The Shoe Snob Blog

April 22, 2013

Written by , Posted in News

Mythbuster – Gemming is Bad

gemming allows for this waist in a RTW product

Lately I have been hearing a lot about gemming, mainly blog readers telling me that they had read about it elsewhere, not only on the forums but also from other bloggers claiming that gemming is bad, as it apparently minimizes the lifespan of the shoe. Claims have stated that after 3 to 4 resoles, the gemming will break (either the rib or the cement will come loose) and then make the shoe un-resolable. They claim that handlasting and hand welting are far superior (which they are, but not practical for mass production) or the other alternative, which most probably don’t know about (as it is so rarely used) is the machine that cuts the rib directly from the leather insole. It is then claimed that many top shoemakers are in fact using the gemming method and because of this they are “ripping people off” with their ‘so-called’ inferior product. Getting all of the heresay apparently claimed by others out of the way, allow me to put my two cents in.

gemmed insole

Let me first start by saying that 95% of everyone whose goodyear welted shoes are made in a factory is using the gemming method, that is everyone: John Lobb, Gaziano and Girling, myself, Crockett & Jones, Edward Green, Allen Edmonds, Alden etc…. So according to the people that claim this theory of gemming being bad and thus creates an inferior product, they are all basically saying that these brands’ products aren’t worth the long standing reputation that many of them have. Thats a bold ideology. So what is the alternative? Well, it would have to be using a much thicker and thus more expensive insole to cut the wall that holds the upper and the welt, by hand. However doing this process by hand then adds at least an extra 4-5 hours of shoemaking to each pair of shoes, not to mention the extra costs to them too. This might be fine if your workers are being paid per piece or earning far less than the British or American standard of minimum wage. It might also be fine if you are only producing 100-200 pairs per month, but not when you are making 1000-2000 per month, such as your precious Allen Edmonds and Crockett & Jones are doing. The other alternative, as stated before, is using the rare machine, like J.M. Weston reportedly does, that instead of using gemming, actually cuts the rib into the insole. However, this method limits you in doing certain things, like extremely tight waists, as you admire from G&G. There is also no conclusive evidence (whatsoever!) that this method actually last longer than gemming.

handwelted and hand cut rib (holdfast)

Assuming that British shoemakers earn around £10/hr, thats an extra of at least £50 cost (factory cost, not retail) to each pair of shoes, not to mention the amount of shoes that wont be made due to loss of time. That would probably add an absolute minimum of £200 to your average Crockett & Jones benchgrade, just to get 5-6 resoles instead of 3-4 (or in some exaggerated suggestions 1-2), of which your upper probably wouldnt withstand anyway. If you rotate 3 pairs of shoes, using shoe trees and regular nourishing of the leather, by the time you got to 3 or 4 resoles on them all, at least 20 years would have passed and you would have gotten your precious money out of them. And who wants shoes that they have been wearing reguarly to last more than 20 years anyway? Dont be cheap! Buy new ones for crying out loud!

If you look at the picture above, you see where it says “holdfast,” well this is bit that connects the upper to the insole, and then the welt to the insole. When doing this by hand, you can cut a holdfast (and/or rib) into the insole that is maybe 1-2mm high and 4-8mm (depending on country preferences e.g. Italy (4mm) vs. England (8mm)), which is quite strong and controlled by hand the entire way. However in gemming this holdfast is like 3-4mm high and about 1mm wide (due to the fact that a machine is stitching all of the thread and it therefore needs to be tall and thin). Now the alternative of the machine who cuts the holdfast directly into the leather insole, still needs to create the same type of holdfast (in height and width) as the canvas one used in gemming, and there really is not any conclusive evidence that the leather holdfast is any stronger than it’s gemmed counterpart. The other argument could be that it is cut into the insole as opposed to cemented on, as in the case of gemming. And while I am not a fan of cemented soles myself, I have seen many that have lasted a very long time, and being a sole, they are subjected to constant strain and moisture from rain (which is what slowly breaks down cement holding). But being inside the shoe (and covered by cork), it is less likely to separate as quickly (as in years and years) as a cementing would on the sole. Therefore, there is really no argument that using leather instead of the canvas alternative (as for doing things strictly by machine) is any better. If it was, then G&G, JL and EG would be out of business for their shoes would be falling apart quickly. But there not, are they???? Sure, cutting the holdfast by hand and then welting by hand is much better, but it is simply not practical for selling shoes at a reasonable price when manufactured from a country that pays their workers justified wages.

doing it by hand….it takes a LONG TIME, trust me I have done it!

Now as a counter-argument to my own discussion, I will say that using all genuine leather products inside of a shoe and doing it in the hand method way is always going to be better, but it does not make it the fact that the new ways make RTW shoes crap. Granted vintage shoes, made in the early 1900’s, were in fact much better made than are the shoes of today (in terms of all around quality), as there was a lot more handmaking involved, as well as better materials but the world was a different place then. Leather was in more supply. Now a days, good leather is becoming more scarce, and inevitably more shoemakers are fighting for it. Wages are higher than they have ever been. People are also more lazier than they were before. Pride in one’s product was more important then, getting your paycheck is more important now. Work ethic/quality is not the same. It’s more about profits and turn around. But this still does not mean that shoes today are not good (or even great for that matter), just different. And it’s not the shoemakers fault. It’s the way that the world is structured. Prices are simply too high, cost of living is absurd. In order to make it in this day and age, things have to be sacrificed. And what’s even more so, is the consumer, all of you, expect the best at the lowest cost. You guys have it all backwards. You want G&G quality at Meermin prices. It doesn’t work. Something has to give in order to get low prices….And so, gemming is used to save time and cost, to get you a lower price (or maybe the company a higher profit). Whatever it may be, it does not change the fact that a G&G who uses gemming, is going to last any less than a JM Weston who uses the machine that cuts the rib directly into the leather….. there is simply no evidence for that, and that is what this all boils down to….

So is doing things by hand better than gemming?…..Yes. Well then is gemming bad?…. No! ….Why not? Because in reality unless you are the type of guy to wear one pair of shoes day in and day out it is not REALLY going to affect the lifespan of your shoes, not a lifespan that you are going to notice anyway. If it was so bad, you think all of the greats would be doing it? NO! So why is this even a discussion. Well because there are many people on the web who just simply love to start talking bad about something (or simply love to compare apples and oranges, i.e. handwelted vs gemming) just for the sake of it, to do their best to prove a point and be heard. But more often than not these people have no real experience in manufacturing nor are even using common sense when saying these things as if they were they would have realized that if no one used gemming and instead did things by hand, then no one could afford shoes coming out of England or the States. That is common sense by using simple mathematics…. So to all of the iGents who are bashing this method, please realize that all of your favorite shoes that you have loved for years, been comfortable, supportive and “well made” are using this method…..

Oh and by the way, I have just started my own Tumblr page for J.FitzPatrick Footwear, so check it out should you want to stay up to date: