Manufacturing New Balance
Last month I had to occasion to go to Flimby, Allerdale, bourough of Cumbria, a small village lost halfway between Glasgow and Manchester, far from any city way of life. Going there taking the highway, you can see many road signs with city names you only knew by checking at football results. What did I do there? Certainly not holidays. Though these verdant landscapes, sheeps and warm welcome could have suit for such an occasion (putting aside precipitations reaching South of France home’s annual level in a day)
Flimby is the city where can be found New Balance’s European factory. Yes, on this coast of the Irish sea, far from any city chaos, a major sportswear brand manufactures some of its products. Besides, New Balance may be the only major brand from this market doing it. Do you wanna take a peek? Follow the guide!
Upon arrival Andy Okolowicz, Factory Manager, welcomes us. He tells us about this region, made of lakes and hills, about its industries (shoes, chemicals, wood, cigarette filters, gastronomy, tourism), about Flimby, a village of 2,000 inhabitants and about its New Balance factory, opened since 1991 (the brand formerly owned a first factory in the same area since 1982, they needed something bigger so they stayed in the region when a trend of this market was relocation to generate production cost savings). At the very beginning, 40 persons were employed in the factory, they are 237 to date.
All these people produce around 30,000 pairs of sneakers per week (the production was around 2,500 in 1991) for an average salary and decent working conditions. Apparently people like working for New Balance, many employees have been working there for more thant 10 years, and even 5 since the beginning! Last thing, in Flimby sneakers are manufactured from A to Z and running shoes are assembled only.
From a meeting room we go to an office, Mike’s one, style developer. He has been working for New Balance since around 10 years. No question talking to him about design, Mike selects materials and colors for any model which design is already set (created by a designer). Basically, your NBs have black or white laces => Mike decided it. For this, him and his team source the best materials in Europe and make sure that what they have chosen creates a harmonious render.
Looking around can be seen a backroom in Mike’s office… waaaw! This is the treasure room, a small room where many collaborations, unpublished and collectors are put on display. As no museum currently exists, Mike keeps all this mythical stuff in his office (without any lock). A few glances and here are collaborations with Colette, Hanon, Undefeated and editions to be released like the Farmer’s pack (at that time)… enough to feel dizzy for any sneakers enthusiast like me.
Many speeches, words, but still saw nothing related to manufacturing of the pairs (just a reminder, this is what the article is titled). No more talks, let’s put the ugly safety glasses and enter the factory. Jim Fox, team leader, will be our guide.
First stop, “The leather area”, a department were all leathers used to manufacture New Balances are stocked. There are all kind of leathers, found in all colors. Front of us are actually around 180 different leathers, as manufacturing quality sneakers requires high standards, all of these leathers come from Europe (mainly Spain, France, Italy). Nylons and other synthetic materials are also stocked near this area.
They are carried on “horses” to the cutting workshop. Thanks to double-faced moulds (each one suiting for the right or left shoe) and a machine applying pressure, differents part of a shoe are shaped. The biggest are generally made by hand, and the finest with a laser machine. All wastes are recycled by the brand then.
All separate parts are brought to the sewing workshop, not far. There, mostly women stitch the whole together by their own hands, building New Balances shoes. Some more precise stitches, harder to reach by a human hand, are made thanks to computer-driven machines. Each step sees the upper taking shape, bit-by-bit, from a workshop to another where all parts are put together like a puzzle.
Once the upper is complete, it goes in a first oven to soften its leather and to give him a more suitable shape for the sole. A hundred degrees are enough.
The softened leather upper is slipped on a fitted size shoe tree to take is final shape before being put together with the sole.
For the first time, the upper meets its matching sole. A brief sizing check and both a prepared for vulcanization. Basically, they are going in a second, warmer oven (150 degrees) which will soften both of the materials again so those two final part can be put together. Here, one worker waits, takes boths parts then meticulously placing them against each other, then put them in a press to assemble them forever: a sneaker is born!
Lastests workshops, cleaning, quality check and packing after which the shoes will be shipped to their buyer.
Considering its position on the shoes market, New Balance may be a real exception regarding the use of such a manufacturing process. In the Flimby factory can be met adult, open minded and accessible people. Work teams mix young and old passing their knowledge down in good conditions, for an average working rythm. The factory closes everyday at 5pm. There we could appreciate a real savoir-faire in making sneakers by hand, in a large scale, justifying a €130 final price.
Thanks to Geraldine and Claire