be damage from barbed wire fences, insect bites and even stretch marks.

One the various pieces of the leather uppers have been cut, they are sent on to be marked up. This involves adding instructions for the sewing stations, where to start the seam, the path to follow and where to end. As is the case for most of these operations, you only get one go to get it right, so it saves time for everyone if it’s done right the first time! Before sewing the pieces together, any brogueing is added using a hole punch machine. Definitely a task for someone with a steady hand!

There are small tasks and large tasks while going through the process. Assembling the uppers is one of the larger while adding eyelets is a smaller one. Both require total precision for the end result to be acceptable. Stop for a moment to appreciate that there is a dedicated machine to punch the hole for the eyelet, while actually adding the metal. Whallop! Eyelet is done. Oh, and appreciate the line of loafers waiting to have their tassels tied. By hand.

At this stage, there are a lot of odd-looking half-shoes hanging around, waiting to be given the necessary foot-shape and having soles added. I spotted this varied selection which gives an inkling to the different styles that pass through the factory!

The next big step in the process is to shape the uppers over the foot-shaped block known as the last. In fact, the process is called lasting. This involves using machines to stretch the leather over the last, toes first, heel next and then the side. Once the leather is shaped, it must be fastened in place.

After lasting we move on to the actual welting process. This is where the shoe really starts to come together, i.e. the upper part is fastened to the sole through a combination of glue and sewing, a process known as the Goodyear welt. The following photos show the sole already glued in place (see the video for a detail of this process) and the cut is made to prepare for a closed channel sole, where the stitching is made in the cut, then closed to me it invisible. The last of the three shows the proud inventor of the Triple Welted sole, a Grenson exclusive. Remarkable in that it was not one of the shoe designers that came up with it, but the actual chap that is in charge of the welting process.

Once the soles are properly attached it’s time for the heels to be attached, most commonly using glue and brass nails. When attached the heels are overside, so the next step is to grind them down to the correct size. After this is done, the sides of the sole and heel are stained to a uniform and suitable colour.

Right at the end of the line, the finished shoes come together for laces and a final polish, before quality inspection and boxing. Following the process from start to finish, literally from a roll of leather hide through to immaculately crafted shoes, is a remarkable experience and seeing all the work that goes into them gives an understanding of the tradition and craft that making these shoes entails.

Grenson also offers a refurbishment service for their footwear. This can be anything from a simple repair to a full resole, to even a full restoration. I noticed these photos of a worst-case restoration on the Wall of Fame at the factory. The transformation is truly remarkable!

Customers shoes being given the final polish after being refurbished at Grenson.

Customers shoes being given the final polish after being refurbished at Grenson.

There is also a video that shows a number of the processes, this can be viewed here!

And that concludes my visit to the Grenson shoe factory in Northamptonshire. Thanks to Tim Little for arranging it, and Alison and Phil for being gracious hosts!

If you enjoyed this, you’ll probably also like my article about visiting the William Lennon boot factory!

2 Comments

  • Andrew 03/05/2019 at 13:24

    Nice article and the videos were an added bonus. Despite living less than 30 miles away, I’ve never been to the Grenson factory. I always enjoy going to Northampton and visiting the museum which has good exhibits explaining the history of shoemaking in Northampton. “These boots are made for walking” on a continuous loop in the background does get tiring after a while though…
    Thanks.

    Reply
    • nick 03/05/2019 at 13:31

      Thank you, Paul!

      Reply

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