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At Freed of London Ltd, Ballet & Theatrical Shoemakers

May 16, 2013
by the gentle author

The shoes worn by the world’s leading ballerinas are made in Hackney by Freed of London the pre-eminent shoemaker to the theatrical profession, producing more than one hundred and fifty thousand pairs a year to supply companies scattered around the globe.

Founded in 1920 by Frederick Freed, a sample shoemaker, and his wife Dora, a milliner, in St Martin’s Lane in a shop where the company still trades today, Freed’s introduced the notion of fitting ballet shoes to individual dancers’ feet where once only standard sizes were available. This simple decision revolutionised the production of ballet shoes, brought international success to Freed and delivered their first celebrity endorsement, when Moira Shearer wore a pair manufactured by Freed in “The Red Shoes.”

As you catch sight of the nondescript frontage of Freed of London’s factory in Well St, going past on the bus, you might not think twice about what lies inside. Yet there is a certain point within the building where you turn a corner and confront a breathtaking vision of more pink satin shoes than you ever dreamed of, piled up in various stages of manufacture. In the shimmering blend of daylight filtering through the skylights and the glow of the fluorescent tubes, the lustrous satin glistens with a radiant life of its own as if you were gazing upon seashells lit by sunlight refracted through crystal Caribbean waters. Even before they reach the dancers, the magic of the shoemakers’ art has imbued these shoes with a certain living charge just waiting to be released.

Until the eighties, Hackney was the centre of shoe manufacture in London with Cordwainers’ College training students in the necessary skills to work in the local factories. But the college and almost all the factories have gone, except Freed. Yet the most talented veterans gravitated to Freed and when Contributing Photographer Patricia Niven & I visited them yesterday, we encountered a proud workforce who are collectively responsible for the phenomenal success of Freed as the world’s leading maker of ballet and theatrical shoes.

We started in the Theatrical Department where shoes for musical theatre are made, overseen by Supervisor Ozel Ahmed who has worked here twenty years. At one end, designer and pattern cutter Jimmy Fenn worked in his cabin designing, next to the clickers who cut out the leather – and beyond them were a handful of people sitting at machines, sewing the pieces together with meticulous attention to detail. Ozel explained they only made five to seven hundred pairs of shoes a week in her department, as opposed to the three to four thousand which would get manufactured by the same number of people producing shoes for the fashion market. And then she took one of those shiny, strappy, diamanted confections that are barely-there, for which she is responsible, and bent it in half to show how soft and flexible it was. The shoe was a discreet masterpiece of elegant structure and subtly judged tension, strongly manufactured to suit the needs of a dancer performing nightly in musical theatre. “There is no single West End show without a pair of our shoes,” Ozel assured me confidently.

Next door in the Lasting Room where the different elements were assembled to complete the shoe, large machines dominated yet there were also plenty of people in evidence with pots and brushes, applying glue strategically. “Everyone in this room, you’re talking a minimum of thirty years’ experience,” revealed Ronny Taylor, the Lasting Room Foreman. Gazing around this room, there was a startling contrast between the battered industrial equipment and the perfectly glossy delicate little shoes, and I was fascinated by the long line of distinctive skills each applied to different aspects of the construction of them.

In the Ballet Department where pointe shoes were made, a different atmosphere reigned. There was no machinery at all and we had gone back more than hundred years to the working practices of the lone artisan using just three tools to make ballet shoes. I discovered the pointe shoe makers are a class apart within the factory – they work at separate personal benches, their employment is piecework and they are their own men, identified by the symbols they impress upon the shoes they make – such as Crown or Wine Glass or Fish.“There’s no wood in the block of a pointe shoe,” explained the shoe maker known as Crown, “just paper, card, hessian and flour and water paste.”

Every ballerina chooses a maker who makes her shoes according to her personal specifications and then will wear no other. I learnt of cases where ballerinas had refused to go on stage if a pair of shoes by their maker was not available. “They order thirty pairs at a time and a lot will only use them once, so they will be destroyed after a single performance,” admitted Crown who has been making pointe shoes for twenty-four years, whose daily output is forty-one pairs and whose clients include some of the most famous ballerinas alive. “It’s not how fast you go,” he told me, speaking of his productivity, “You must learn how to make the shoes and build up your rhythm before you can pick up the speed, because you’ve got to keep the quality of the shoes consistent.”

The nature of the specialised production process at Freed of London means that the contribution of every member of the team is crucial to the success of the company. It is a rare place where skills and old trades are prized, and wedded happily to the glamour of show business, ensuring that the artistry of the shoemakers of Hackney earns applause on stages throughout the world.

The theatrical shoe department at Freed.

Sanjay Sanjawah, panel trimmer

Ken Manu, heel moulder

Ozel Ahmed, supervisor in the theatrical shoes department - “Most of us have been here a long time. I work here because I love making shoes, it’s not about the money – it’s about the love of the trade.”

Shoe lasts numbered with sizes.

Jerry Kelly, Production Director

“one of those shiny, strappy, diamanted confections that are barely-there”

Worral Thomas, Hand Laster

Charlie Johnson, Side Laster

Four thousand pounds of pressure is exerted to join the sole to the shoe.

Ali Aksar, Sole Presser Operator

Jimmy Fenn, Designer & Pattern Cutter with some recent designs - “I’ve been in the trade thirty-five years. My job is fantastic because you never know what you are going to come in to in the morning. You can never get bored because you can always design a shoe. And when you spot them on television it’s really exciting.”

Once a week, flour and water is mixed to make the paste used to create the blocks for pointe shoes. A little insecticide is included in the blend to prevent weevils eating the shoes.

Satin and calico blanks at the start of the manufacturing process.

Ballet shoes are manufactured inside-out and then turned upon completion.

“Crown” has ballerinas who have been his exclusive customers for twenty-four years.

The maker’s mark of “Crown” upon the sole of one of his pointe-shoes.

Pointe shoes are baked overnight in the oven to dry out the flour glue.

Tony Collins, Machine operator has been with Freed for forty years. “The best thing about working here is that the people who are here stay here. We’ve got new ones but old lads too.”

Luthu Miah, Supervisor of the Binding Room.

Varsha Bahen, Finisher

Rashimi Patel, Pairing

Sheila (Pointe Shoe Finisher) & Philip Goodman (Chargehand) met on their first day work at Freed, forty years ago, and have been together ever since.

Frederick Freed and his wife Dora who founded Freed in 1920.

Dora in the factory in the seventies.

Frederick & Dora Freed outside their shop in St Martin’s Lane.

After the workers have left and the lights are switched out, the shoes lie waiting ….

Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven

Freed of London Ltd, 94 St Martins Lane, London, WC2N 4AT

You may also like to read these other stories about manufacturing in the East End

At James Ince & Sons Ltd, Umbrella Makers

At Drakes of London, Tiemakers

At Persauds’ Handbag Factory

At Alexander Boyd’s Tailoring Workshop

At the Algha Spectacle Works

27 Responses leave one →
  1. Mike Brown permalink
    May 16, 2013

    Another wonderful story from Gentle Author – an uplifting start to my day

  2. Paula permalink
    May 16, 2013

    What a wonderful story! I don’t dance (not ballet, and certainly not professionally), but I love seeing the history, process, and especially the people of this wonderful company. Thank you, and I look forward to more stories like this!

  3. Ruth permalink
    May 16, 2013

    What perfect timing; I walked past the factory only yesterday and wondered what lay behind the facade. Now I know!

  4. Karl permalink
    May 16, 2013

    Fascinating article! I’ve always wondering what goes on in there, having lived close by for years.

    I don’t think they’re the the only shoemaker left in Hackney though. Gina make their ladies shoes in Dalston still I believe. Anyone know of any others?

  5. Christine Carder permalink
    May 16, 2013

    Another great post,I remember being taken to Freed
    to get my first pair of ballet shoes aged 7,I turned out to be a lousy dancer but I’ve never forgotten the thrill of that shop.The dedication of the craftsmen for their work is wonderful.I love the photography.
    Thank you.

  6. May 16, 2013

    Freeds were a legend when I was a school girl in the seventies. There was a type of tap shoe we used to buy to wear as our school shoes. Great post and you have captured the magic of ballet satin, ” seashells lit by sunlight refracted through crystal Caribbean waters. ” It’s fantastic to see the people who make these gorgeous shoes and that the firm is going strong, great photo of the Freeds too!

  7. Ron Pummell. permalink
    May 16, 2013

    Very nice to see Freed’s being recognised. My sister, Mrs Ellen King, was with the company for 55 years. Two other folk that should be acknowledged are Rodney Freed (a son of Mr & Mrs Freed) and Michelle. At times a young local resident named Cameron Mackintosh would pop in for a cup of tea, I wondered what happened to him???? Regards, Ron Pummell

  8. Judith Skinner permalink
    May 16, 2013

    I loved this report. My mother was a dancer in her youth (1940s) and when I started ballet lessons aged 8, she took me to Freeds in St Martin’s Lane to buy shoes. The photograph showing the Freeds in front of the shop is very evocative for me, although it was probably taken later then my childhood.

  9. Gill Cork permalink
    May 16, 2013

    What an absolutely fascinating article. Thank you Gentle Author for showing me about a world I knew nothing about.

  10. Jane permalink
    May 16, 2013

    I always bought my pointes and flats from Freeds. Mrs Freed always served me herself, on a Saturday morning. She let you try on as many pairs as you liked until you found the right fit, and she always remembered you from month to month.
    One Saturday morning we went in and Makarova was sitting in the ‘throne’ chair choosing pointes. This was during the season she defected during a Kirov tour in London.

  11. Rory Smyth permalink
    May 16, 2013

    I believe that Gina is now long gone. In the west end, tottenham maybe.

  12. Bruce Mack permalink
    May 16, 2013

    Thank you for the warmth and nuance.

  13. May 16, 2013

    A fascinating article! Thank you from a ballet lover.

  14. Ron Pummell. permalink
    May 16, 2013

    Second Comment. I should have mentioned that Ellen, my sister was based at the shop in St Martin’s Lane. Another point, prior to moving to Well Street, Freed’s factory was located in Mercer Street in Covent Garden.

  15. May 16, 2013

    Freed made custom black pointe shoes for the dancers in the finale of the Closing Ceremony of the Olympics. I was lucky enough to be one of those 200 dancers and have kept the shoes as souvenirs.

  16. May 17, 2013

    Such sublime photos illustrate that factories can be beautiful places in their own way. My great grandfather was a shoe maker in Hackney and I’m a handbag designer now. Accessories are in the blood. Thank you for yet another brilliant article.

  17. saves9embroidery permalink
    May 17, 2013

    Wonderful story, so glad you are showing that craftspeople are still there producing as they ever have. Fantastic photos too. You open up a whole new London to us all

  18. Wayne Higgins permalink
    May 17, 2013

    I currently work at freeds and am so proud to do so, we also have a factory in Leicester which I have been an employee of for 11 years, my dad worked here for 30 years and my grandma worked here too before him. Manufacturing in this country seems to be gradually disappearing and I never take anything for granted but as long as we continue to make Pointe shoes to the highest quality possible then hopefully Freed of London will be here for many a year to come.

  19. Sally Burr permalink
    May 18, 2013

    My grandfather, Alfred Freed and brother of Frederick Freed used to take me with him on a Sunday morning to dress the shop window. My mother aged 91 has an original catalogue of Freeds Factory which she has passed onto me. I have many memories of driving around from factory to shop with my grandfather in his little Minivan with a rotating ballerina on the roof.

  20. Lei Zhou An permalink
    May 18, 2013

    I was a Ballet Dancer for 25 years, up until the mid 1980′s . After class in the studios in Floral St. or at the Urdang Studios we would pop into Freeds to get our supplies. We all had a special maker that made the shoes just how we liked them. Square block, more shaped to a pointe wide toe or a more narrow fitting. I’ve always wanted to know how they were made and by who. As I knew the pain of my feet depended on the care and love they put into the making of the shoe.
    How lovely to see the faces of the people in the workshops. And that they have been there a while it could have been one of them who made the ones I liked. I stopped buying Freeds when the dancers of the Bolshoi started selling their shoes to us so that when they performed in London they could have money to buy food and levis…. I thought it was my small part I played to help bring down the Iron Curtain… Tales of another lifetime. Thank you for posting your article. LZA.

  21. Sarah Rowles permalink
    May 18, 2013

    This was so interesting. My mother used to take me to the shop to buy 6-12 pairs of pointe shoes at a time. We lived in France and Belgium, where I was training, and if we came to London on holiday would stock up on pointe shoes because I went through them so quickly. I teach ballet now, and pointe work is part of it. I will be able to show my students this article as part of their education. Thank you.

  22. Gillian Goodley permalink
    May 21, 2013

    What a facinating artical. It was good to read about an artisan factory and learn its history Also that such skilful craftsman are still creating handmade shoes and are thriving to boot! It seems amazing there is demand for 150,000 shoes annually. A testament to their quality. Never knew all ballet shoes were pink!

  23. brenda burgess permalink
    August 4, 2013

    i worked at freed of london for 19 years in the preparation dept were we trimmed the ball room shoes and stamped soles and socks put eyelets in the laced up shoes all ways something different every day still have fond memories of working there but still love being retired for the last 9 years i know afew of the faces but a lot of new ones keep up the good work

  24. A. Marina Fournier permalink
    August 14, 2013

    One of the few places I absolutely had to visit when in Britain in 1987 was Freed’s.
    I have always hated ballet slippers because of the painful folds of leather right at the ball of my feet. Freed’s had Opera Slippers with a flat sole.

    I wish I could have afforded more, but I bought one black leather, one white leather, and one white satin so that I could be fashionably shod for my Regency activities. I loved those shoes! Such comfortable dance shoes I never had from anyone else!

    I really love history of the items I use or wear, and this was no different. I liked seeing the faces behind the shoes, as well: many of them seem to come from countries which still value hand-made shoes.

    Should I ever return to London, Freed’s will be on my itinerary!

  25. Troy permalink
    September 14, 2013

    It was endearing to me that “Crown’s” hands were as worn from making the shoes as the dancers’ feet become from wearing them.

  26. Stephen McCaul permalink
    December 3, 2013

    I worked at Freed’s during the late seventies and early eighties; this article brings back many memories of people I thought I had forgotten. The gentleman standing on the front steps of the factory is Bernard Kohler, the then Factory Director.

    Something that people may find hard to believe is that one my first jobs there was to set up a card index system to record dancers preferences for pointe shoes. Up until then, believe it or not, Bernard and Brian (the chap with dark hair, pictured in the factory with Dora) kept all the dancer’s details in their heads – an extraordinary feat of memory that they were both very proud of!

  27. March 14, 2014

    Such a great article regarding the ballet shoe factory.

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