To celebrate the arrival of our exclusive Dr Martens x oki-ni Monkey Boot, we visited the brand's historic Cobb's Lane factory to follow our shoes along the production line.
In a quiet, leafy corner of Northamptonshire you find the home of a genuine British icon.
As you walk around the Dr Martens factory the heritage of the building is tangible. It was here, back on April 1st 1960, where the very first pair of Dr Martens came to being. As you move from reception to the factory floor you pass an imposing green stationary engine – now lying dormant. In the days when Cobb's Lane was the home for all Dr Martens production this metal leviathan chugged away at the heart of the factory, powering conveyors, machines and sky hooks.
Today Cobb's Lane is a very different beast, being home to the label's Made in England collection and Dr Martens' special projects. Yet, you don't have to look to the bricks and mortar or defunct machinery to find a link to the brand's history. Between them the factory's employees rack up decades of experience and, for some, Cobb's Lane has been their family's place of work for generations.
The first port of call for any job at Cobb's Lane is Factory Manager Stephen Bent. Very much the nerve centre of the operation, Stephen is the guide for our visit, dispensing information while decoding the jargon of the shoemaking process.
"There's a lot of terminology we use in the factory, which is where the phrase 'talking cobblers' comes from", says Stephen. "When we talk about clicking we actually mean cutting, when we talk about closing we actually mean stitching, when we talk about lasting we mean moulding."
As well as acting as code breaker, Stephen also explains the unique character of the Cobb's Lane operation.
"It's quite common to have your clicking and your closing in one factory, and your lasting line in a completely separate factory" says Stephen. "It's like two separate factories that happen to be in the same room."
As a self-contained laboratory for Dr Marten's special projects and collaborations, Cobb's Lane runs the gamut of shoemaking: on one side you have delicate stitching and finishing processes, while on the other the clunk of heavy machinery and hiss hydraulics speaks of an entirely different discipline.
"That's the process. It's either hot,
cold, or something spinning around."
- Stephen, Factory Manager
Production begins in the clicking room, where clickers cut leather hides down to size. The name originated in recognition of the distinctive sound made by the worker's specialised knives clicking down onto brass patterns and cutting boards.
Today, much of the cutting element of the clicker's job is done by large hydraulic presses fitted with cookie-cutter-like templates, yet the job of the clicker is far from mechanical. Their first task is to assess each individual hide and identify the choice areas of the leather, reserving the best areas of the hide for the pieces of the boot that will be on show.
Each hide bares the unique fingerprint of the animal that produced it and the clicker must look out for imperfections cause by birth marks, scars, and other flaws. They must then consider that different areas of the hide will produce leather with different properties.
"If you look at the way an animal moves", says Stephen, "at the legs and neck, they're going to have creases and stretches as they move in different directions. The bit of the animal that moves the least actually gives you the best quality leather".
As any clicker knows, "the best part of the leather comes from the butt."
Splitting and skiving, the next two processes, are akin leather engineering. Their purpose is to cut, trim, and finesse the leather so that when the component pieces join together they do so perfectly.
This internal engineering job has been part of shoemaking for centuries, so much so that it has passed into the wider lexicon. "If you've ever heard of the phrase skiving off", says Stephen, "it's the only operation in an old fashioned shoe factory where you had to sit down."
Once the groundwork has been laid by the clickers, splitters, and skivers the pieces of this leather jigsaw are stitched together into a complete upper. This is called closing and while there are many elements to it the most notable one is the puritan stitch, which leaves its unique fingerprint of three parallel lines.
Performed on a special tripped-needled machine, the puritan stitch sits on the side of the boot, anchoring the quarter to the vamp. "During the Second World War", says Stephen, "this was a reserve trade, so if you were a puritan stitcher making army boots you could refuse the draft because it was considered such a complicated skill. All army boots during the war had that stitching, and this machine is nearly that old."
"A lot of the shoemakery talk disappears when you get over to this side of the room", says Stephen as we leave the closing area and enter the lasting line. "There's much more maintenance over here for machinery, as opposed to just being really, really precise." That said, in shoemaking there is always room for jargon and another term – the last – sits at the centre of this phase.
"Last is basically a bad translation from Italian, meaning 'final'", explains Stephen. "It's the final shape of the shoe, and we have a phrase, 'down to the wood', that basically means the pattern is a good fit for the last."
The moulding element of the lasting line use the natural properties of the leather - stimulated by a mixture of heat, cold, and pressure - to create a ridge around the base of the upper. This is crucial, as it is at this ridge where the upper joins the sole.
"Leather, being skin, has got pores in it", says Stephen, as we approach the Back Part Moulding machine. "Even though it's dead those pores open and close. If we get the leather really hot the pores will open and it gets really susceptible and pliable. Then these tools clamp down to put a crease in the back of the shoe and that crease acts like a datum point that our construction guys will use to pull the rest of the shoe on."
Once the back has been moulded the same process is repeated at the toe, and the shoe begins to transform from a 2D blueprint into a 3D object. Side lasting finishes the process, as metals staples stand in for the stitches that will come later, pulling the sides of the shoe into the last.
Finally, the shoe passes through the Heat Setter, which acts like a mini sauna. "It's basically like leaving it on the last for a day," says Stephen." This accelerates time, and the leather will settle down onto the last to be a tighter fit.
Once the upper is tight to the last, the process of attaching the sole can begin. It now passes to the Welt Setter who gets underneath the staples put in earlier, replacing them with a heavy stitched thread that holds the welt to the outside of the shoe.
The soles themselves are moulded on site. In one of the back corners of the factory, a huge white injection moulding machine heats PVC pellets into a molten goo before firing them into refrigerated moulds.
"I used to visit my granddad here when I was
a little kid. I'd come and visit him on a Friday.
My granddad worked here, my dad worked here,
and now the young apprentice coming through
is the 4th generation."
– Martin, Specialised Lasting
More heat is required to attach the sole. To achieve this PVC is fused together at extreme temperatures - "this is the patented 'made like no other shoe on earth' part", says Stephen.
After excess material from the lasting process has been trimmed away the boot is ready for its baptism of fire. "The sealing blade is burning at 700 degrees Fahrenheit," says Stephen, "that's why it's got that cherry glow to it". The red hot blade then runs along the line of the welt, fusing the two layers of PVC together to bind sole and upper. On other models you can turn the heat up to produce a visible flame, but on our oki-ni boots more care is needed to avoid singeing the hair-on uppers.
The dramatic fire and brimstone of the Hot Welt Machine marks the end of the construction process. Now the boot is fully functionally, if a little rough around the edges.
"I've been to China a couple of times and Poland, to train people. Everyone that I've trained in a similar factory to do this will do it the way I do it - the safest way there is to do it. You've got to be taught the right way."
As the boots exit the lasting line the last itself is removed and returned to the start of the conveyor to begin life again.
The next, and final, stage is the shoe room - a kind of finishing school for boots, where rough and raw individual are paired up and the transformed into the gleaming finished article.
The team in the shoe room perform quality control checks before going to work with a variety of stains, inks, and paints to touch up any irregularities in colour. Next comes a thorough clean and polish before the boots are laced and boxed, ready for shipping.
"I'll make sure that the backs are straight, make sure the eyelets are in alignment where they should be - obviously make sure they're a pair."
With Cobbs Lane's new focus on small scale, bespoke production the shoe room has become an increasingly important part of the factory. "This is where you get into the traditional Northamptonshire finishing processes that weren't really part of Dr Martens until a year ago", says Stephen.
"It's new for us, but it's really old fashioned shoemaker's stuff. We've been working with PVC and plastic for decades and because we're making a more crafted, heritage looking shoe we have to do all the heritage processes."
Adapt or die; as Cobb's Lane has found, sometimes it takes a backward step to go forward.
"The actual process time, if you were to take one pair of shoes and walk them down the line", says Stephen, "is about an hour and ten minutes". The factory may function with mechanical regularity, but during that hour and ten minutes something special happens.
In that time, an inanimate collection of leather and PVC components are transformed, via decades of experience and exceptional craft, into a pair of Dr Martens, imbued with a life and character of their own.
Ask anyone who owns a pair and they'll agree that there is something special about Dr Martens. Once you get a pair on your feet they become living things, ageing and growing with you - they develop a personality as you rack up miles and invest them with memories.
The reason for this special quality is difficult to pin down, but its origin can be traced back to a unique factory, located on Cobb's Lane.
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