Founded in 1879, Crockett & Jones have since produced – predominantly by hand – some of the finest shoes on the market. I have struggled to conjure up another family-owned British shoemaker still in production today, which only stands as testament to Crockett & Jones. They’ve been around in three different centuries, two world wars, an industrial revolution and the digital age. Yet they still have the same aesthetic, ethos and approach to fine shoemaking as they did 137 years ago when James Crockett and Charles Jones founded the business. The 60,000 square foot factory is split over five floors and is filled by at least 300 hundred highly skilled workers of all ages on Perry St, an unassuming cobbled road in central Northampton. It was the first ever steel structured building in the historic town and was completed in 1912. Since the middle-ages Northampton has been home to a handful of shoemakers – largely because of good access to oak and water, accessible trade routes being sat on the River Nene and the fact that it’s just over 100km from London.
Warmly welcomed into the factory by James Fox, Marketing and Brand Manager, who aptly is also married to Philippa Jones, daughter of the current owner, James proceeded to take me to the “famous balcony” which overlooks the finishing room, one of several rooms that contribute to the overall production of a C&J shoe. “We always start here. For me I used to have visions of the old managing directors and chairmans standing here with a top hat and cain, banging on the balcony and ordering people around. Of course we don’t whip people anymore”, he laughs. One comradely aspect of the visit was in fact that spirits, on every floor and in every room, were high. The whole production can be broken down into seven parts; pattern cutting, clicking, closing, preparation, lasting, making and finishing – each part has various steps and stages, all of which require the utmost attention to detail and quality of craftsmanship.
The first stage is undeniably the most important. “We still take the patterns the old ways. When we get a last, we have to get the 2D pattern from a 3D form, to do that there are a couple of ways. You can either tape up the lastwith tape then remove it, which is the old fashioned way and is far more accurate.” The patterns are then scanned, put onto the computer and can be altered with ease, changing all the configurations, lengths etc. down to the finest of sizes. James warns me that “this is, by a country mile, the most techy part of the business”. Usingcomputer-aided design, they are able to change the pattern of every last for every model of shoe. They’ve been using CAD for the last 9 years because it’s a “big money and time saver…A lot of companies outsource this which can cost you thousands”. After the patterns have been cut, they are drawn out over acrylic which leads you to the next stage, clicking..
“I used to have visions of the old managing directors and chairmans standing here with a top hat and cain, banging on the balcony and ordering people around.”
Before leading me into the clicking room, James briefly takes me into the skin room where they keep their rolls upon rolls of the finest quality calfskin. “We have a very good relationship with the tanneries we work with, we probably work with at least 15.” Jonathan Jones, owner and managing director, holds the keys to C&J’s relationships with tanneries across the globe. James assures me that the price points between C&J and the top of the range brands whose retailing sits at around £1,000 count for nothing. “I would argue that ours is better for the single reason that we have Jonathan Jones, the best man in the industry, who is in charge of leather buying, and we have staff who have come from these companies who know the ins-and-outs of these leathers.” James continues, “We are not interested in charging £900 for a pair of our shoes. There’s a very crucial point where volume still remains at a sustainable level and that price point is around the £350-500 mark, if you start creeping over that £500 mark the customer pool becomes very small. So of course, that economy of scale starts right in the skin room.”
To summarise the transition from the pattern cutting room to the clicking room (called clicking due to the sound of the knife cutting the leather) in one word would be testosterone. Big burly men march around the loud factory floor whilst the summer’s day heat warms it through their big steel windows. “The point about the clicker and the expertise lies in the utilisation of the leather and the knowledge of it. It takes years to learn this, they’re all very skilled men.” There are two areas of the clicking room; press knifes and hand clicking. Press knifes, which are the patterns from the pattern cutting room, are made by a toolmaker in Northampton, these then cut through the leather to the exact shape. Hand clicking has an incredibly high standard, and takes years to perfect the skill. One side of the clicking floor is filled with young men, who in due time will transition over to the other side after learning their clicking craft. They examine the leather, check for defects and then decide how to economically utilise the leather.
We move downstairs to the closing room, which has a completely different ambience to the clicking stage. The atmosphere is light and out-of-tune humming and singing, albeit poorly, hit your ears whilst hundreds of women (and some men) work on the uppers with their hands. “A lot of the operations in this room would be the fine details, you need concentration and dexterity as well as small hands. You need skill rather than big muscles. The closing room is our bottle neck. It has more operations and more staff than any other room in the factory. I think there are 110 people working in this room alone and there’s probably 60 different operations in this room. A nightmare to run!”