Notes on...

The big burly blokes who make infinitely precise pointe shoes by hand

30 November 2019

9:00 AM

30 November 2019

9:00 AM

Pauline, Petrova or Posy? Which Fossil sister are you? Or, rather, which Fossil sister did you hope to be when you first read Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes? It has to be Posy. The third and last adopted Fossil arrives in a basket with a note — ‘This is the little daughter of a dancer’ — and tiny slippers. For any girl who has ever imagined taking the stage in pointe shoes, the Freed factory in Hackney is a dream of pink satin.

Frederick Freed was a shoeman and showman. Ninety years ago, Mr Freed was the star-maker at Gamba, which only made shoes in one width. Then Mr Freed had the idea of adapting the shoe to the dancer, rather than the dancer cramming into the shoe. Mrs Freed was a milliner. Fred did the architecture, Dora the trimmings. Their first factory was in Covent Garden. In the 1960s Freed moved to E9 and here it has been ever since. Today, it makes 333,000 pairs of pointe shoes a year.

Freed pink is unique. When the Freeds started in 1929, ballet shoes were either very white (Russian) or very pink (American). Freed created something in between: a warm, soft pink that would glow under stage lights. The great choreographer George Balanchine told Mr Freed that he would always buy Freed shoes on one condition: never change the colour. The pink is as pearly as ever, but Freed, advised by Ballet Black, now makes shoes in different skin shades.

Each pair is made by hand. The workshop smells delicious: leather, satin, hessian and something tangy… ‘secret recipe’ glue. More than 17 people work on a single pair of pointes, each an expert in their particular skill: cutting, hammering, pleating, binding, pinning, sewing, cleaning and checking, checking, checking that every stitch, every bow, every sole, every toe is perfect.

What takes me by surprise is how male the shop floor is. Big burly blokes violently bashing and beating to produce infinitely precise shoes. Pictures of Moira Shearer and Margot Fonteyn are outnumbered by Liverpool FC posters. ‘What hurts?’ I ask one of the shoe-binders. ‘Hands, wrists, shoulders.’ Not every apprentice can bear the physical stress. One maker, responsible for angling and pointing, leans his whole weight on the shoe, battering the toe against the bench until the shoe stands en pointe. If the toe teeters or wobbles then the shoe gets another blow, and another, until it is sound. Makers work on 31 pairs a day, 35 if they get up a rhythm. Tabletops are littered with dockets: shoes for Japan, New York, Paris. Boxes of silvers and reds are destined for Cinderella and the Queen of Hearts in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Dancers are superstitious about shoes. Like the tennis player who favours a winning racquet, dancers come to Freed with fraying, greying, falling-apart shoes and say they wore this pair for Swan Lake, and would Freed make another exactly like it? Royal Ballet principals Lauren Cuthbertson, Yasmine Naghdi and Laura Morera are all Freed girls. The day I visit there’s a rush on to finish shoes for ‘Miss Morera’. Freed is scrupulously courtly: Miss Ferri, Miss Nuñez, Mr Freed. Was there ever a happier name for a company? Freed from pain, freed from blisters, freed to dance like a dream.

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