Jonathan Donovan photographs and interviews the people that make the shoes at Cheaney's Desborough factory, founded in 1886.
Interviews & Photography by Jonathan Donovan
My mum works here too, she does perforating on the machines near the top end of the room. I’m 20 now, but I was 18 when I started, so it was scary. You’re still learning every day really, depending on what you do, so I went from staining to skiving, which is completely different because it’s on the machine, so that was definitely a lot harder to learn.
When people say, “Oh yes, I’ve heard about Cheaney shoes,” I’m like, “Have you?” And they say, “Do you make shoes?” And I say “Yes!” “Oh, and how do you do this? And how do you do that?” And you explain over and over and over again!
When I started working here a lot of my friends would say, “How do you make a shoe?” And I’m like, “Well I can’t make a full shoe obviously, it’s just you do parts.” They’re like, “Oh you can make shoes, you should go work for Nike.” I’m like, “No, I’m happy where I am!”
When you come into a shoe factory that seems to use less machinery, it is like literally stepping back in time. Cutting leather by hand – 12 pairs of individual pieces – is hard because leather is so tough. It’s a small knife, it has to be sharp to cut through the thicknesses of leather and the grains, and you have to cut lots and lots and lots of different pieces. You are literally cutting every single part. I don't think it’s as easy as some people think – until they have a go.
"When you come into a factory that seems to use less machinery, it is like literally stepping back in time."
When I started here many, many years ago there weren’t quite as many choices of shoes on the shelves as there are now – so it’s really good to see the progression. It obviously takes quite a lot of years to achieve something like making shoes – I was never very good academically – and it took me a long time to find my feet and realise that this is what I’m best at and what I really enjoy.
Sometimes, especially the young ones that come in, they see us and think, “Oh that looks really easy,” and when they try to do it you say, “You’ve got to hold up a bit – you can’t do what I can do yet.” It does take a long time to get to look like you know what you’re doing!
I quite like living in Desborough and where I work is in the town. It’s not just about security either, it’s about enjoying coming out to work and being lucky enough to enjoy what you do really.
I’m actually a full-shoe worker, which basically means from start to finish I can do a pair of shoes around the room, right up to the final examining, right into the boxing as well – it’s taken me a lot of years to learn the different skills and jobs. And they’ve given me the opportunity to learn different roles, it’s, “If you want a go, have a go. Yes!” There’s never the word ‘no’, there’s always the option to learn or progress.
I’ve always been in the shoe trade, but it was basically “that’s your job” – once I learnt how to do those shoes I couldn’t learn any more, I was stuck. Coming here, it gave me that passion back to start learning new jobs, new skills, to be able to pass on my skills somewhere else, and then hopefully it’ll be passed on down the line. There’s always something new, something challenging.