The Goodyear welt method of making a shoe.

Former advertising executive Tim Little has built up two great English shoemaking brands: Tim Little and Grenson. Here he explains the pitfalls, the tricks of the trade and – most importantly – how you can spot a high-quality pair of shoes.

How did you get into the shoe business?

I was in advertising and my clients were people like Adidas and Timberland, which was great because I was a big shoe fanatic. I loved English shoes and I liked the way they were made and the craftsmanship, but I thought the whole experience of buying them was awful.

Tim Little’s shoes are made on Singer sewing machines.

When you say awful…

If I wanted to buy a pair of shoes, I’d go to come crusty old shop where the shoes hadn’t changed for years and the staff weren’t trained. I thought, if you took that lovely English craftsmanship and added some design and integrity, it could be really powerful. So I left advertising and just went straight into the shoe business. A bit mad, really.

How did you get started?

For the first couple of years I began to get shoes made – samples and prototypes – whilst I was still working. I put a mini collection together and thought: ‘Sod it, I’m going in right at the top’. I knew if I could get someone really big to place an order, I’d be on the right track. The first two accounts I got were Barneys in New York and Selfridges in London – that was back in 1997.

All cheap shoes are made from split leather

How did you manage that?

I was used to doing big, slick presentations, whereas shoe buyers weren’t used to anything big or slick – they were used to an old guy in a shiny suit shoving a couple of samples on the table. I was able to present my samples in a much more interesting way. Plus, all the old English shoemakers used to turn up with the same shoes every season. They’d say, ‘This is one is now available in brown grain’. That was literally it! I was offering more interesting colours, materials and designs.

What are the pitfalls of starting a shoe brand?

I think the thing to get right at the beginning is balancing the price and the value. What I’ve learnt is that, however wonderful something is, if it feels slightly overpriced it just won’t sell. On the other hand, £800 shoes can still be good value – but they’ve got to have the look and the story attached to them to feel the right price. People pick a shoe and make a mental judgement about how much it’s likely to cost. If, when they turn it over, they’re pleasantly surprised they’ll buy it. If not, they won’t.

The shoe lasts upon which the leather is moulded.

How can one tell whether a shoe is good quality?

The biggest thing is the quality of the leather, and that’s sitting there for you to make a judgement on. Some of my shoes, for instance, have a burnished finish, a full grain and a plump feel. And they smell like proper cowhide. All cheap shoes are made from split leather. This is when a factory will take a great big piece of buffalo and feed it into a machine to split it. In an instant, they double the area of the raw material and halve the price of the material. They get away with it because some people think the leather is soft – but in fact, it’s only soft because it’s so thin.

Is the leather treated?

After they’ve split it, they cover it in the tannery, which could be a high gloss that covers up any stretch marks or blemishes on the animal. That way they can use the whole skin. With the leather I use, if that calf has got a stretch mark or a blemish, you have to cut it out and throw it away. The wastage is enormous.

Most of our shoes are stitched on an old singer sewing machine, some of ours are 70 or 80 years old

In terms of construction, how can you tell a high-quality shoe?

Goodyear welt, which is a form of shoemaking that’s very English and first used in the 19th century. You make the upper and then you stitch a piece of leather (called the welt) on all the way round, then you stitch the sole onto that. It doesn’t sound much but it’s a three-stage process that makes the shoe a lot tougher, a lot stronger and a lot stiffer. The first time you wear them they do take a bit of breaking in, but they’re more robust.

Don’t all shoes have that kind of welt?

So many shoes fake the welt using a moulding – it’s stuck on and made to look like it’s stitched. When a shoe has a Goodyear welt, the sole is much larger – then after it’s welted, a man with a knife trims off the excess and finishes it with a machine. With a moulded sole, it’s obvious the welt is fake because the sole was made the exact side of the shoe. It looks quite artificial.

Tim Little: from advertising to shoemaking.

What’s special about a shoe that has been stitched rather than glued?

Most of our shoes are stitched on an old singer sewing machine – some of ours are 70 or 80 years old. On a couple of shoes we do hand stitching – on the apron of a loafer for example. It’s quite a big, heavy, decorative stitching. Why is this important? Keep in mind the cost to make that shoe: one wrong stitch and it’s a reject. You can’t repair it – there would be a hole in the leather. It takes a high-degree of skill.

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Watch Tim Little tell his story in this short film:

Tim Little was speaking to Humans Invent  at the launch of Chivas Whisky’s 12 Year Old ‘Made for Gentlemen’ collaboration, for which he designed the tin. Chivas 12 Year Old ‘Made for Gentlemen’ is available from Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Morrisons at an RRP of £25.39



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