In old industrial neighbourhoods in the slightly rough town of Kettering in eastern Northamptonshire, one of England’s largest manufacturers of Goodyear welted shoes, Loake Shoemaker, houses. Around 4,000 pairs of shoes are produced here each week.


This report was first published on the Swedish version of Shoegazing in 2014.

On a narrow street where two cars can’t meet, on one of all the orange-red brick walls in the area, we find the famous logo that makes it clear that this is the factory of Loake. I am invited here by the Swedish agent Filip Hallerfelt (I paid the trip, they the accommodation) together with two cobblers who sell Loake. From the airport we were driven by Loake’s then European sales manager Richard Utting, a crazy talkative man who laughs loudly and often. We are introduced to Loake’s combined boardroom and showroom, where basically all of the company’s 170 models are lined up, and where black and white factory photos from the early 1900s hints about the company’s long history. Soon Andrew Loake shows up, at the time the company’s Managing Director, an even more talkative man who laughs even louder and even more. Finally, Mark Hadden, who was the International sales manager, pops in, and if possible he is even more talkative and laughs extremely loud and often. These are undeniably people who have fun at work. But, they manage to sell a lot of shoes too.
– I will not swear by it, but if we count the 3,500-4,000 pairs of shoes a week that we manufacture here in this factory, and in our factory in India where we make about 2,500 pairs of shoes, plus a number of other factories where we make casual models etc, we are probably the largest English quality shoe manufacturer. Church’s produces more shoes in its factory here in Northampton, a bit over 4000, but overall we are probably bigger, says Andrew Loake.

Andrew Loake was at the time of the visit the company’s Managing Director, and the one who continued the Loake journey within the family. In addition to his shoe interest, he is a musician who plays live shows every now ant then and has released albums with different bands, and he has a great love for motorcycles.

Here the entire 1880 range on display in the company’s showroom.

Full brogues in different shades.

At this time, Loake had five ranges (nowadays Legacy and Export Grade have been added). In the one corner of the room we find the Lifestyle models manufactured by various factories in for example Portugal and Italy, which are more causal shoes like loafers and similar. In India they make, L1, which is cheaper classic models which are usually manufactured in corrected grain, and Design Loake, which is a little more fashion-oriented shoes. India also do all the closing of the uppers for the ranges made in England. In the factory we are in, the Shoemaker range is manufactured which is very traditional shoes, also those often in the so-called corrected grain. The current top range is called 1880, here only full grain calf leather is used, and the shoes get the most time in production. It’s noticeable that Andrew Loake is particularly pleased with the 1880 shoes.
– These are very affordable shoes that hold very high level in terms of the amount they are sold for, he says.

At Loake’s factory, 135 people work on the floor. It’s a rather jumbly factory with many different rooms, corridors and nooks. We’re shown around by factory manager Brendon Drage-Dawes, who got the job because he was simply the best at making shoes. He systematically shows the manufacturing process, from the room where the soles and heels are cut and assembled, further to the cutting of the uppers. After this, Brendon has introduced a new station, which is relaitvely unique to Loake. It’s a type of steam sauna where the upper leathers are allowed to stay in a room where the humidity is as high as 95% for three days.
– This moisturises the entire leather and makes it much more resistant to the stresses of the manufacturing process itself. After we started with this steam room, the number of rejects has dropped from 2% to just 0.5%, which is really good, says Brendon.

Following this procedure, the upper leather is pulled over the last and is clamped together with the insole, then they enter the largest room of the factory where the making, the bottoming, takes place, the welt is attached by a Goodyear machine, cork filling and shank is inserted, the sole is sewn on and the heel is put in place. Then it’s time for the finish, which in Loake’s case is really extensive. Here they stand out compared to many other makers of entry-level welted shoes. This includes the whole process of sole and heel edge grinding and polishing, plus very extensive steps to obtain the final finish on the upper leather and sole.
Although many people are aware that quality shoes go through many different steps in the manufacturing process, in reality it’s almost more than many imagine, with loads of different stations with in Loake’s case usually machines that make small, small details. The workers are trained on a few different tasks and work in groups of three to four people, all rotating between the stations, to get more variety in the work.

Brendon is Loake’s factory manager, a position he got simply because he was the best at making shoes.

The 1880 ranges is mainly cut by hand by the company’s clickers.

Part of the relatively large factory, which consists of a large and elongated room where the making and finishing of the shoes takes place, the very heart of the factory, and then a lot of smaller sections where the other parts are done.

Loake has been very concerned about having a good employment policy. They have a good cooperation with the trade union at the factory, and partly because of that it has been quite easy to recruit new staff. Andrew Loake:
– We have many more or less whole families here, who also have relatives even further back in the time who worked at the Loake factory in the past. The fact that employees have children who would like to work here just like their parents is only positive, he says.
When Andrew Loake grew up in the 60-70s, working in a shoe factory was hardly having any status. Then they talked about the importance of education, otherwise things could go bad and “you ended up in the shoe factory”.
– Today it’s not the same. Now there are many educated who go unemployed anyway, and have a tough time. At the same time as more crafts-related occupations such as traditional shoe manufacturing have grown in reputation. Not least because sustainable products such as quality shoes have been given high status. It makes it even easier for us, and I think that mindset is here to stay. More and more people are looking for things that last, and want away from wear and tear culture, Andrew says.

In another part of Kettering, in a slightly newer and considerably more boring industrial area, we find Loake’s warehouse. Here are hundreds of shelves with shoe drawers, shoe trees and other accessories. It sounds a bit strange that you have trouble getting shoes out on time to all retailers, which sometimes is the case, when you see all these boxes of shoes.
At one end of the room is the leather warehouse. Here comes all the supplies of leather, and it’s reviewed by Andy and a colleague. When we come in, Andy is checking out the color of a shade of dark brown suede. He has a small suede piece for reference, and puts it over each skin to compare the tone. If it needs to be lightened, he brushes it heavily with a bristle brush. I ask Andy what a suede skin costs.
– This is a suede and it’s not very expensive, maybe about 50 pounds. Calfskin hides cost twice as much, maybe three to four times more, he says.

When you buy leather you get the hides graded in three different grades, 1, 2 and 3, where 1 is the hides of the finest quality and 3 of the worst. Everyone who buys leather gets hides of all three qualities, then it’s different what you do with them. Loake mainly uses skins of grades 1 and 2. Andy shows a skin classified as a third that looks pretty risky, and such a bad skin Loake will not use at all for their production shoes. What then differentiates between premium manufacturers and a budget manufacturer like Loake is that Loake uses more of the skins. Hence part of the price difference. Then Loake buys its leather from virtually the same suppliers as the very finest shoe manufacturers, so the basic material itself is essentially of the same level.

The heels are assembled separately in one of the factory’s rooms.

A giant punching machine that punches out soles and heels from thick sole leather.

Speaking of giant: Above is an outsole shape in size UK13, which is used, among other things, to make the shoes for Andrew Loake’s brother.

At the far end of the factory is a warehouse for all the company’s lasts.

The different layers of the back, with inner lining, heel stiffener in celastic (on Export Grade it’s leather board nowadays), canvas and leather reinforcements, and finally the upper leather.

Loake has grown in recent years, and they want to keep growing – by doing less. It’s about reviewing the model ranges, where the addition of 1880 Legacy and 1880 Export Grade is one part, and removing some models that do not yet have a high demand, in order to deliver faster and more of the models they have left. Just by getting even better at service to retailers and customers Loake believes you have a lot to earn.
At the same time, they continue their investment in Asia with South Korea, China and Japan as the most important markets, and are also looking into doing something more proper in the US.
– There’s lots of things to do, that’s one thing that we can always be sure of, says Andrew Loake.

Here is Loake’s special steam sauna where the upper leather thus spends three days before going through the making and finishing.

A very advanced, modern toe lasting machine.

This is what the old lasting machine looked like. Not as high tech.

Factory floor.

To protect the upper leather during manufacture, they are covered. This is done by first wrapping plastic around the entire shoe, and then closing the lid on the oven-like machine…

… and the heat causes the plastic to contract and close completely against the shoe. The remaining plastic is cut away.

Many meters of welt.

Here is a Goodyear machine where the welt and the upper is sewn together.

Shank in wood, which reinforce the waist, is cemented in place and covered with cork filling in the space between the insole and outsole.

In order to really get the outsole in place a large press with an air-filled cushion is used.

A malfunctioning machine is fixed. This was a minor problem that the machine driver could fix himself, otherwise Loake has three servicemen in the factory.

The channel under the outside is cut out.

Long rows of shoes waiting for the next step in manufacturing.

Loake’s sole decoration is painted by hand.

Here, the sole edge is roughly sanded in a machine that requires high precision.

Imagine what such a thing can cause for injury to the shoe, or for that part of the worker, if you slip into it spinning extremely fast.

Tony Blunt has worked at the factory since 1962, and recently retired.

Tony in action.

Now we are at the very last stages of shoe manufacturing, where the upper leather finish and in some cases burnish should be made. First, it is prepped with different creams that are polished up with machine.

Then they apply shoe cream by hand.

It is then polished again by a machine.

After the polish has been sprayed on in liquid form and a last polishing machine has been passed, the shoes are finally finished, only the laces are missing. Here’s the difference between what the shoe looked like before it went through the final finish, and how it looked after it. Many may not associate Loake with antiqueing and fine finishes, but here you really see how “dead” the shoes look like without the job done in the end. On the Export Grade range, they also receive a final high shine polish by hand.

In another part of Kettering is the company’s warehouse. Here the leather storage room.

Andy goes through a delivery of suede, and has a piece to compare so that the shade is right. By brushing the skin, he can change it slightly if needed.

Many thousands of pairs of shoes are found along the shelves.

1880 boxes.

The back of the factory.

An old military boot Loake made for the British army.

Equipped with proper nail studs. Really brutal. Note Loake’s old more hardcore logo.