Inside New England Outerwear Co. – Making Maine’s Handsewn Footwear
When you hear outerwear and see footwear, New England Outerwear Co. may sound like a bit of a misnomer. Dan Heselton and Greg Cordeiro began NEO in 2012 primarily producing outerwear (and they still do make jackets). But their passion was shoes, specifically the handsewn moccasin variety that’s been made in Maine for generations.
Boots and mocs quickly became their focus, which they produce out of their own workshop in Lewiston, Maine. We had the opportunity to tour their factory and see how New England Outerwear produces footwear.
Maine-made footwear has a rich and storied tradition, but NEO isn’t completely bound to it. Stalwarts like Quoddy, Rancourt, and Eastland have been producing and will continue to produce pretty much the same shoes from the same materials for generations. And there’s nothing with that.
NEO is young, and they know they have to bring something new to the table. Greg and Dan are purists when it comes to method and only do things the hard way: all production line employees have decades of shoemaking, they hand stitch as many steps as possible, use century-old Blake stitching machines, and source the best materials from domestic manufacturers.
Where NEO really differentiates themselves from their Maine counterparts is in material and design. While core production philosophies are unlikely to change, every silhouette, leather, and sole they try in the shop is an experiment. The shop was littered with hair on hide plugs, polka dot veg tan painted by Billy Moore of Cause and Effect, and indigo dip-dyes.
The same goes for designs. They make many of the classic shapes (boat shoe, blucher moc, camp mocs, etc.), but their most exciting offerings are handsewn reimaginings of other shoes. Their Lazy Moc looks like a Birkenstock Boston clog, but done up with a hand-stitched upper and a crepe sole. Sounds like it might be fugly as hell, but the concept works beautifully. Same goes for their Courtside, which lace up like a sneaker but are sewn like a moccasin.
Now let’s have a look at how one of these shoes is put together.
The first stage is selecting the leather. As mentioned above, NEO uses a variety of skins including chrome-tanned, veg-tanned, suedes, roughouts, and their proprietary Acadia leather.
I mentioned their dedication to old world methods, but the one thing they do new school is clicking. Traditionally, shoemakers cut out the leather pieces individually with a die cutting press, but the process is labor intensive and doesn’t necessarily ensure better clicking. NEO has a laser guided cutting table that projects the pattern directly onto the skin, the shoemaker can manipulate the placement of each piece to maximize the leather and slice out imperfections. They simply hit “run”and the giant robo-knife slides across the table, popping out plugs, quarters, and heel counters.
The outer hide is then fused to a supple goatskin lining. The edges of each piece are planed to a 45 degree angle. This ensures clean seams on the finished shoes as 90 degree edges would pinch and buckle.
Next up is machine-sewing, where the detail work on the tongue, eyelets, and quarters come together. The Lazy Moc here comes together fairly quickly, but some of the more involved boots can take upwards of half an hour to stitch. All of this work is done freehand and by feel.
Once the detail work is complete, it’s time to join the larger pieces together via hand-stitching. The shoemaker tacks the moccasin bottom and upper to a last and saddle stitches the entire thing together by hand.
There’s not much more mesmerizing than a skilled hand-sewer at work. Like all garment manufacturing, there’s not a lot of young blood in the industry. Most every Mainer still practicing the trade has been doing it for twenty years and they’ve each developed their preferred method. Shop manager Bill Herrick holds a needle the size of a lawn dart in each hand and a curved awl in his right palm; punching, stitching, and pulling in one fluid motion.
Once the shoe has been stitched around the last, it’s time to put on the sole. Many of NEO’s models (like the Lazy Moc) use a plantation crepe rubber, which is attached via even more hand-sewing and the shoe is finished.
But if the moc needs a more traditional sole, it will have to be sewn on by machine. This pair of bluchers was made with a sample Vibram camp sole, which was attached by the severe looking machine below.
The man operating this machine referred to it as “good anchor material”, but it still gets the job done.
The sole of choice is then glued and stitched to the bottom of the shoe, sanded up flush, and you’ve got a ready to wear moccasin.
You can find New England Outerwear products at a variety of retailers like Dee Cee Style and on their website. Every pair from their webstore is made to order so they are happy to oblige with (reasonable) custom makeups.