Unlike at the beginning of the 19th century, Hand-Stitcher’s are no longer ten-a-penny, making it a rare discipline through industrial changes. Amongst the many faces in our 300 strong workforce based at our Northampton shoe factory, there is just one who takes a personalised awl, a unique needle made from piano wire and a hand turned and waxed thread to set about the painstakingly patient skill of Hand-Stitching, or to be more specific, Skin-Stitching.
Ned (our skilled man an' awl!) started in the shoe trade 39 years ago, spending two decades at another of the Northampton makers… until he discovered Crockett & Jones of course. Before his time with C&J, he was responsible for repairing factory mishaps, ensuring the factory maximised orders for their wholesale customers by minimising substandards. It was here that an early colleague, a cobbler, began to pass on the art of hand-stitching. The use of hand tools, creation of thread, the dexterity and precision required for such a skill took years to master. Finally, he was given the opportunity to supplement his income as an outworker, stitching uppers at home and returning them to the factory the following day. After years of honing his skills Ned took the post as a full-time Hand-Stitcher within the Crockett & Jones closing room, where he has remain ever since.
When our newly appointed resident Hand-Stitcher first joined the Crockett & Jones’ team, the factory manager at the time greeted him on day one, gave him a shoe and said “We need you to recreate this upper (a split-toe apron Derby). See you at the end of the week”. Unfortunately there was no hand over from his predecessor and staring down the barrel of a 6 week probation (for quality), he got on with the job at hand. Incredibly, that shoe and the first upper Ned crafted for C&J, is still on his bench 15 years later.
To begin Ned used boar’s bristle, but he found them incredibly frustrating, inaccurate and inefficient to work with. As his probation period loomed, he quickly developed his own version of his predecessor’s technique, whilst using all of his previous skills to improve them where possible. He still uses these techniques today, which includes a bespoke tool that enables him to consistently produce his piano wire ‘needles’, keeping a perfect loop at one end every time. Ned says, "The only one in the world I should think..."
Crockett & Jones currently uses two different types of hand stitching. The first is a raised butted stitch for the aprons (different to a pre-punched hand-pulled up apron), where at right angles, Ned butts together two raw edges of leather, fitting the apron in place stitch by stitch, producing a perfect curve. Each stitch hole is first created with an Awl, which is then opened with a thinner Awl as a thread is passed through form both sides, crossing in the middle. These threads are pulled tight, pinching the two pieces together, holding them firm before being boned flat.
The second is a marvel to behold, and is the true Hand-Stitcher’s ‘pièce de résistance’. A Skin-Stitch. This is the joining of two raw edges (a split-toe seam in our case) by stitching through the Corium (the fibrous substance) of the upper leather making sure not to pierce the awl through the top layer of a skin, the top grain. He does this by shaping and polishing his awl to perfection, to the point that if it breaks, it takes him weeks to be 100% happy with his work again…
As if that was not enough, Ned also creates his own waxed thread by turning, waxing and 'leathering' multiple cotton threads together, making this hidden stitch strong and pleasing to the eye. By using a marginally thicker thread his stitches produces small raises just underneath the top grain, that darken during burnishing later in the production process. Before this can happen, Ned’s stitch strength gets put to the test by our Toe Laster, which are clearly in competition by the look in Ned’s eyes. He says “Those Laster’s are always trying to tear my stitches open with their new lasting machines…!” But Ned has them covered he proclaims! "Without telling them, I increased the number of stitches to the inch". He proudly informs me that in his 15 years as Crockett & Jones’ only Hand-Stitcher, not a single pair has been returned for the reason of stitch failure. Not one.
There are just two styles that Ned focuses his efforts on – BALFOUR, a split-toe apron Derby with a very classic double leather sole & BURY, a split-toe apron Loafer. Each pair taking 2 ½ hours to stitch, forming a duo collection of the most premium footwear available from Crockett & Jones own retail stores.