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The Pointe Shoe Makers of Hackney

July 16, 2013
by the gentle author

Contributing Photographer Patricia Niven and Novelist Sarah Winman visited the Freed of London factory in Well St to create these portraits of the Pointe Shoe Makers, an elite band of highly-skilled craftsmen who make the satin slippers worn by the world’s greatest ballerinas.

It takes two to three years to become a fully trained Pointe Shoe Maker. Hardly surprising, as each shoe is hand-made and two thirds of these shoes (including the toe ‘blocks’ themselves) are made to a Dancer’s individual specifications. Such specifications are printed onto dockets which the Makers work by. One docket was quite illegible to me – a shorthand code with the only clear words: Hessian, strong, slight taper.

There is something inaccessible and mysterious about this world – from the Makers’ symbols, to the language of the shoe, to the exclusive world of the finished product. And yet, I found the Makers to be a pragmatic group of men, into football not dance, who have become blasé about praise and who all refer to the making of these shoes as a job, irrespective of the beauty, the artistry of the finished product. They live in a world of chiaroscuro, where prima ballerinas, surrounded by bodyguards, turn up in limousines to applaud them whilst they stand at their benches six days a week producing nearly forty shoes a day, a quarter of a million shoes a year.

I asked each man if he had ever tried on a ballet shoe to get a sense of the feel – Never! – Even more remarkable then, to think that each shoe is made by touch, look, and imagination alone.

I asked each man whether he had ever been to the ballet.

I asked each man whether he calls himself a Pointe Shoe Maker or a Shoe Maker.

I asked the Maker Taksim (Anchor) what he would like people to know about his work.

He said, “I wish people could try this job. This is the hardest job I’ve ever done. My hands go numb, and I can’t feel them. Over time you get used to the pain.”

I said, “That’s what ballet dancers say about their feet.”

He said,”Really? So, their feet are our hands.”

- Sarah Winman

Taksim known as ‘Anchor’

“I’ve been here for fifteen years. I love my job and no-one tells me what to do. It came easy to me because I used to work in the leather trade and put that experience to good use. I know how the material works and moves.

I haven’t been to the ballet but I have seen my dancers on television – Leanne Benjamin, Jane Taylor to name two. I make Jane Taylor one hundred pairs of shoes a year, all 5 ½ X heel pins. I am proud to make shoes for her. I have met all my prima ballerinas and had photos taken with them. They appreciate us I think.

I have no time to go to the ballet because I work six days a week. I need to rest and put my feet up. I’m a big football fan, enjoying the tennis too, at the moment. We don’t tell people we make ballet shoes, we are just shoe makers. I make thirty-eight pairs a day and am booked up until mid December.

I was born in Cyprus. I never imagined I would have done this. When I came here thirty years ago, I expected to work in a fish and chip shop.”

Taksim’s ‘anchor.’

Taksim’s ‘anchor’ in place upon a pair of his shoes – ballerinas have been known to scratch off their Maker’s symbol to keep him exclusively for her!

Taksim’s work bench.

Fred known as ‘F’

“I was in-between jobs and went to Freed in Mercer St in Covent Garden and learned to be a Maker. I had no idea what I was getting into. My friends all worked in warehouses or were builders so I didn’t tell ‘em what I did until I’d been making shoes for a year.

Have I been to the ballet? No, you’re havin’ a larf, aren’t you?!

When I made my first shoe, I was elated, tell you the truth, that I’d done something. I started off unloading lorries, and it took three months before I got on the bench. Then did soft toes, then hard toes.

I make forty pairs a day and I have a waiting list. I call myself a shoe maker. When you hear a prima ballerina say you’re great, it’s wonderful. Then you hear it so many times…and well…

There’s really nothing glamorous about standing at a bench for ten hours. Do I enjoy making shoes? Look at me. I’m sixty-two and sweating!”

Fred’s ‘F’ on the sole a pair of his shoes.

Fred’s work bench.

Ray known as ‘Crown’

“We are given symbols when we start making shoes, so that if anything is wrong with the shoe they know who to blame! I have been here for twenty-six years. My father-in-law got me a job interview here. I get satisfaction from making the whole shoe myself. Other shoes are made by lots of people.

I love that dancers are wearing my shoes.

You are trained and learn the basics. People teach you their ways and sometimes those ways are conflicting. Then I had to find my own way. There’s a lot of trial and error. I found a style that I like and the dancers like, and I’ve kept to it.

Every dancer likes a different shoe. Each Maker is different – one might use more paste than the other. But dancers come back and stay with you for life. They will tell you what they need.

I’ve never been to the ballet, but if I watch it on the television I look at their feet. I know how to craft the shoe by touch, feel, look. I instinctively know how much paste to use, how much hessian. If the dancer wants a light block she’ll get one. If she wants a shoe with more give I do that. The dancers are fascinated to meet the makers. I make forty pairs a day. I don’t have much time off. People wait weeks to get a shoe from me. I make a lot of shoes for the New York City Ballet.

I love my job. I could never have dreamt of this, or of having my photo taken with dancers or even of someone writing down what I’m saying.

I was born around here – grew up bit with my dad and a bit with my mum. It was all a bit of an adventure. My two daughters take up my time. I made a pair of soft toes for my six year old girl. They don’t do ballet now. They have found their own interests.”

Ray’s work bench.

Ray’s ‘Crown’ on the sole of a pair of his shoes.

Daniel known as ‘Butterfly’

“My wife has been a Pointe Shoe Fitter in the Freed shop since she was sixteen. She was a dancer, went away and travelled the world. We met when she was in the Philippines, and she brought me back with her and we had babies. She went back to the shop and four months ago I started to make shoes here. I have a good teacher in Tksim, he’s a Master.

I do enjoy it. I always found it fascinating when my wife talked about dancing and shows and make-up. I always had the curiosity. Always thought, I want to be part of all that.

I haven’t been to the ballet yet, but I’ve watched it on Youtube.

Since I’ve been making shoes, I look at the dancer’s feet. I used to be a tight-rope walker and a trapeze artist. When I was a trapeze artist, I had to wear a leather glove. We made the leather gloves ourselves and the leather was so important. I understand how the leather is important for the shoe, I’d never realised it before.

I will call myself a Pointe Shoe Maker.I make twenty-four shoes a day. It has come naturally to me, but it’s very hard work. My hands and my shoulders ache. This here is the first ever shoe I made here. It gives me great satisfaction because it is a very important shoe – because this is a shoe that is not to be worn everyday in the street.

It’s craftsmanship.”

Daniel’s first shoe with his ‘Butterfly’ mark on the sole.

Daniel’s mark.

At Daniel’s work bench.

Alan known as ‘Triangle’

“I started next door in Despatch and then I was given the opportunity to come here and make shoes. I made my first pair of shoes nine years ago. Dancers come here and they thank us and applaud us.

I have been to the ballet once. I can’t remember what it was – it wasn’t really my cup of tea. I’m a DJ and prefer a different dance. My kids do ballet and I’ve made one of them a pair of shoes

I call myself a shoe maker.

If I wasn’t here, I would be painting or decorating or a barman.

We don’t see what other people see. You see something beautiful. I see a finished product, a skilled job well done.”

One of Alan’s shoes with his ‘triangle’ on the sole.

An order with the customer’s specifications.

When the block and platform have been created – this is the moment when it rests ghostly on Pointe, unaided, perfectly balanced, dancing its own breathtaking dance.

Alan’s work bench

Darren Plume, Quality Controller & Manager of the London Makers

“My grandfather worked as a storeman here thirty years ago. I left school and joined here when I was fifteen and a half years old. I started off unloading lorries, making tea, that sort of thing. I’ve been here twenty-six years now and have done mostly everything. I took over jobs as people left or retired. I never thought about leaving because I’m happy with what I do.

It’s the people who made me want to stay. I had a lot of father figures. I’ve known Ray (Crown) twenty-six years and we see each other more than we see our own families. My mates used to think I was nuts working here because they were all on building sites, but then they saw the dancers who came in and they changed their minds.

The Makers know more about the shoes than I do. The shoes go into the ovens overnight to bake and harden the block and, first thing in the morning, I check every one of them – that’s my responsibility. I also liaise with the dancers, because if they have a problem they’ll ask to visit us.

Once I used to be in awe of them, now I think they might be a little in awe of us. No shoes, no dance. The dancers rely on us a lot. Their Maker would only have to get an injury and psychologically it could affect them quite a bit.

I’ve been to the ballet twice. I saw Swan Lake at the ENO in the round five years ago. We took a Maker’s bench down there and made shoes in the foyer for the audience to see what we did. Three, four hundred people wanted to shake our hands.

When I was watching the ballet I was only looking at the shoes.

This job’s a bit like a fairytale. You can get caught up in the moment. Some days it flows, some days it’s a pig’s ear and some days you’re as happy as Larry. The most important thing as a manager is to listen to people. Then buy ‘em a coffee and make ‘em happy.”

Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven

You may also like to read about

At Freed of London, Ballet & Theatrical Shoemakers

Michelle Attfield, Pointe Shoe Fitter

29 Responses leave one →
  1. July 16, 2013

    what a beautiful, beautiful post and pictures to go with the shoes and the fabulous shoe-makers.

    thanks for this!

  2. Rebecca permalink
    July 16, 2013

    Craftsmanship in any trade is inspiring, but this story brings back memories of my years as a ballet student more than forty years ago. At my level, as I recall, the fitters were very important and I had a favorite one at the Capezio shop in Boston, Massachusetts. I experimented with Freeds and Porsellis but always returned to my favorites — Capezio “Princess.” That model had a relatively soft toe box and was worn by students and professionals.. Apparently it no longer exists.

  3. July 16, 2013

    Fantastic!

  4. Lucienne Cole permalink
    July 16, 2013

    This a wonderful and beautiful article- Thankyou

  5. nikki permalink
    July 16, 2013

    What a lovely insight into the fabulous world of pointe shoes!

  6. Carla Williams permalink
    July 16, 2013

    I visited the Freeds factory the first time I went to London in 1989.
    It was impressive to watch them then, sounds no less so now.

  7. Nina permalink
    July 16, 2013

    …… I have loved reading this article – thank you – every time I watch a ballet dancer from now on I will also think of the skilled shoe maker …..

  8. July 16, 2013

    What an interesting glimpse behind the curtain, so to speak. It’s always fun to see true craftsmen at work. Thanks for posting this!

  9. Cherub permalink
    July 16, 2013

    Many years ago I went to the Theatre Museum at Covent Garden and they had a pair of ballet shoes that were opened up in a glass case, but no explanation about how they were made. I had no idea how much care, attention and craftsmanship goes into each shoe. It was very fascinating to read this and lovely to see people who love their craft so much and have them share their stories with us.

  10. July 16, 2013

    A wonderful story and loved seeing the symbols given to each craftsman. May they never cease this wonderful trade.

  11. elvira permalink
    July 16, 2013

    wonderful stories of some fascinating craftsmen, loved hearing their voices describing themselves and their experience of being part of the dance world in their own way. the pictures are amazing, their logos are such great simple personal touches. loved everything about this piece!! well done !!!

  12. Eloise permalink
    July 16, 2013

    Oh girls, such a beautiful article and the photos are divine Patricia!!! Love to you

  13. Vanessa permalink
    July 17, 2013

    I love this. My grandfather and his father before him were shoe/boot-makers from Hackney. Great to see the tradition carrying on.

  14. July 17, 2013

    Really enjoyed these stories especially the contrast between makers and dancers. I can’t ever imagine this wonderful craft being superseded by technology. Insightful.

  15. Stephanie Poe McCook permalink
    July 17, 2013

    Really wonderful – thoroughly enjoyed reading this and seeing the great photos. Thank you!

  16. Kaitlin permalink
    July 18, 2013

    Great story! Amazing to see how shoes are made and who makes them! And for goodness sake, someone gift these men with some tickets to the ballet!

  17. Lisa preston permalink
    July 18, 2013

    What a wonderful way to share these craftsmen story’s hard working men doing a job that a machine just could not get right . Just love the unique marks on the shoes of each of the craftsmen . I hope they get payed very well for such an unique job .
    Good luck to them .

  18. jeannette permalink
    July 20, 2013

    love to see the faces behind the glamorous illusions. thank you.

  19. July 22, 2013

    Sensational piece, thank you. My Son is a Principal with Sacramento Ballet & his Dance & Life Partner is the Prima Ballerina.
    Wonderful to see behind the scenes to the detail that puts these Ballerinas ‘en pointe’ & so captivating.

  20. Suz permalink
    July 23, 2013

    Oh if I could thank these men personally! They have no idea, no idea how much they mean to us – that is, those of us who must get these shoes for our dancing daughters! They are the ones who make it possible for ho-hum feet to look beautiful. The “V” maker is my daughter’s favorite, but pretty much impossible to get his shoes. I don’t think she has been able to get a pair of “V’s” in two or more years. I am so impressed with their ability and just wish they really knew how very, very much we appreciate them. May God bless them all!

  21. July 23, 2013

    Absolutely fantastic post this, my favourite so far – and that’s saying something, because they are all good. Such craftsmanship. I love the line ‘no shoes, no dance’.

  22. Judit Seymour permalink
    July 25, 2013

    How marvellous to get to see the men behind the pointe. As a former dancer I really do appreciate their craftsmanship and hardwork. Fantastic post. Thank you.

  23. July 25, 2013

    So wonderful to read an article about CRAFT, not money.

    Thank you.

  24. Kathrin permalink
    July 28, 2013

    I just got my second pair of crown pointe shoes. Thanks Ray ;)
    Very interesting to hear where my shoes came from!

  25. July 30, 2013

    Just lovely! Can’t say more.

  26. February 10, 2014

    Just beautiful! Amazing as always !

  27. February 12, 2014

    This is such a remarkable post, I’m nearly speechless! As a professional dancer myself (my maker is one of the featured men above!!!!) it is such a luxury to get a sneak peak into the lives and worlds of the men who literally hold our careers in their hands.. Thank you for such an honest portrayal and beautiful insight!!!

  28. March 21, 2014

    Got the full idea about the ballet shoe manufacturing and simply loving it. Great pictures and the step by step classification.

  29. Simon brandford permalink
    March 30, 2014

    Hi Darren haven’t seen you since the days of playing for the swan
    How’s Richard good luck mate speak soon

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