Drake’s and Edward Green: Inside Northampton’s Most Iconic Shoe Workshop
One of the first things you notice is the precision of their hand movements. A bit like the subconscious touch of an elite footballer as they drag, flick or trap the ball in a warm up, or the way a Neapolitan Pizzaiolo can, after thousands of hours of practice, practice (and more practice), spin a perfect base with a few snaps of a flour-dusted wrist. Even if you’ve never seen a shoe being made before, there’s something in the measured pace of each action by each hand inside the Edward Green shoe factory. The sewing, hammering and considered shaping, that immediately stands out.
It’s this skill and commitment to craft honed over more than a century that makes us very excited to announce an exclusive range of Edward Green shoes made for Drake’s. Beginning with a unique interpretation of the signature Dover in Rosewood country calf leather with a Dainite sole with a leather middle, the Drake’s model has been crafted on the brand’s legendary 505 last with a 360 Goodyear welt. Renowned amongst those in the know, the 505 was originally used for the brand's military and country era of footwear. Giving the shoe’s apron and toe a distinctive shape and finish, it's rarely been used over the last 50 years. There are two styles of the Halifax, a chukka built on the same special 505 in both walnut country calf leather and snuff suede, utilising the same time-intensive split-toe ‘Norwegian’ construction as the Dover. Hand sewn with a boar’s bristle needle, a highly intricate and specialised skill. The hand sewing alone for each pair takes more than two hours to complete.
From left: the Edward Green for Drake's Halifax in walnut country calf leather, the Dover in Rosewood country calf leather and the Halifax in snuff suede.
A clean, white and slightly modernist rectangle a short drive from Northampton’s town centre, beneath the bright, wood-panelled offices, filled with antique chairs and photos of distinguished Edward Green customers, is the engine room of the operation. A workshop alive with movement and manufacturing, the low hum of the radio occasionally breaking through the hiss, whir and hammer on nail on shoe that makes up the soundtrack of shoemaking. Lloyd sings while he works, shaving the soles on a pair of Drake’s Halifax boots using just his eye and experience before buffering the leather, passing the shoe from his left to his right hand like a particularly beautiful leather hot potato. Satisfied with the polish, he reaches for a paintbrush and a pot of water-based ink that sits on the work station to his right. He applies a touch and then one more to the shoe’s midsole in sharp, neat brush strokes. The Cézanne of the shop floor. A layer of colour and protection that dries to a deep, dark hue.
This level of detail, and the myriad steps each shoe has to pass through before they're ready to hit the pavement, means that only around 350 pairs can be produced each week. “There are a lot of good shoe brands,” says Greg. “I guess you could call me the production manager, but I chip in and do a bit of everything. I’ve been here for 13 years… unlucky for some!” He’s wearing a pale green polo and is pulling leather by hand over a Galway boot. Using a technique called Veldtschoen, where the upper is pulled over the welt for a more weather resilient finish. "No water will be getting into these. We’re one of the only places that can do it.”
Edward Green was a man with a singular dedication to making great shoes. Starting in the industry at the age of 12, he opened his own workshop in 1890, seeking out the best craftsmen that Northampton had to offer. "Excellence without compromise" was his motto. Soon that vision was being applied to his brand of Goodyear-welted shoes shoes that have been worn by military, royalty and a whole subculture of EG obsessives who return again and again for shoes that can last a lifetime.
In a room off to the side of the din and clatter of the main factory floor, Brenda and Glenda are working on the aprons and uppers that will eventually sit atop a pair of Dovers. 'Very Superstitious' plays on the radio, the walls and desks full of family photos and trinkets. Little reminders of the people who work here. “We’re twins,” says Brenda. “Our parents must not have had a very good sense of imagination,” she says, laughing, before returning to stiching an upper. Picking, weaving and cutting in rapid succession. Opposite, Glenda is using a sewing machine to double row sew using a single neelde, her hand as steady as an orthopaedic surgeon's as she calmly moves up and around the shoe. “You can’t take your eye off the ball when you’re doing this!”
We head up to the top floor of the factory, where some of the most labour-intensive and complicated work gets done. “Welcome to the penthouse!” Says Andy with a chuckle, casting a hand around a small and silent room with wall-to-wall windows full of early afternoon light. With the company for 25 years, Andy is a hand sewer, a role that requires a particular level of skill and craft. Using a a boar's bristle that is split and spun together with his own sewer's thread, he creates a thin and malleable needle that can arc through the calfskin of a Dover or a Halifax, allowing the two sides of the shoe's upper to be sewn edge to edge where they meet at the toe - creating the style’s signature 'split toe' Norwegian style, so called because the technique is said to have first been used by Norwegian fishermen. “We make all of our own thread here,” says Andy. “It takes about nine months to learn how to sew like this and not that many people are cut out for it.” Across from him is his son, Nathan, who has been with Edward Green for four years. “It must be in our DNA!” It’s difficult work that requires a steady hand and superhuman levels of patience. Even with their level of expertise, each artisan can only finish four pairs of shoes a day. “There are very few people in the country who can thread like this… and four of them are here!” says Andy. "I see other brands claiming they’re doing it by hand… but they’re not doing it like us.”
“This,” he says, pointing to his needle and thread and the quiet space with a couple of work benches and spools of thread. “This is like the Premier League of working by hand."
He returns to the bench, twisting his thread with the praciticed ease of someone who has spent two and a half decades working on a skill, and begins to sew.