I’m stood in the car park of an anonymous single-story industrial unit. There’s a number of national flags on the front. Italian, Romanian at a guess, British and a few I don’t recognise. I might need to review the “Fun with Flags” episodes of the Big Bang.
I’m ushered through a door in the larger sliding double doors. There’s a lady sitting at a desk in the far corner of a very large, sparse reception space. She’s wearing a neat coat, a bit like a lab coat. There’s a slight sense of ‘villains lair’ going on. Lee Child and Ian Rankin plot lines aren’t helping right now. I’m guessing it’s the unfamiliar environment and foreign country where I don’t speak the language. Either way, I’m not getting on the wrong side of this gatekeeper.
The gatekeeper smiles and we’re all introduced to Elena. Elena goes on to describe her role as “goods-in”. Booking in raw materials that go on to become the end product we’ve come to see made. Through a dividing wall, I get glimpses of tall shelves and neatly stacked rolls of brightly covered materials. There aren’t any rolls of plastic laid out on the floor as far as I can see. There’s a quiet calmness about the place. I can hear a hum of activity and perhaps machinery in the background.
I’ve been in Outdoor retail for a fair while now and one of the elements I’ve always enjoyed is boot fitting. It’s increasingly undervalued by retailers as they struggle to balance higher costs and sales moving online. Supporting a customer through the process of getting a comfy, well-fitted pair of boots appropriate for their needs can be incredibly rewarding. You get a chance to chat more freely and enjoy the customer's experiences’ and hopes for their future trips.
The boots, when they fit and do the job needed, are one of those items you buy but don’t really notice. When they don’t work or don’t fit, they can become all-consuming in their discomfort and your frustration. There’s no need for me to wax lyrical about why you need to get a good pair of boots. Or why you should get your feet measured properly, or why you should try a number of different pairs on to ensure you get the right fit. So I won’t. But for clarity, you should do all of the above.
Back to Elena. Behind Elena on the wall is a big chart with an array of boots and shoes ranging from what look like high altitude mountaineering boots down to street shoes. The chart is laid out in an end-use style. The brand logo is clearly emblazoned at the top. Asolo. A few of us from George Fisher have been lucky enough to be invited on a tour of Asolo’s Romanian production facility.
Frankly, I have no idea what to expect. From out here, it’s clean, quiet and well organised. The Italian owners have treated us to a tiny but strong coffee with a suitable tiny, tasty pastry. Images of production lines flit through my mind from super slick robot arms to visions akin to Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.
Marco, one of the Zanetta brothers is our guide for this tour. The Zanetta brothers, Marco and Luca, bought Asolo in 1998 and set up the production facility and have been manufacturing shoes here ever since. They describe a very different place 20 years ago. Traveling here was quite a challenge. Now there is an airport and what were once single lane roads are now motorways.
What follows is a whirlwind tour, well 5 hours, in a modern factory that produces top-end outdoor footwear by hand. There’s a lot of buzz, snip, stamp, clunk, whirr, clamp, trolleys, people, production lines, quality control signs, pinafores, lab coats, glue, presses and some serious attention to detail.
We’re ushered taken through into the production facility itself and can see multiple production areas. In the corner is a large press. The brightly coloured materials on the shelves in the reception area are making their way in here to be processed. Next to the press are shelves of weirdly shaped metal. It’s explained these are the cutting dies. Like a cookie cutter, it’s a metal shape that is used to cut the pieces for the boot being made. Each die is labeled with the name of the product and the size of footwear it’s going to produce. Marco goes on to explain they’re a significant expense in the manufacturing process.
Given how intensely they’re used I ask if they wear out. Apparently they do and will need to be replaced periodically. There appears to be ½ dozen dies for each size of boots. These range in size from large oval elements to small fiddly pieces.
Colours. The colours are fantastic. Seeing big sheets of brightly coloured synthetic materials being stamp pressed is mesmerising. There’s still a very human involvement in even this apparently simple process. Getting the wastage down to a minimum is clearly important. We’re told this is particularly important with the leather being used. When cutting the leather the operative moves the die around to get the most out of the leather whilst avoiding any blemishes or marks on the hide. We see this first hand as a huge swatch of deep pink leather is cut. Seeing huge sheets of deep pink leather is quite a sight. The consistency of the colour is impressive. You could easily mistake it for a man-made material.
The leather is sourced from a factory in Italy where they inspect the hides, agree on colours and the quality of the material. When Asolo buy the leather they are guaranteed a minimum amount of blemishes. When they receive the shipment they check it off against the quality and standards they agreed on. Marco shows us how they trace the material through the process. This level of detail enables them to keep a level of quality control required to produce a product that lasts and customers are going to be happy with.
We follow a trolley taking what looks like a jigsaw of pieces from the cutting presses towards a series of sewing benches surrounding a conveyor system. The conveyor system has a long, narrow oval footprint. The conveyor is a chain rather than a belt. Attached to the chain are numerous arms, each arm has three vertically stacked shelves. Surrounding the conveyer is a series of workstations. Each station has an industrial sewing machine on. The conveyor shelves precess at a stately pace. The shelves appear to have all the parts required for the complete process that’s taking place. In this case, they appear to be stitching together the key components of a boot. Our trolley driver starts unloading the cut pieces onto a work table at one end of the conveyor system A lady with a different coloured pinny starts dividing up the cut pieces and loading them onto the empty shelves as they glide past.
The shelves then move around and approach the sewing stations. The team working on the shoes and boots are predominantly women and Marco is at pains to tell me the women are by far the best machinists. I see men relegated to large noisy machines that seem to do the stuff that requires less finesse. Ahem!
The sewing machines were much as you’d expect. What did strike me as interesting was how each machine was adapted depending on the process. One adaption that caught my eye was the introduction of a knurled wheel, next to the needle. This appears to grip the material being sown and pushes the material being sown through the needle. The machinist then guides the pieces coming through, very precisely, to the contours of the stitching route. The result was perfectly spaced stitching with even pressure.
There is a constant hum and buzz from the machinists hard at work. Buzz, click, snap. Buzz, click snap. Hands guide pieces of material through the blurring needles with a swift deftness I would imagine only comes from a lot of experience. Levers get pulled, small scissors, secreted in a palm or within easy reach snip at loose threads and the newly sown piece is placed back onto a shelf before it goes out of reach. The hand reaches for another set of pieces to begin the process all over again.
The stitched parts of the shoe are gathered at originating workstation their start point. What was jigsaw pieces of material now resemble a pancake flat version of the shoe. The trolley swoops in gathers up the parts and whisks them off to another process, we trail along behind like obedient ducklings.
We’re presented with a station of big bulky machines and a lot of heat, a strong smell of glue and some fast-moving hands. It’s explained this is where the shoes start to take their form. Heel and toe boxes are introduced and the shoes are laid over a last to give them their form.
The last is the ‘secret sauce’ of any footwear manufacturer. It’s what makes each manufacturer unique. The last refers to the shape, or mold, of a foot that each piece of footwear is created around. Each size and half size has a left and right last made for it. Interesting fact, it’s only in the 20th Century that shoes were made in left and right shapes. Previously they were perfectly straight and your foot would mold it over time. Hence the idea of ‘wearing in’ a shoe.
The footwear can have any amount of amazing materials and marketing claims but if the last, shape of the shoe, doesn’t closely match that of your own foot it’s unlikely to be comfortable.
Marco goes on to tell us how they have a team that specialises in the manufacture of their lasts and how even the slightest change to a last can have a significant impact on the fit and experience of the boot. Given your foot is a unique 3D form finding the right shape of footwear can be tough. When you do it’s no surprise to find customers like to stick with a brand.
There’s one machine that really catches my eye. Being a bit of a geek and loving Lego and Meccano as a kid. It’s a big mechanical thing with lots of clamps and levers. It turns out to be the toe box forming/bonding process. It’s essentially a press, gluing the upper to the toe-box. The toe-box starts life as a flat sheet of a harder material. This is glued to the upper and put under a heat lamp to soften up. Once ready, the upper with the now pliable toe-box sheet is placed into a press that pulls the upper/toe-box over a mold of the front of the boot. The mould being used is covered in ice. Its liquid-cooled and as such has constant solid ice covering over it.
Clamps come down and hold the sheets in pace until it’s shaped correctly and cooled enough for the pieces to have set firm. Marco explains prior to the cooled press they would have to wait for the boot to cool on its own. This created a bottleneck in the process. The cooled press allowed for much more efficient use of time and removed the processing bottle back.
The detail, precision, effort, and complexity of the processes goes on. People stamp eyelets, carefully! Glue on treads. Sand down the material. Stitch in… Stamp material into usable pieces. Polish boots, clean off glue. Test gore-tex liners. Hammer down joints. The list goes on.
The other mesmerising element that really caught my eye was the Gore-tex liner testing. Each liner was manufactured by cutting out the material on a large cutting press. Machined into the sock followed by the taping of the seams. This created a completely waterproof sock. Each sock is then tested in a water bath. The sock is attached to a pump. An airtight seal created. The sock then put into a water bath and pumped up like a balloon. Every single sock is tested, unlike many other manufacturers that might test a number in a production run. The gore sock is then stitched into the boot and creates the liner on the inside of the boot.
We also had the air-permeable version of the Goretex sock put through the water bath test. This is a gore version that is still completely waterproof but significantly more breathable. The result were in the water bath test were the complete opposite. The air-permeable version of the Gore-tex sock blew bubbles like a toy. Yet when inspected inside it was bone dry.
The power of QC or “Quality Control” can’t be understated. It’s the single most common sign. There is a QC station at the end of each process inspecting, measuring and approving the work. The QC personnel are clearly trusted to deliver the ASOLO product, ethos and brand values. They catch the few issues that do arise. Whilst we were there Marco spotted a minor defect that got pulled from the production. A single piece that was stitched slightly off resulted in the boot being pulled from the production line. The offending stitching was removed, the piece re-stitched and put back into the line.
My lasting impression from this experience has been the sheer effort involved in the creation of the shoes and boots. The quality of the materials involved. The number of times a product is handled. The incredible care and detail in every pair of shoes on your feet. The processes vary from the totally understandable stamping/cutting or raw material to intricate stitching we will never see to processes that are almost wizardry in their complexity and technological process. All this goes into the product on your feet that is keeping you upright and comfortable on your jaunts into the outdoors.
With the unstoppable price rises, we see in all products it really makes sense to make sure you get a properly fitted quality product that will last, can be looked after and can be repaired or re-soled if needed.
Full disclosure, I now own a pair of Asolo shoes. After seeing the effort that goes into the process I tried every style we had in the store and was really pleased to find the Asolo Nucleon GV was a perfect fit. When I lace them up I think of the hands that have got these shoes onto my feet.
Words and photos: Patrick Taylor-Bird