The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 10 (January 1, 1940)
Buy New Zealand Goods — and Build New Zealand — New Zealand Industries Series — No. 11. Footwear And Leather Goods
Buy New Zealand Goods
and Build New Zealand
New Zealand Industries Series
No. 11. Footwear And Leather Goods.
When man found that it was necessary to go in for foot coverings, two distinct methods were used. Naturally they were the products of differing environments. There was the sandal tied to the ankle by strings or straps, which was a protection for the sole of the foot, and there was the moccasin which was a skin wrapped round the foot and fastened along the instep. The modern shoe or boot, although taking fantastic forms through the ages, is a combination of both methods. As far back as Minoan times, the top-boot is seen in drawings, giving the hunter protection for the calf of the leg, and, of course, we all remember in our school-books, the pictures of the Edwardian courtiers wearing shoes with toes so long that they had to be fixed to the knee with foppish trappings. The Romans, with their characteristic common sense, stuck to the sandal idea, so suitable to their climate, though there were plenty of freak fashions in footwear in those spacious days of the Caesars.
“There's nothing like leather,” is an old saying, and the dressing and tanning of leather has risen all over the world to the stature of an art. The use of chromium, salts for “chrome” leather, and other scientific discoveries have revolutionised the processing of hides. New Zealand is a land of boundless riches in hides and skins, and one would expect the leather manufacturing industries to be well advanced.
Prejudices about New Zealand-made shoes are stupid: New Zealand materials are exactly the same as those used anywhere in the world; the standards of plant, equipment, and inspection systems are right up-to-date. As with all other industrial institutions in New Zealand, I found that the executives of the boot manufacturing factories were constantly moving about the world, examining new methods and getting “close-ups” of modern trends and fresh inventions.
The five-storey block of Hannah's Shoe Factory is a familiar landmark in Wellington. In one of its rooms, I looked at an entry made in Charleston, on the West Coast, whence came so many of New Zealand's history makers. It is in the handwriting of the late Robert Hannah and reads: “Tues., 28th June, 1868. ‘Slept in Own Shop.’” The young emigrant from the North of Ireland had come to New Zealand in 1866, and after a couple of years about the diggings, had decided to set up in the business he knew so well. Here is another entry which will refresh many a memory: “Mon., 15th June, 1872 … T. G. Macarthy, Repairs, 1/-.”
In 1866, the account of R. Hannah was opened with the Bank of New South Wales, and it is still in existence. The full story would need the dimensions of a full-length novel. In 1874, the West Coast business had grown to such an extent that its founder resolved to move to Wellington, and old identities will remember his combined shop and factory in Cuba Street with its early New Zealand verandah. Twenty years later, the Palace Boot Factory of five floors was put up in Lambton Quay; a decade later, the great Leeds Street Factory, soon to be become the administration premises and warehouse for the present great building, the largest of its kind in New Zealand, and rivalling the largest boot manufacturing plants in the Empire. More than 750 New Zealanders derive their livelihood from R. Hannah & Co. Ltd., and the company owns and operates 42 retail shops, giving a national coverage of every important centre in the land.
It is no wonder that when Charleston was paid a visit by its own “Bobbie” Hannah, the town gave him the equivalent of a triumphal procession.
I was taken through the vast establishment by a foreman whose service with the company exceeded forty years. He had spent two years in America, familiarising himself with the methods of the famous Selby Factory, and the assembly of plants and the systems of any countries were familiar to him. He was sincerely of the opinion that Hannah's were abreast of modern footwear-making in all respects.
The huge factory is rather like a selfcontained township; its spaciousness and actual size are impressive, and one gets the feeling of a large and busy population.
Hannah's make the whole range of footwear, from the smart feminine street shoe to the man's welted brogue, from the schoolgirl's sandal to the heavy military boot.page 19
We went first to the preparing rooms, where the multitudinous patterns are cut, where skiving, perforating and other processes are carried on. “Skiving,” by the way, means shaving off the leather, and “clicking” means cutting out the uppers, and so on. This work is done by hand at Hannah's, for with leather at three shillings per foot, human care is worth its place. The various leathers come from all parts of the world, a substantial proportion of course being New Zealand-grown and tanned. Leather is a natural product, and its variations depend largely on environment and other regional circumstances. For instance, calf-skins come largely from France and the other countries that eat veal freely.
The “chain” system of operations enters largely into this modern factory's organisation. Each man does one operation with skill and speed, and the article passes on, after inspection at chosen points.
At the ends of these lines, the shoes pour off for the finishing processes, and the imagination boggles at the moving masses of five-tier trolleys laden with shoes, taking selected routes like a crowd of trams at a Centennial Exhibition rush hour.
I had a look at a “Consolidated Laster.” This uncanny, almost human mechanism, grabs the leather upper, pinches and shapes it round and tacks it on, all in the same operation, at the rate of 150 tacks a minute, the operative working a simple knee-grip device.
The Shoe Seat machine puts in eighteen tacks at one shot, and the Pulling Over machine pulls the toe into position and drives in the tacks at the same time. The tacks run down parallel tubes into their proper positions. The machine stitching of a welted shoe is an interesting operation, for no handwork could get the same strength and durability.
All shoes are re-blocked, that is to say they are put back on the lasts and go through levelling and fitting processes. The making of heels has more to it than I imagined. The shaped leather layers are stamped out to the exact size, placed together, joined, and then a crusher compresses them and makes the hollow necessary for attachment to the sole.
The soles themselves are cut out by instruments resembling die-presses, and the number, shapes and variety of sizes are bewildering. In the leather storeroom, there is a lesson in general geography. Although a substantial proportion of the materials come from New Zealand, the world is combed by Hannah's for the extraordinary diversity of coloured leathers, fabrics, crepe rubbers, ornaments, and the other thousandand-one things needed to make footwear for New Zealanders.
I found one outstanding fact about wholesale bootmaking; the secret is inspection. Hannah's inspection is constant and thorough-going, and, as they sell their goods only through their own stores, they guarantee every purchase. This giant institution, the achievement of one of our pioneers, is something of which we should be proud. Hannah's is, in truth, a National Footwear Service.
Here again, the sequence processes were in operation. The cooking-room was interesting, large chambers maintained at a gentle heat to both toughen and render the leathers supple.
Pride in workmanship is everywhere, and the factory is equipped with the last word in mechanical appliances. Duckworth's turn out a ladies' shoe as smart, well-fitting and durable as anywhere in the world. In addition, it is worth remembering that this institution keeps hundreds of New Zealanders in useful and agreeable employment. I found 120 girls in the shoe-sewing room alone, and in the clicking and machine departments all the work is done by men. Duckworth's Limited is an example of good New Zealand brains and hands matching the world's achievement in its lines of endeavour.
I got partly away from leather in the journey through the fascinating establishment of New Zealand Slippers Ltd. Here, well over three hundred of our own folk are turning out a dazzling array of slippers at round about 5,000 pairs a day. More startling figures to me were that 2,600 distinct lines are made, and that seventeen different materials were used in the making of the simplest type of slipper.
Here is a different atmosphere; colour riots everywhere, not only reds and blues, yellows and greens, but checks, tartans, silvers, golds and bronze, and others in a kaleidoscope of tints. After looking at the cutting-room, where I saw die-presses running out 4,000 patterns a day, we went to the machineroom where the fabrics are made up. The pattern dies are made here on rather the same principles as those described last month in the Empire Box Company's carton production. From a wooden template, a flexible steel-cutting knife is bent round to the exact shape and size, so that any variation can be handled. This is necessary to meet with the ever-changing designs dictated by fashion and fancy.
It was interesting to find that all kinds of elaborate and bespangled dress materials were in use here, in this Lower Hutt factory, often before they reach our leading shops. Under arrangement with Eatough's of world fame, the very last word in the new season's fabrics is sent to Slippers Ltd. Even to the male eye, there was brilliant beauty and originality in scores of these gailycoloured materials, some of them being small picture galleries, notably a luckycharm design. Rows of ingenious machines run by clever fingers stitch these into slipper tops, as an adornment for dainty feet, an exquisitely appropriate use. I should mention that on the day of my visit there was no artificial light in use, the floor space of 35,000 feet with its modern roof-lighting being as clear as day. There is a leather sole department and here I was introduced to the fact that every slipper, felt or leather soled, is made inside out.
Machinery of exceedingly ingenious construction operates plungers and other devices which turn them back to normal with precision, heels first, fronts next. As I went along these rows, I counted slippers of blue and white checks, reds, tartans, rainbow, prunella and Burgundy wine, and lost count in this incredible profusion of butterfly hues. Most slippers are blocked, with almost the same method as felt hats, steamed and settled into permanent shapes. Here again is a place to see lasts by the mile. The array of ornaments is a spectacle—pompoms, fairy feathers, everything in knots, little garlands, brocades, spangles, rosettes, bows, posies, the list is endless. I saw the girl record-holder at work putting blue pom-poms on small slippers, and her fingers seem to fly without effort.
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