Just at the end of last year I headed up to Northampton to visit the Grenson factory. Northampton has been associated with footwear and shoemaking for hundreds of years, records show a Cordwainers street back in 1200. Alison, Grenson’s PR, sent me instructions on how to get there but I decided to cycle (small aside, on the way back I totally nearly bonked and this little guy saved my life), the route was only half an hour, it would be a fun adventure and I’d get to see the countryside as I went. As I got off the train a kind old gent who had just picked up a bike from London offered to accompany me halfway, to Irchester. Leading the way we went over snowy B roads and icy paths and I saw the thriving villages and small towns. It makes me wonder when the divisive term ‘shirkers and strivers’ is being used in the political sphere to lay blame on a certain section of the population for recession-associated ills. Looking at the thriving towns of Northampton it seems not to be a question of shirking, but what local opportunities there are in post-industrial Britain. Rushden is an example of a place where there have thankfully been opportunities for local people to work thanks to the shoe industry and it’s very much alive and kicking. In other parts of England, relying on different -and now defunct- industries, people haven’t been so lucky.
The Grenson factory has been going since the 1800s and as you walk into the reception entrance the smell hits you. It’s a mix of cosily musty libraries – the ones where you would actually get shushed – and a smell of leather that fills the whole factory. Everywhere you look there are old tools, archive adverts, framed pictures of factory bosses from days gone by with thick NHS frames. It’s kind of like a working museum, there is so much history but there is also so much new and different product being made. I love lifting the lid on processes and manufacturing, as geeky as that sounds. I had a total geek out on my visit with Roger, Grenson’s designer and pattern cutter who has been working there for thirty years and can probably design a pair of shoes with his eyes closed.
How long have you worked at the factory?
April, it’ll be thirty years. Pattern cutting, designing, technical design, I learnt my trade becoming somebody’s assistant, then you become an assistant to a designer. Up until then I did a lot of travelling, I was living in Rushden. I’m from one of the villages up the road called Upperdene, my father’s family. If you’re go back into the history, you go to 1900, there’s a lot of money in these areas because of the shoe industry. Somerset were doing children’s shoes, Kendal were doing ladies, you can split it into areas. Here in this area was dress shoes and during the great war they made thousands of boots. Grenson has been going for quite a while now, when you work in the factory you can go back to that history. Men’s is my forte, I don’t have to think about it, you can look at something and see that it looks right. You don’t have to stop, if it looks right it is right. I can pick something up and say ‘that looks good.’ Pure experience is not something you can teach. I started at the bottom, I’d say it took me about 15 years, from the time I was allowed to do it. I worked in the factory and built my skills up, rather than like at university where you start drawing and sketching designs.
How long has the factory been going?
1866, it’s quite a long while. The light that comes in to the factory is from the North, it’s more pure because you don’t get the yellowness from the sun. The clickers cut the uppers on the shoe and they need a good light to see any marks and flaws in the leather.
Who does the factory employ?
Nearly all local people, even now it’s mainly the people who live within 10-15 miles, most people are actually in Rushden. It’s an active little place, there’s local pubs have music on at weekends, sports stadium. I go swimming on the Sunday there’s a nice pool. As a town it’s very nice, we’ve got Silverstone and we’re actually in the middle in the country. In the 80s-70s there used to be machines made, but it’s disappeared. You can still get machines in Italy, but these ones we’ve got they’re all built for the shoe trade. You can still get parts, we’ve got a factory mechanic on permanent duty if anything goes wrong it’s his job to sort it out.
I’m pleased that Tim’s [Little, Grenson Creative Director] come in because he’s picked it up, things are processing forward and to me it’s becoming a lively place again. I’ve never earn a million pounds or a fortune out of it but it’s kept my family well and I’ve been well looked after. It’s always been exciting, looking at things, coming up with things, you never know what you’re going to be doing, it’s always a challenge coming in the morning, someone might throw something on your desk and say: ‘we’re doing something like this.’
What do you look for for inspiration?
It always has been quite intense, you’re always looking at things. Shows, shops, anything. Going out with my wife she always says I look down at other people’s feet! Inspiration comes from books shop windows, we used to take a camera, a notebook to the fairs, sketch a few ideas. History is good, it’s a big circle which always goes round. Modern techniques have changed, there’s always movement within the trade, a new leather, a new way of doing of doing.
What’s your favourite shoe?
A nice, English brogue, that’s me! To me, a good welted shoe is the backbone of England and being English. Years ago, we used to make shoes for the Red Arrows, they liked to promote Englishness. They’d have all their uniforms made in the UK.
I’m happy to have got into it, I have always been employed. We used to have a football team, we used to play indoor cricket very good cricket I tell you. A couple of girls used to play for the county. The clicking room used to play the lasting room, and the lasting room used to play the office.
For me, my skills are by hand, I’m very good with my hands, I’ve been abroad Tokyo, India, New York, we used to have to travel to the shows. There was no internet. We had to be [on it, going to shows] if you don’t keep your eye on what you’re doing then obviously you miss out. There are lot more people: leather people, last makers, so you used the shows to build the business. You meet the buyers and they make suggestions, the reps, we put a ‘window lookers’ colours, bright, colours to get people to look in the windows and draw them into what you’re actually selling. Good welted man’s shoes.
Part two coming up next week, with a Q&A from Tim Little, owner and Creative Director at Grenson, plus mo-oore pics!