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Working from Inside to Outside

Published: 07th Nov 2012

The shoe Industry is an ancient craft. The skills of making shoes, boots and sandals go way back in antiquity and Guilds of Master Shoemakers existed in Europe as well established entities in the 1100s AD.

Shoemaking is both a craft and also an art form: its status which begat fashion has been a long established aspect of the styling of footwear for those who could afford to buy what was initially considered an expensive luxury item.

The trade skills have in the main now been shipped off shore for production - a result of decisions to promote economic globalisation. Shoemaking is a relatively high labour content process and yet a low cost investment product, and as a result the centuries old crafts disappeared from our Western shores.

Fortunately, military footwear and some industrial footwear have survived in the domestic industries - not by luck or imagination of producers, but because of national security supply fears and government safety standards, in some cases. When I was invited to write an article for this magazine, I was delighted to do so because I see an opportunity with military and industrial footwear to wake up the footwear industry as a whole, including retailing of footwear in earth shattering ways.

OK, so now I have your ear I ask you to keep reading as this subject has been very dear to my heart since I was a student in the early 1960s, at Northampton Technical College (UK).

Ever since then I have witnessed the ups and downs of an industry that was split apart by massive egos, nationalism, small family company nepotism and probably the greatest weakness - a fear of the unknown.

Styling, design and ‘lasts’

A true design built from the inside out respects all aspects of what it takes to make a specific shoe for a specific purpose. It is ironic that I use this article to talk about design over style as it applies to military and industrial footwear, and yet I believe this is where the true values of good product design most apply.

At my days at Bata, we were very proud of our Product Analysis boards. These large wooden boards existed in abundance and each one consisted of a complete disassembled competitor’s product with every single component laid out like a skillful anatomical dissection.

What the boards didn’t tell us was how good their ‘lasts’ and size fitting structures were.

A shoe last is an interpretation of a so called average foot shape ‘rounded off’ to become a smoother surface to aid the degrees of workmanship that then follow in the manufacture of a footwear product, and thus make it into a shoe.

We have a saying within our craft, ‘The last should be first’. Lasts as we know them with lefts and rights are a relatively new innovation in terms of the evolutionary time scale of our industry.

This development emerged in the mid 1800s as mechanisation within the industry took hold. Before this, shoes being made by hand tended to be made by individual craftsmen who worked with single straight lasts and a restricted selection of toe shapes.

It is important to now show a respect for the fact that a last is but a sculpted softer version of the foot shape, but one that is slightly larger than the actual foot size it aims to replicate. It is a necessary factor as in order to make sure a shoe is comfortable, the last must have sufficient depth in the toe area for the metatarsals and phalanges to be positioned correctly.

Not every last maker and footwear manufacturer uses the same common heel to toe length to determine their shoe sizing system, hence a natural foot shaped last you might associate with ‘earthy’ footwear has a shorter length than a long winklepicker dress shoe.

Fortunately the normal types of work boots lean more towards the natural foot shape than they do the elongated fashion toe.

Anatomical base for ergonomics - and function

I cannot stress enough the sadness I feel that in my 50 years in the industry I have seldom found a shoe company that actually has a foot skeleton within their operations, or, for that matter, knows very much about how a foot with all its ligaments, tendons, muscles, bones and arches works - or the effect that suppression of the arterial vascular system has because of badly located overlay seams, or too tight fastening systems.

Without understanding how the foot works anatomically, it is impossible to design a truly functional shoe. Knowing how the body structure reacts under stable and unstable conditions determines why a shoe can hurt the wearer.

Today we are blessed with biomechanical studies that have helped us to understand how the human foot reacts under different stresses and conditions. These biomechanical studies were brought to prominence by a sports shoe developer, and most importantly by Dr Peter Cavanagh at Penn State University, who was contracted by the US military to investigate the best weights of baggage that an infantryman should wear while traversing the wet and wild conditions of Vietnamese rice paddies.

Now, as a result of such research, we have upper and lining material producers that are able to afford us specific material benefits for specific functional needs that are too numerous to cover in this article. Most, however, are based on sandwich layers of materials that can wick out moisture, allow uppers to expunge the moisture, yet bring in fresh air ventilation, or keep the feet dry or warm.

What is critical to note is that while so much of the new materials technology has been developed for the needs of the performance athletic shoe segment, it is equally at home and necessary for the military and industrial segments of this now global business.

Size matters - the impact of globalisation

The subject I bring before you is the question of a long needed single international sizing system. One such system has existed since the late 1950s and it has had its ups and downs - its naysayers and very few promoters.

I don’t profess to be an expert on shoe sizing, but speak as a proud member of generations of shoemaking families. We cannot leave the subject of lasts until we also spend some time on our present sizing systems and the problems they now present in a new, highly competitive global economy.

Our problem is that over the centuries of time that have also included periods of wars between nations, national prides of organisations, dysfunctional trade committees and a general unwillingness to cooperate in a protective multilingual world, we now have a mess when it comes to shoe sizing.

Before globalisation radically affected our lives, nations operated very independently of each other. As a result, a series of national sizing systems were developed that while all meaning well and following quite similar reasoning, they worked well for local needs but were ill prepared for the international clientele that was to follow.

It is a fact that we have lived for past centuries with British sizes that evolved from Edward the Confessor’s medieval times, when everyday needs used everyday standard length items to define a length of measurement, and thus for some obscure reason the English shoe sizes you buy now are based on the length of three barley corns making up one inch, and we have three shoe sizes per inch.

Yes, we have sent people to the moon and now have a roving robot on Mars as we speak - but we still have a sizing system based on the length of a barley corn.

We need measuring systems that can be adjusted to our new needs.

Dysfunctional international sizing

The American sizing system for some reason follows the British system in concept, but for the abnormality of the fact that size O infants begins at three and 11/12 of an inch. Historical anecdotes indicate that this difference in measurement was as much a mistake as done for any specific purpose, and disagreement with how the British system worked.

This initiated the chaos of our international sizing systems as they exist today, made even more complicated at the turn of the last century when New England was the world’s leading men’s shoe exporter to the rest of the world. Ironically, today the USA is the world’s largest shoe importer.

The Americans added to our global confusion of today by introducing the aspect of width measurements to the mix. A New York gentleman of the name of Edward Simpson in 1880 is credited with preparing a detailed chart of what measurements constituted a size reading, and at the time he also included widths within those calculations, although such a suggestion was not accepted by retail associations until a short time later.

In Europe, centuries of unpleasantness between other countries lead to great rivalries that still remain on the soccer/football fields - and they invented the world of metric measurement systems.

To maintain simplicity of message, basically the Paris point system of France uses two thirds of a centimetre for a shoe size and the Italian metric system uses a grouping of millimetres - not all of which are regulated or stardardised in the group unit.

Today, there are also Japanese and Chinese sizing systems, and a few other minor national listings - in total some seven to eight recognised global varieties in a world that has gone global in four decades.

Sadly from my perspective, when the politicians made the decisions to open up free trade and national markets, they seem to have done a lot of the planning backwards, including not being prepared for the chaos that would ensue just in size markings on global products.

A workable system?

To add insult to irony, Europe has had a perfectly respectable standardised sizing system for footwear developed since the very early 1960s under the direction of SATRA, in conjunction with leading national trade organisations and government bodies.

It was called Europoint and was a system that adopted the metric system of measurement for commercial clothing and footwear. For shoes, the concept was primarily concerned with length, width and girth statistics.

The key was that a table of measurements were devised that created a ‘Box of Dimensions’ into which a last had to fit in order to classify for a particular Europoint size marking.

The genius of the concept was that existing lasts did not have to be thrown out; this was simply a system that could even be used to apply to the measurement of old lasts and they would also be given a Europoint size measurement.

Sadly, the initial responses from the various members participating seemed to suffer from the NIMBY - ‘not in my back yard’ - syndrome and the response and willingness to change was not present in what were at this stage still relatively small family businesses with stubborn perspectives and a fear of down the street competition. It was not a period when they could see the onslaught that was to occur with the advent of globalisation - and who their real competitors were to become.

To all intents and purposes Europoint disappeared as a subject for introduction until the wrath of globalisation began to affect the European manufacturing base.

A compromise from fear?

As business closed or went off shore in the Seventies and Eighties, discounting began to grow and survival was all important. Any new ideas to change an archaic industry were simply neglected.

In studying the history of our industry, I believe that timing is everything, that we all are subject to matters that are out of our control, and Europe began to realise that a United Europe might be able to face the commercial takeover that was happening in Asia.

National peculiarities of sizing had to be overcome and thus Europoint was brought back as Mondopoint for defining the sizing needs of military and other trans-European government contracts.

Mondopoint is used extensively as the footwear sizing system of record for NATO - an organisation that includes Canada and the United States in its membership.

It is almost unimaginable that the United States military could have been sold on adopting this metric system, but to their credit they did, albeit, from what I gather, that the girth aspect has been removed from the calculations as it became too difficult to implement and to train personnel with present fitting systems.

What is exciting is that now Mondpoint size comparisons are listed along side the national sizing systems on every military boot.

Implications for industry

As more and more government contracted footwear is tendered across national borders, it’s likely the industrial footwear sector will also adopt Mondopoint as their stand alone size identification system. Many major players are already adopting Mondopoint although again, sadly, without the girth measurement, which to me is a vital element of good fitting.

I believe it is essential that any international standard system must include three dimensional aspects of foot measurement, as we still live in a global environment where different cultures have different foot shapes. It is even more difficult to accurately fit workers as labour migration to other parts of the world now means that major manufacturing ‘commissaries’ have a tremendous variety of foot shapes, and extremes of sizes to service.

Different shapes and sizes

Generally, people in Northern Europe had large, broad feet; the Latin countries smaller, narrower feet; the South American Native foot has a close similarity to the Japanese foot shape - which is a cultural thesis waiting to happen for some future PhD candidate.

The United States is an example of a huge multicultural market, which has some of the largest feet in the world.

You can challenge me on my research, but I have been told by some expert shoe fitters that the average woman’s shoe size in North America is now size 8.5 American; for men 10.5; and for young adult males it is closer to size 13.

If these statistics are correct, then we have to ask governments to help us fund research to revise our traditional size groupings and to start to advise our consuming base that big feet take more materials, and therefore should cost more than smaller shoes, even if of the same style.

Anticipating the future

If we can get such a massive reexamination of the anthropological needs of our consumer base, then it is only logical at the same time to try to move our total industry towards one global standardised sizing system.

It is advisable to begin with the most controlled target audience we can find, and that has begun with what NATO has done.

The industrial footwear category is a perfect vehicle for moving the whole of our industry towards having just one such international sizing system that can be trusted for its accuracy.

The next chapter after an industrial adoption of Mondpoint logically would be Performance Sportwear followed by a much needed reexamination of what exactly is a child’s size need and, more importantly, what should and should not be a child’s shoe.

Imagine the benefits that will accrue to us as an industry and commercial trading as a result of one standardised system?

• No confusion in size conversions will speed up purchases at the retail level • Accurate size knowledge will improve inventory management • Actual foot fitting should improve and thus overall performance of the shoe or boot for the wearer will be better • General development of more innovative products can only get better with improved knowledge of what constitutes accurate shoe fitting • Accurate and standardised sizing will advance electronic sales and open up even newer channels of distribution • Global selling will be made easier • Official measuring services will be like government standards organisations and only they will be able to identify and mark the correct Mondopoint sizes. This will be an interesting examination of the way the Asian factories produce their lasts, as I have seen some horror stories in the past, particularly with metal lasts for vulcanising. Again, the benefit of starting with industrial footwear at the consumer level is that this segment of the industry uses fewer last shapes that change seasonally • If implemented well and explained simply but effectively, consumers may see the use of Mondopoint as a Product Quality Factor they look for - as I remember the days when to buy a pair of everyday slacks at Marks and Spencer, all I had to do was keep a copy of the sizing details from the pant label in my wallet at all times

Beware of the pitfalls

Now, to see what problems we have where the blind have led the blind, I urge you to just study some of the size conversion tags that are in some of the leading athletic brands.

It is a new millennium and the footwear business is now becoming a story of giant global behemoths at all levels, be it manufacturing, wholesaling or retailing. The people in charge are now more about numbers crunching and less about craft knowledge.

Our apprenticeship schemes and training colleges are getting less and less as more and more of the manufacturing is simply sent to the Orient to get rid of the problems that a civilised society has.

We are in danger of losing not only the knowledge of our craft but also an ability to manage its direction. Footwear is not just foot coverings as status symbols.

The military need good footwear so that their warriors can perform their functions to the highest level. For centuries such warriors marched on footwear that tended to break in their feet and not the other way.

Now we build products for speciific functional military needs and that is the same for job fitted performance industrial and safety footwear.

In my next article I would like to take what we have learned about last sizing and start to build products based on functional performance needs.

Building design into industrial footwear will be my next article.

Published: 07th Nov 2012 in Health and Safety Middle East

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Phillip Nutt’s family background in work boots, along with Northampton’s reputation for Goodyear Welts and Doc Martens, exposed him to many of the in depth basics of industrial footwear.