Think Sheffield, and you may remember hearing about its once world-beating steel and engineering heritage. Nowadays, this well-positioned and culturally fertile area of Yorkshire has become an attractive location for start-ups outside of the more obvious UK locations.
Overlooking the city's Wicker Arches, nestled between retail stores and care-worn warehouses awaiting the lifeblood of new industry, sits one such small business looking to create a whole new Sheffield tradition: handcrafted luxury footwear.
Upon buzzing into the reception of Goral Shoes one wintry day in January, the warmth of the welcome is pure Yorkshire; a surprise only when you learn that for the brothers who own and run the company, England is as box-fresh as their footwear, “We’ve only been seven months in this building,” explains Kamil, one of three Goral brothers. “But the brand started in 2008, in a small garage in England, after we sold our factory in Poland and moved to the UK,” adds Lukas, arriving to join his brother. The third generation to work in the business, Goral Shoes was established in 1936 in Poland by the brothers' grandfather, widely regarded as a Master Shoemaker in their hometown.
With the realisation that numerous premium footwear brands were looking to move production back to the UK to take advantage of handcrafted, low volume shoe manufacturing, the Goral brothers spotted their opening. “We spent three years working for other brands, starting everything from scratch. But once clients saw our quality and speed to market, things took off,” explains Lukas. “Our father works with us here, and as a Master Shoemaker himself, he oversees production and quality assurance.” Kamil reaches for a Quoc Fixed England shoe, its deep patina catching the light streaming through the Georgian windows of this former college building. “You could say that shoemaking runs in our blood,” he quips.
The production process begins with the creation of a custom last (the footwear equivalent of a mould); a first step in what will be a 200-task operation before a shoe is ready for dispatch to the client. “Everything starts with the last,” comments Kamil. “You can have any shape or subtlety you desire and, of course, one last per size.” While some lasts are still hand carved in wood, nowadays most are plastic. And, as Kamil notes, each client gets a unique mould created to their precise specifications.
With the last signed off, soles, upper and material are swapped and tweaked before production begins. An early Fixed England model sits to one side, one of several pre-production models created to Quoc’s exacting standards. “This one has a slightly shorter tongue than the final model,” explains Lukas, turning the shoe to illustrate his point. “The production version benefited from an extra 5mm of material, which makes a subtle but important difference on a cycling-orientated shoe.”
In one of many pre-production rooms dedicated to stitching and bevelling the material, the brothers point out part of an upper for a Chelsea boot: layers of thick, purple-stained leather combine to form a shape unrecognisable from the end product. “Bevelling the edges is essential if you want to stitch a smooth, even line,” instructs Lukas, carefully aligning two pieces to demonstrate. Later, careful chalk marks are applied by hand to guide the sewing process.
Downstairs in the factory, a few steps before the material is stitched together, workers heave sheets of leather onto stamping machines, cutting out preset shapes for what will eventually become the shoe’s upper. “Stretching the leather to check for impurities and marks is essential,” says Kamil. “We can’t let even one shoe go out that is less than perfect.”
Rolls of material are stacked neatly in well-ordered bays. Machines rumble and occasionally bellow through the lasting process, sticking and sealing uppers to their paired moulds, guided by human hands at every turn. The air is heady with glue. Activated by heat, then pressed onto artfully hand-glued surfaces, the toe and side-lasting process shapes the shoe into a recognisable silhouette. “Most of our machines are from Italy,” says Kamil, pointing to a row of complicated looking machines. “They have a mature shoemaking industry and make some of the finest equipment - although we do also have some pieces that come from America in the late 19th century!”
With so much of the production process reliant on human skills, the brothers are aware of the narrow margin of error. “We only have one chance to get it right. If we don’t glue precisely, or mistakenly include a fabric imperfection, the whole shoe is wasted,” notes Lukas gravely. “But the organic process is part of our shoemaking tradition and, luckily, we have very skilled people. And Dad, of course!” he jokes, laughing with his brother.
The production process comes to a close in the finishing room, where decades-old eyeletting machines sit ready to press metal into pre-punched guide holes. “It all depends on what the client wants - some like a top and bottom eyelet for a certain style, others only a bottom eyelet,” says Kamil. One particular machine, used only for eyeletting a rather well-known brand of boots, dates back to 1892, a product of The Peerless Mach’y Co, Boston, Massachusetts. “We just received a new one to replace it, just in case it breaks!” jokes Lukas. Considering how old it is, maybe that’s a prudent move. But quality it seems lasts a lifetime. Sometimes much longer.