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.