Sitting quietly in a nondescript antiquated brick factory building on one of the main streets of Lewiston Maine is Quoddy. Quoddy is one of the few remaining shoe manufacturers in the United States. Quoddy doesn’t make dress shoes, they make moccasins. Not the moccasins you buy from Minetonka, LL Bean or Sperry; which share enough similarities with true moccasins that they are marketed as such. Kevin Shorey, whom with his wife Kirsten own Quoddy, put the difference best;
“Moccasin construction is unique, in that what it does is that is wraps around your foot from the bottom up. A lot of shoes that are made in faux moccasin [like top siders] construction cut out the center here [as Kevin points to center of die cutting template] and put it on the side… The downside to that is, and the upside to the moccasin is the way we cut them back to belly… It stretches this way as it wraps around your foot, if you have this center cut out here what happens is you have blow outs… Because there’s nothing here to wrap around your foot… It [now referring to true moccasins] molds to your foot. The other thing is for repairs and resoling; our shoes are not meant to be thrown away, you won’t see these in a landfill.” Much like Good Year and blake welted shoes, Quoddy moccasins are meant to be resoled.
Furthermore, Quoddy not only completes every stitch of every shoe in Maine, but also sources nearly all of its leather from the United States from tanneries like Horween and S.B. Foot. I suppose purists would say this is what Made In America is all about.
But to understand Quoddy we need to go past its manufacturing and into its past and present state. Like some of the other shoe manufacturers still making shoes here in the United States (Alden and Rancourt to name a few), Quoddy is family owned and operated. But it has not always been this way. Although it started as a family owned operation in 1909 and remained such for many years it went through a few different sets of hands later on in the 20th century until being reacquired in 1997 by Kevin Shorrey, the great grandson of Harry Smith Shorrey. As Kevin puts it, his great grand father learned how to hand sew, and subsequently start his own company, because in his recovery from Polio he could not partake in jobs that required standing or more arduous physical labor. Whereas with hand sewing you can sit and the labor is still taxing, but I suppose not as grueling as some of the alternatives.
So what is hand sewing? You may ask. In the most simple sense, it is the stitching of the vamp piece to the lower by hand (as moccasins are a bottom up construction the lower wraps around the entire bottom and side of the foot). From what I know, Lewiston is one of the few places left in America that still have proper hand sewers. Kevin noted that it takes about a year to teach a hand sewer and some people will never get it, no matter how hard they try. Only ‘1 in 10 make it,’ he said. But a year is a small amount of time in a shoe makers career. Many of the people I met at Quoddy had been making shoes for over 20 years, one gentleman for more than 50. Many of these people were the sons and daughters of the shoe makers who came before them, and no doubt some of their sons and daughters will be the ones carrying on the craft from them.
The facility that these people work in is more of a workshop than a factory, at least to my mind. Things were too casual and communal to be a factory. There was too much of a human aspect in the goings on. Things were too manual. It is not a bad thing, it had somewhat of a romantic air to it, actually. As Kevin pointed out, ‘everything is made to order… We make one pair at a time’ They don’t keep a running stock. That means when Quoddy receives an order from anyone from J. Crew to myself (obviously, I had to order a pair of shoes) the shoes are not put into production until the order is placed.
It looked that Quoddy keeps around 40 people on staff (who produce over 20,000 pairs of shoes a year), however, back in its heyday in the early 20th century, they had over 400. But that is not a place that Kevin wants to take Quoddy. ‘We could never get there, nor do we want to; its not what we do.’ He likes to keep his ‘family’ small. ‘Would I see us over 100 employees? Probably, yeah. But never 4 or 500.’ And by family, I mean family. I got the impression from both the Shorreys and the people who work at Quoddy that the group is pretty close knit and respect goes both ways.
A few years back Kevin moved the operations of Quoddy from Perry Maine to Lewiston Maine. Primarily because a larger and more specialized labor pool in Lewiston. However, he decided to keep his customer service based in Perry when he could’ve easily moved it to Lewiston as well. But Kevin’s logic was two fold. First, those 6 people were experienced shoe makers and could answer any questions people would have about Quoddy and its shoes. Second, that 6 jobs meant a lot to Perry, I got the impression that Perry is not one of the most well off places in New England. To Kevin, an ex-local politician, 6 jobs means 12 kids get food, education and a home.
So as much as Quoddy is about shoes and the making of shoes, there is more at play; family, pride, craft, tradition and business. It just happens that all we as consumers see are the shoes, but great shoes they are.
Note: FYGblog received no compensation in the production of this post.