Sew Your Own Kicks at New Balance's Shoe School

It’s 50 degrees and spitting rain, with clouds hanging so low they appear to drape the tree-studded hillside lining the highway as we head north away from the coast and away from New Balance’s headquarters in Boston. We’re en route to Skowhegan, Maine, a rural southwestern fishing town (in fact, Skowhegan means “watching place for fish”) on the edge of the Allagash Waterway. It’s home to fewer than 10,000 people, many of whom work in one of five on-shore New Balance factories that still operate in the U.S. today (three in Maine and two in Massachusetts).

I’m in the back of a minivan with several Fleet Feet store owners from around the country: Rhonda Roman of Fleet Feet Santa Rosa, Kevin Lachenmyer of Fleet Feet San Diego, Dave Spetnagel of Fleet Feet Saint Louis and Jim Gothers of Fleet Feet Menlo Park. Dave Shelbourne, the General Manager of Running Specialty Operations at New Balance, is at the wheel.

Boston melted into the horizon behind us after driving for several hours. Thick woods line the road as we pass a one-room post office just off the two-lane highway, a deli, a general store, even a drive-in movie theater, which I imagine looks pretty much the same as when it was built a half a century ago. There’s also a tack store, a gun shop and a farm-supply store. Several logging trucks go by as we pull into town.

We’re up here to visit the New Balance Skowhegan factory, but more than that, we’re here to work in it for a day as part of a unique program called Shoe School. According to Shelbourne, Shoe School started as a way to train new New Balance hires by helping them to get a feel for manufacturing best practices. Then about a decade ago, that expanded. “We held a contest for owners of Fleet Feet stores to attend Shoe School about a decade ago,” says Shelbourne. “And from there, we started opening up a few slots per month for special guests.”

Today, we’re the special guests. As we pull into the parking lot, I feel myself getting a little nervous about the task ahead. By the day’s end, each of us will have—hopefully—gone through the paces on the factory floor and come out the other end with a pair of our very own New Balance kicks, something we all quickly realize is as hard, if not harder, than it looks.

An employee sews shoes together at New Balance's Shoe School

Pride and value streams

The Skowhegan factory, an old brick school building, is divided into several floors, called “value streams.” Each floor (besides the materials floor in the basement) makes a different shoe, and each employee makes a different part of that shoe. It’s a cacophony of machine sounds and smells of leather mixed with glue. Every employee wears earplugs, which dampen the sound just enough that everyone can still speak with relative ease. Before hopping on the line, we all squish in our earplugs and put on safety goggles. It’s a fast course in cutting, gluing, shaping, sewing and pressing.

My first task is cutting out about a dozen swaths of royal blue-dyed suede that will eventually make up part of the upper of a pair of New Balance shoes. My in-line teacher keeps moving the machine for me. My margins are too big, she tells me; I need to maximize the amount of material used and balance that by paying close attention to the fabric I’m using. “And don’t use those pieces that look really hairy,” she says as I move to cut one. Oops.

I try to speed up and fumble. The rate at which she is able to cut is astounding. She graciously lets me slice and dice for a couple of minutes before shuffling me down the line. I worry I’ve slowed her down.

Next, I’m cutting another part of the upper, this time with a different machine and this time with a thicker leather and cushioned fabric that I learn will rest inside the shoe’s collar.

The New Balance employee working the next machine over is quite talkative, so I ask him about his work, “I love it,” he says, as he expertly pulls up row after row of cut leather and foam and stacks them. “The people here are amazing, and so are the benefits. Working this job is the first time in my life that I feel like the people I work for actually care about my well being.”

I don’t believe him at first. So I tell him I don’t work for New Balance, and that he can be honest with me. He shakes his head, “No, I’m serious; this job is amazing. This company is amazing.”

I bid him farewell and thank him for his help as a bell sounds and everyone shuffles out of the floor and down the stairs to the kitchen for one of two 15-minute breaks. Dave, Rhonda and I silently munch on a snack and listen to the conversations around us.

When the bell sounds again, we get back to work. I move through station after station, and the shoes begin to take shape. One task-—sewing the collar—takes me a couple of minutes to finish. The machine is sensitive, and I can’t seem to balance my foot pressure exactly right to stitch in the pattern I need. My teacher pulls them out, and I start over.

But the workers around me are flying through shoes, stitching perfect collars in less than 15 seconds. A scoreboard hangs over the station showing an ever-changing list of three numbers: accurately-made pieces, trashed pieces and the number needed to reach their goal. I’m thankful my pace doesn’t count.

A pair of New Balance shoes at the company's Shoe School training center

Made in the U.S.A.

Think 15 seconds is fast? The overseas factories can produce a running shoe in half the time Skowhegan can. So why does New Balance bother with keeping any of their factories in the U.S. since that surely means a cut to the bottom line? The answer is simple: people.

“New Balance has a culture that’s like a family,” says Shelbourne. “And in my 33 years working for New Balance, Shoe School is one of my favorite things because it truly embodies the passion that we’re all about.”

For anyone to truly understand the depth of the New Balance soul, he says, one must go to Shoe School. This becomes increasingly obvious as I complete my pair and take my seat at the end of a boardroom table for “graduation.”

Raye Wentworth, the plant manager of Skowhegan and Norridgewock (she's been with New Balance for 35 years), is sitting at the other end. She talks about the work being done here and the people that make it all happen. And it’s obvious she cares—a lot. “You grow and build yourself, you grow and build your people and you grow and build your brand,” Wentworth says.

She then asks us to pass our shoes around for everyone at the table to see. The outcomes are across the board. For the most part, they’re wearable, but with uneven stitching or a random piece of material sticking out where it shouldn’t be. But the imperfections add character to our souvenir and demonstrate the keen attention to detail and craft of the New Balance Skowhegan factory workers. Making perfect shoes isn’t easy.

The factory puts out roughly 40 cases of shoes a day (that’s 600 pairs). But not every pair makes it out the door. Our pairs, Wentworth says, will be written down as “scrap” along with the other shoes that get botched along the way, extra material or other pieces of defective material that, for one reason or another, can’t be used. It’s not a lot of waste, but it’s still a number to consider. And the associates there don’t take it lightly. Old materials are used in new ways to create tests and samples, or even head home with employees for personal things. Extra foam seems to occasionally be used for dog bed stuffing.

“New Balance is servant leadership,” Wentworth continues, “It’s all about the people.”

By Ashley Arnold. Ashley is a storyteller, ultrarunner and cat person. As Fleet Feet’s content marketing manager, she manages the Fleet Feet blog and its roster of writers.