What I Learned During My Four Days At New Balance’s ‘Shoe School’
When I first was told I would have the opportunity to enroll in New Balance’s “Shoe School” I hesitated at the opportunity. I’ve only been out of school for one year and I wasn’t quite ready to go back.
As the details trickled in, it was rumored that I would have the opportunity to “make my own shoe”. That, on the other hand, I was ready for.
Being a self-proclaimed sneakerhead for the better half of my life and tracing shoe silhouettes with my fingers in my spare time, this got me more than willing to pick out some snazzy clothes, pack my bags and head back to school.
Back To School
The trip began on Monday, August 8th. It was my first time traveling for an extended amount of time and I was nervous but it certainly trumps sitting at my desk
I flew out of O’Hare and landed in Boston three hours later. New Balance’s ubiquity was felt immediately as I stepped into the elevator of the Lenox Hotel and a ‘Boston Strong’ digital advertisement looked me in the face upon its closing doors. I met with various Fleet Feet Sports owners and was introduced to some friendly New Balance representatives who took us out for some authentic Thai food and shared their personal stories of their brand.
The “Big House”
Tuesday started early as we checked out of the hotel and departed towards the Big House. That’s what they call their brand new, 250,000-square-foot world headquarters located in Boston Landing, a visionary real estate development project in the Brighton neighborhood. The commitment to their city was heavy. We were shown the original headquarters just a few hundred feet away but the HQ’s construction is not done yet. Come September, construction will be underway to build a new Boston Bruins Practice Facility adjoining the 10-story office building, and on top of that, a new commuter rail station that drops off just steps from the facility.
We got a quick tour of boat-shaped headquarters and even got a sneak-peak at some of the upcoming 2017 running footwear line. Improvements were shown and met with honesty of past product performance. We were then shuffled to the New Balance Boston Flagship store where we saw everything the brand has to offer. From run specialty, to their newly penned soccer apparel deal with Liverpool, to their underground Numeric skateboarding brand, this store had it all, even a cycling collaboration with Timbuk2, complete with footwear and messenger bags.
The rest of the day, we were accompanied by Dave Shelbourne, explained to me as “the Godfather of New Balance Running”. He showed us the scenic view of Newburyport, Kennebunkport, and the Maine seacoast before we ate dinner with Raye Wentworth, Plant GM of the Norridgewock and Skowhegan factories.
I partook in my first lobster dinner while Raye, the native, showed me the ropes while telling tales of hard work. Raye has been with New Balance since graduating high school. She started as an accountant and after catching financial concerns and inaccuracies while doing her job, proved herself by tightening up the factory lines and now manages two factories herself. She is solely responsible for slashing the time to churn out a case of shoes from 8 days to 8 hours. Stories such as the one in which a Japanese sneaker collector personally sent her a letter explaining how one of his coveted New Balance shoes had an imperfection and how much it meant to him to have it fixed. Raye covered the shipping cost and fixed the shoe herself and sent it back. 3 to 5 thousand shoes are produced daily under Raye’s command. Some for the military, some for public, some that are extremely limited collaborations. It just depends on the day.
7 a.m. sharp. Just like I remember grade school. We arrived at the beautiful, red-bricked Skowhegan factory of Maine. We were given a quick safety rundown, earplugs, and safety glasses and were assigned an assembly line dictated by a colored name tag. I was on the blue team. We were given a quick crash course tour and then we were thrown in the line as if we’d worked there for years.
My first task was to cut pieces from the blue-dyed leather hide that made most of the upper of the shoe. A hydraulic press was used to stamp out the pieces, making sure not to use the leather that was tarnished by vein imprints. For safety reasons, the machine won’t press unless both thumbs are placed on the buttons. I stamped out a full hide while trying not to leave too much excess. They get docked points for that.
Next, similar to the leather hide, I stamped out multiple layers of foam with a larger hydraulic press that automatically slides down the line upon being released for optimal speed. Reading the size chart, I stamped out a row of foam under supervision that will be later used in the tongue of the shoe.
I was then given a leather “N” patch and two smaller iridescent “N” stickers. I was told to dip the sticker in an adhesive glue and apply it centered over the leather patch. Not too difficult, I thought. Then I got started applying all of the leather pieces I previously cut. Manned by humans, machines put most of the upper together. I placed the pieces in specific notches after watching a few before me and the machine sewed it together in seconds. I was passed down a few similar machines until my upper was complete, although two dimensional. I applied the sticker and leather “N” logo, punched some lace holes and I was ready to sew.
I was passed down the assembly line once again to the sewing station. About 6 females were working in 6 different stations, all sewing a different part of the leather upper and rotating every half hour for ergonomics. Never in a million years did I think I would actually use a sewing machine aside from my 8th grade home economics class. I was nervous at how fast these women were sewing a shoe. Seconds. No mistakes. I was in awe. Take a look at the video below for an example.
This posed as difficult as you can imagine. A few(lot) of stitching errors and a lot of humiliation later, I was done. My shoe was starting to become three dimensional. Now it was time to attach my mold. I put my half of a shoe in an oven to soften up the leather and strapped it on over a wax mold and a machine that pushes out 5,000 pounds of pressure instantly formed the shape of my shoe.
Now that my shoe actually looked like a shoe, it was time to apply primer and glue for the sole. I held up a rubber sole to the shoe and drew lines with a white colored pencil. I used a thin-haired toothbrush to apply the primer, ran it through another heat cycle at around 300 degrees and applied the glue. The professional gluer did it in one dip and swoop. It took me about 5 minutes and I was still outside all of the lines. I ran it through another head machine, grabbed a sole that matched my size, aligned the rubber with the blue and toe box, and pressed as hard as I could. A put it in another manned machine that could press harder than me.
I had a finished product. I wasn’t incredibly happy with my end result, but it was definitely wearable. That’s what the last few workers on the line are for. They inspected the shoe for any impurities and corrected them. They used a Dremel tool to erase excess glue and made sure the sole aligned with the rest of the shoe. If it didn’t they had a machine to take it off and reapply it.
Then I was passed down to lace my shoe. A man who laces shoes for 8 hours a day, let me lace mine. Over and under, left to right. I was passed to the boxing line and placed my left shoe first, then my right, and closed the box.
Upon completion, I met with the line leaders who shared stories of increasing productivity on the line and were brutally honest and transparent. They deemed my final product a C+ and congratulated me on graduating Shoe School.
Sports Research & Design Lab
After a night drinking local IPA’s with Tom Carleo, VP of New Balance Global Running, we took off for the Sports Research & Design Lab to see the plethora of innovation used in apparel and footwear that stems from science and biomechanics. No runner is built the same and New Balance knows it.
We were then taken to the design lab. There we saw a lot of current running footwear products and had a very open conversation about them and our current running regimen. We got a first look at some more 2017 products and innovation in which I cannot talk any more about although I wish I could.
The four days were completely unexpected, diverting from my usual work schedule is always exciting, but these were the most beneficial four days of my career. Being able to see the literal blood, sweat, tears, and time that go into creating one single shoe, let alone over 2 million a year, was mind boggling. The transparency from such a prestigious brand was comforting. While living and breathing the New Balance culture for four days changed the way I see the brand. Seeing the impact New Balance has on Boston and it’s surrounding neighborhoods changed how I see the words “shop local” forever.