The Pointe Shoe Makers of Hackney
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’ 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.
Daniel’s first shoe with his ‘Butterfly’ mark on the sole.
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
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