A vast majority of the shoes Stitchdown focuses on are built with heavy-duty construction methods, from Goodyear welting, to Norgevese, to stitchdown (obviously).
Handsewn moccasins—including boat shoes, camp mocs, and all their spawn—are a totally different game altogether. While still offering the long-term value proposition of resoleability, handsewns compared to those other types of shoes are lightweight, remarkably flexible, and uniquely conforming—and by their very definition, handsewn in various, but often not all, areas (we’ll get to that).
The upper strata of handsewns is a tight grouping, and Quoddy is right there with the best of them. Based in the historic U.S. handsewn capital of Lewiston, Maine, Quoddy has a deeply compelling history, but the ways that the company has innovated itself back to prominence after literally disappearing for years are every bit as interesting.
A major part of that revival has been CEO John Andreliunas, whose 10 year anniversary with the company came this year. John took me through Quoddy’s past and that of the handsewn moccasin industry in Maine, before getting into the details of how the shoes are constructed, the unique type of highly artistic craftspeople capable of doing that work, and how a company so rooted in the past approaches charging into the future.
Oh also: lobster rolls.
Stitchdown: I love to start out these chats by hearing the history of each shoemaker. Can you take me through Quoddy’s? I know there are some interesting twists and turns.
John: The history of Quoddy is tied up with the history of handsewn shoemaking in Maine, which really started at the end of the 19th century, predominantly in Lewiston along the Androscoggin River. It was originally a cottage industry in Maine and then blossomed, and you start to see brands emerge like Bates, L.L. Bean, and then later on Sebago and Cole Haan. And G.H. Bass of course as well, although they were win Wilton, not Lewiston. There was a manufacturing base there and, particular expertise in handsewn footwear—casual footwear, as opposed to, say, the Midwestern boot companies, which were really focused on industrial and work boots. So that circumstance of geography created an epicenter of handsewn shoe making.
And I’d say that circumstance was helped along by the status of Maine as a real vacation destination for the Northeast. And a lot of kids went to summer camp in Maine—there were well over 100 summer camps up in Maine. So it kind of became a summer destination and everybody driving up had to pass this gauntlet of brands that existed, especially up in the Freeport area. So you had obviously Bean, you had Hathaway’s shirts you had G.H. Bass. And you had Quoddy.
So kind of the uniform, if you will, of the east coast vacationer became the blue blazers they bought from J. Press or from Brooks Brothers down in the cities, and they added to them penny loafers from Bass, Quoddy moccasins, and on and on. And when all those folks would go back home for the fall, they would all obviously bring it all back to wherever they were from, and it got dispersed through prep schools and colleges.
So that was kind of a natural creation of what people might call prep, or New England style, or East Coast style. And it got taken up by people in New York and spread to lots of different places. I always think of prep as one of the true exports of U.S. style, along with cowboy and western. Because it was authentic, it was organic. It was it was really versatile, it was really classic, it wasn’t super trendy. And because it was New England it was also well made, because New Englanders are pretty demanding and frugal. So the stuff lasted a long time. You could repair it, resole it. And that’s why those brands are known today.
And Quoddy really was a component of that. It was started in the early 40s by a guy named Sam Spiegel up in Portland, Maine. It was originally a retailer, and then he decided to vertically integrate, so he opened a factory, and he was a big big fan of moccasin construction and the comfort and flexibility of that construction. So he just started making moccasin construction handsewn footwear. He had a factory in Lewiston, then they moved it to Auburn, Maine. At one point Quoddy had about 40 stores, and national distribution, in a limited way.
Stitchdown: I actually didn’t realize the retailer part of the story. When did he realize making moccasins would be the thing to do?
John: He got it going in the early 40s, and ended up riding that until the late 60s. And Quoddy had these little outposts along Route 1 and all over Maine. Again, it was more catering toward tourists, it was inexpensive, and Maine is within driving distance today for probably 80 million people—so back then it was still a pretty big number. It was a great place to have summer retail, and Sam was first and foremost a retailer. But back then, to ensure supply, he vertically integrated all the way up the line to having his own factory.
But it’s funny, even today I meet people all over the world that know Quoddy, a lot of times because their grandfather went to camp in Maine. And it was just this idea that Maine was this concentrated place where certain unique things happen. And mostly you went there on vacation—so your memories of Maine are usually pretty good.
Stitchdown: Ha! I know mine are. And then over time, there were a number of ownership changes, correct?
John: Yeah, it got footballed around to various conglomerates, just like all the classic Maine brands did. None of them are independent anymore, and they got bought up in the 70s and 80s, which also coincided with the lack of viability of manufacturing mass-market stuff in the U.S. The athletic industry obviously led that and everybody else followed suit. So people came along and bought up the brands. Most famously, Berkshire Hathaway bought Dexter in the early 90s. Talk about turning a great deal.
Stitchdown: And then in terms of Quoddy, what was the most recent change of hands?
John: Quoddy reemerged back in the late 90s. My business partners Kevin and Kirsten Shorey reclaimed the trademark that had gone fallow, basically.
Stitchdown: Which meant what? Nobody was making shoes under the Quoddy brand for a while?
John: Yes, exactly. It expired.
Stitchdown: Huh! So how long was that for?
John: I don’t know when it expired, honestly. It’s a little bit murky. But Kevin’s grandfather, Colin Morrison, had a store up in Perry, Maine called the Quoddy Wigwam. They sold Quoddy moccasins, and also pumped gas and everything. So Kevin grew up around Quoddy shoes, and he inherited the store, actually. He wanted to sell Quoddy again—I don’t know, maybe because it was already on the sign? Haha. So they went out and bought the machines from a guy who had been a shoe manufacturer, and they started making shoes, up in their barn.
That was in the late 90s, just making them for local consumption and attending a couple of craft fairs. And then somehow, some way, some guys from Japan caught wind of Quoddy—maybe they saw it a fair, who knows what happened. But they started to get inquiries, and even visitors. People would just show up, Japanese customers looking for Quoddy moccasins.
Stitchdown: And this was early 2000s?
John: Early 2000s, yep. And then they started to develop a small business outside of just their local area, and landed a couple of early accounts like Freeman’s Sporting Club in New York got on board. And I think that coincided also with that real surge of interest in heritage brands that happened in the 2000s. Then they did a collab with Alex Carleton, who’s now the creative director of Filson, but back then had a brand back then called Rogue’s Gallery—he found them at a fair in Maine.
So it was just a small artisan moccasin business, using all the old dies and lasts that Kevin and Kirsten had acquired, making these classic styles like the camp moc and the blucher. And a lot of people were into that—this whole resurgence and the Brooklyn lumberjack movement, with guys wearing head-to-toe heritage brands, drinking artisan bourbon, and eating artisan bacon and eggs, and whatever else.
Stitchdown: So on that, I feel like it’s obviously very possible but never easy to make an old company cool and relevant again. But that definitely happened with Quoddy. Do you have thoughts on how intentional that was? Or how much of it was just continuing to make this great product, and maybe some good luck and timing? How did it all break that way?
John: I mean, it was it was an authentic interest in a brand that built products a certain way. They were building it not with an eye toward, you know, conserving leather yield and keeping costs down, and the whole kind of mentality that the athletic industry brought to the table. It was pure, old fashioned moccasin construction using Horween leather. So, very expensive lots of leather, all handmade, very much an old-school approach to creating something that is also resoleable. It has an enduring quality to it, versus a disposable quality. And the shoes are very classic, and flexible, and comfortable. I think just the authenticity of the brand and of the entire process appealed to people. And the fact that there wasn’t a lot of hype involved with it. It was a discovery that people enjoyed making.
Back in 2008, I was just coming out of having worked for a subsidiary of Nike, and I contacted them because I had known about Quoddy since I was a little kid—my parents lived in the next town over from Kevin’s grandfather’s store, before I was born. I spent all my summers up there. So I contacted them and ended up investing in Quoddy in 2009, and we moved it from up in Perry back to Lewiston, because that’s where the skills are and the people are.
And essentially all I wanted to do was build a nice brand and kind of just let the cork out of the bottle—to let people see just how cool and unique and substantial this brand was. And a lot has to do with it being a reflection of Maine, and the values of Maine, and the mystique of Maine, which has a hold on a lot of people who have visited the state. So we didn’t focus on branding and social media. We just focused on getting the product in front of the people who would appreciate it.
We definitely had accounts in Japan and started developing a few more in the U.S. And then J. Crew got on their whole In Good Company program, where they were carrying Alden and lots of high quality brands. And that was important exposure. From there we were on Mr. Porter when they launched, so it’s just been a progression of finding the right audience for the brand, and just trying to stay as true to who we are as we possibly can. But all the while, also growing the business.
Stitchdown: I’d love to talk through the manufacturing process of handsewn moccasins, and hear about it works, and also how it’s obviously very different from other shoe constructions.
John: Moccasin construction is unique in that it’s slow and it’s expensive, which is why a lot of people don’t want to do it. It also takes manual skills that not everybody has access to. We often say the training for hand sewing has a similar scrub rate to Top Gun school. Not many people survive the program, because you have to have a combination of manual skill, artistic skill, hand strength, and patience.
In Lewiston that used to be in plentiful supply, back when there were a lot of manufacturers. Now it’s severely reduced, and one of our biggest challenges obviously is that skilled handsewers are not growing on trees, and young people don’t want to pursue that profession, because there’s honestly not a lot of opportunities there anymore.
But basically you take a couple of large pieces of leather, that are cut with steel dies into a pattern, and then it’s literally tacked on to a last with small steel tacks. And then with two needles the handsewer sews the pattern together on the last. So what you end up with is a shoe that fully envelops your foot in leather. It has a lot of flexibility because there is no glue involved—it’s just leather and stitching. And it accommodates your foot, rather than having your foot accommodate it. The best way to think about it is a glove for your foot, or a mitten, I guess. And then we stitch the sole on with more thread, so again that allows increased flexibility and also allows you to resole it. You don’t throw it away—you now have a broken in shoe with a new sole. It’s like a broken-in car with a new set of tires.
And it’s truly a craft, because you can’t really accelerate the process. It takes what it takes. And the only way to scale up production is to have more handsewers. You can’t you can’t really shortcut that process.
Stitchdown: Maybe a crazy question, but why is that? Why is there not a machine that could somehow duplicate this? I’m not saying that’s what should be used. But is there something about the nature of the construction that disallows that?
John: Yeah, I think there are too many nuances to the leather. It’s a natural material and it stretches in different ways depending on how it’s cut. And it’s also about the three dimensional nature of it. I’m sure someone could probably invent like a camera driven, A.I.-infused machine to do that, but it wouldn’t make economic sense.
If you look at where the athletic industry is headed, in contrast, you see everything going to knit uppers, right? Because they just do them on machines. It’s just like making socks. And then they just glue it to the bottom. It’s a much more fast and efficient way to make something—and what they’re trying to do, obviously, is take the human factor out of it. It’s starting to get to the point where robotic making of athletic footwear is pretty much in people’s sights. But that’s not in the cards for the kind of thing we make.
The discovery we made is we took it one step further, by offering made-to-order, because it doesn’t matter to us whether we get an order for a thousand pairs or one pair. It still gets made the same way. We said well, we’re already doing custom shoes for our retailers, so why don’t we just offer the same thing to our direct customers? It’s not only that our shoes are different, but the way you buy shoes from us is different than just picking them off the shelf, or hoping the retailer has your size. You can get exactly what you want, in the right size and width, and we’re never out of stock because we’re making it specifically for you.
So that was just kind of a discovery we made along the way, of what advantages this type of manufacturing could hold for a brand like ours—not just in the actual making, but in the interaction we have with the customer. And they tend to have a lot more invested in the product when they helped design it. I talk about the cocktail conversation: “Oh nice shoes, where’d you get them?” Answer A: I got them on sale at Nordstrom. Answer B: Oh I designed them with Quoddy and they made them for me. It took a month, but I got exactly what I wanted.
Stitchdown: So at this point, how much of your production is made to order, and how much is stock shoes?
John: We’re about 50/50.
John: Yep, we have people who—we offer stock, but they just won’t do it. Especially existing customers. They’ve kind of discovered this other way and they’re like, why would I do that? It allows them to express their own design sensibility, and it just creates more anticipation when they spec something out, and they can hardly wait to see what it looks like.
And people talk about personalization and customization and everything, but to me, putting your initials on something does not mean personalization. It’s similar to a suit off the rack versus the bespoke suit. Supposedly the bespoke suit is going to be higher quality and look great, which it should. But part of the reason it should is that you’ve spent a lot of time on your part. Getting fitted, going back to the second fitting, all the other elements that go into it.
Ultimately when you put that thing on, it’s you, it’s yours. Because not only did you pay for it, but you invest in a lot of energy in getting it to where you want it. You had to make some decisions about fabric and fit and other things. So that level of investment in the product takes time, costs more, but hopefully the end result is something that is truly yours, and makes you feel just that much better about your purchase. And think there’s a confidence level there in the product, that you don’t get when you just pick it off the shelf.
Stitchdown: This is maybe more of a compliment than a question, but I feel like Quoddy’s shoe customization platform on the site is among the best I’ve seen, maybe the best. Just the ability to see the shoes change before your eyes as you click through is so helpful. I imagine that a lot of work went into that.
John: It did, and a lot of thought went into it. The technology honestly is not super high end. And we’re always thinking about better ways to do it. But what we realized early on is the idea that you you can see the result when you click. It’s still a representation, it’s not a substitute for real. And I think that’s the limits of the technology. But it gets people farther down the road. And also gets them to realize that hey, maybe I can do this.
One of the things we’ve tried to do is show people that you have a design point of view—exercise it. Sure, put a red sole on it instead of a black sole. When most guys go to a store, it’s mostly black and brown shoes because guys are a little afraid to make bold choices. But online they’re willing to lean out there a little bit more. We sell red, we sell navy. So that’s been an interesting observation—give people a little bit a license to try something different, and they’ll do it.
Stitchdown: I’d love to circle back on the craftspeople people that you spoke about. How many handsewers do you have in the factory? And what’s the makeup of these people? Have they been at it for a long time? You mentioned that it’s incredibly difficult to work through that training process. I just would just love to hear more about who these people are.
John: We have a pool of about 10 handsewers. They’re for the most part third and fourth generation shoemakers. They grew up in the business, their dads and their grandfathers were in the shoe business. And I think they got it sorted out pretty early on in life, if they have the talent and the aptitude to be handsewers. They’re much more like artists than they are punch-the-clock guys.
I often say that managing the handsewing area is more like being the creative director at an ad agency. You’ve got your different temperaments and quirks, and a lot them are also artists and musicians. That’s just the kind of people that gravitate toward toward that vocation. But it is an older group. Our average age is up over 50, because the industry hasn’t been viable and vital in this country for a long time. So we actually brought a lot of guys back out of retirement. They were doing other things because all the shoe companies had left town.
Stitchdown: So some of these people were lapsed for a decade or more, and they just got back in there?
John: Absolutely. They were driving trucks and doing other stuff. But when we put up the beacon that, hey we’re back, it was amazing who showed up, because they really loved what they did and they just didn’t have the opportunity to do it anymore.
So like I said, it’s a skill set that’s pretty rare now. It’s not exclusive to Maine, though. There are handsewn shoes being made, and being made well, all over the world. Maine just kind of was the forebear of it. But the handsewers back in the day started to transfer those skills to other places like China, like the Dominican Republic. I know L.L. Bean makes a lot of handsewns down in El Salvador. So there are pockets of this skill that have been transferred to other places.
Stitchdown: I’d love to hear a little more about…well, let’s call it the Top Gun Academy. Let’s say I enter it. Where am I going to go wrong? What am I going to not be good enough at to make the cut?
John: It usually takes about a year and a half for somebody to learn how to do it, in a way that’s acceptable for our standards. We start you off just doing just what are called kickers, or heels. You get a feel for it. First and foremost you have to have the dexterity and the hand strength because you’re pushing steel needles through thick leather. We use five-and-half to six ounce leather, which is fairly substantial. So that’s one hurdle. The there’s also a rhythm and kind of cadence to it—and that’s why I think a lot of guys are also musicians—that allows allows you to produce at a certain rate. You have to you have to be able to do it fairly quickly, to have it be economically viable.
Then there’s the understanding of the way the leather stretches, given the bias that it’s cut on. Each piece of leather is different, so if you can start to learn how to stretch the leather in a certain way, when you punch the hole and put the needle through and bring the thread through. So there are different aspects of leather and the characteristics of leather that you have to learn about. And then it’s just kind of proportion and aesthetic. Because you’re trying to shape this thing to have a pleasing and uniform aspect to it as you go along.
So it’s a very intensive, multi-dimensional skill to get a shoe come out looking nice. It can come off the last and kind of look like a shoe. But that’s probably not going to make the cut.
Stitchdown: So obviously it’s a lot of handwork, but is there more of an an assembly line set up? Or is an individual making the entire shore?
John: One person is responsible for each pair—the entire pair. No handoff. Once it comes from the machine, and the pieces in the pattern have been stitched together, they get a they get a bundle of leather, and they’re responsible for fashioning that into an acceptable pair of shoes. So it’s one pair at a time. Unlike a like an industrial boot manufacturing shop where they have safety glasses and ear protection, it’s quiet. It’s more like a studio than it is a factory.
Stitchdown: You mentioned the machines. What parts are they constructing?
John: Yes, we have stitchers. When you cut a pattern, it’s a bunch of pieces. If you think of a boat shoe, you have the upper part with the eyelets, and where the rawhide lace gets threaded through the collar. So that’s usually two pieces. And you have the body of the shoe, the vamp, and the tip of the shoe, which is called the plug.
All of those are separate pieces, and in the case of the vamps and in the eyestays, those are stitched together so that they form an entire hole that literally surrounds your foot. And then those are handed off to the handsewer. And the handsewn part is actually where they gather it on the front, and sew the tip of the shoe onto the bottom the shoe, and in the back where the heel part is attached to the vamp. So there is machine stitching involved to assemble the pattern. But it’s kind of like panels on a car, and then the welding together, if you will, comes from the handsewing part.
Stitchdown: I like that analogy. And how long does it take an individual craftsperson to finish that shoe after the handoff occurs?
John: It can take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour depending on the product.
Stitchdown: Is every Quoddy shoe made with moccasin construction?
John: Currently yes. That’s what we specialize in and historically that’s what we’ve done. But because we’re a Maine brand, we wanted to start to look at waterproof construction too, and that’s not something moccasin really lends itself to, because it’s full of holes. So we are actually going to introduce a new boot this year that uses top-lasted construction, which is your typical work boot construction. So that’ll be our first foray into something other than moccasin, with top last construction, Horween leathers, and also a seam-sealed bootie in it for true waterproofness.
But we’re trying to still keep keep qualities of Quoddy that we like to maintain. So it’s still going to be lighter than your typical work boot. Very flexible. Trying to keep that kind of moccasin feel—road feel, if you will. It’s coming out in the Fall, it’s called the Maine Woods Boot. Being from Maine and having the weather we have, we’d be a little nutty not to develop something waterproof.
Stitchdown: So that’s actually a good transition to this one: how does a company like Quoddy, that’s so rooted in tradition, approach innovation?
John: You do your own form of innovation, really. I think the Maine Woods Boot is our version of innovation, where we’re taking a traditional construction and approach, and modifying it to be Quoddy-worthy. Think about it like when Porsche decided to do SUVs, all the purists yelled and screamed. But the goal from the beginning, they always said: it has to be a Porsche. So it’s going to perform a certain way, drive a certain way, come up to the standards.
We think of it the same way. It has to be the Quoddy of whatever category. Like when we did slippers. We’re not going to do a cheap slipper. Not many slippers out there have Vibram soles. It’s our version of a slipper, which is going to be handsewn, it’s going to have best quality materials. And I think we just kind of take that attitude no matter what category we address. We tend to be at the premium end of the price spectrum because of the amount of quality materials and the hand labor that goes into it. And we know we’re appealing to a certain kind of customer that appreciates that. There’s just plenty of stuff at the at the mass level, and it’s a decent product. It’s just—that’s not what we do.
Stitchdown: You mentioned a couple, but are there any other products in the last two years or five years or whatever, that Quoddy has put out there, that have been a little different than what you’ve done in the past along those lines?
John: I think the biggest evolution for us has been to bring more, I guess I would say, more of those Quoddy qualities into other categories. So, boat shoes. We now have a shoe called the Runabout. What we found with our boat shoes was, if you use that flat, kind of classic sole, it looks like everybody else’s boat shoe. That classic style is that classic style. So the way we approached it initially, was we had a shoe called the Boat Moc that had a handsewn Vibram sole on it, which was very unique, and had that radial moccasin look. But literally it took an hour to sew just the sole.
So they were super light and comfy and everything else, but from a production standpoint it was like, whoa. This is taking forever. So we evolved to that one you see on the Runabout, which is a sole we get from Vibram that kind of still has that radial moccasin look. But we have the ability to stitch that on with the machine, like we do our other Vibram soles, instead of handsewing it. Although we do still offer that Boat Moc. We have people who swear by it. But it’s an expensive boat shoe, and it’s a very unique boat shoe.
Stitchdown: It’s a great shoe, and very distinctive, the Boat Moc.
John: And that kind of spawned the idea from the Runabout as well. We can build a great boat shoe, but when you talk about innovation, it has to have a personality and a visual aspect that is unique to Quoddy. Otherwise people will have a hard time investing in it. And when someone’s wearing a pair of those it’s unique and different. And that should be the goal of every brand’s product, to have its own visual signature—you should be able to spot that brand through the design sensibility it brings to the table.
Similarly, even with the Field Boot, we knew we wanted to make a shell waterproof boot, but all of the shells out there were basically knockoffs of the L.L. Bean shell. And if you use that, then it’s really difficult for it not to just look like L.L. Bean’s. But then we found this shell from our friends at Sperry, which is injected EVA. So it’s super light, but it also has more insulating properties than traditional thermoplastic rubber, which tends to be—if you’ve ever worn Bean boots in cold weather—pretty cold. So this one is actually much lighter and also much cozier.
And then it also had the added benefit of having a molded-in ridge on the on the tip that kind of mimics the handsewn theme that you see in most Quoddies, which gave it a visual signature that was our own, without compromising the waterproofness of the shell. So it ended up being just a great solution to our wanting to do something better and something different.
Stitchdown: I’ll wrap it up with this one. This is a very important question. What are your top three lobster rolls in Maine?
John: Oh boy. I’m probably not the right guy to answer that question. Because I don’t eat lobster.
Stitchdown: Really!! Wow.
John: Yes I know. I’m from Maine and I don’t eat lobster.
Stitchdown: This could take a terrible turn for your personal life, once this publishes, with that information out there.
John: Asking people in Maine about lobster is probably like asking people in Texas about oil or something—it’s just part of the deal and people don’t get that excited about it. People who are visiting obviously get very excited about it.
Stitchdown: I certainly do, when I visit. Just another silly lobster-craving out-of-towner.
John: Yeah, it’s funny. Lobster is not exotic in Maine. You know, it’s similar to when people come here. We’ve had visitors from all over the world come see the factory in Lewiston, and it’s probably like me when I go to a vineyard in California or France or Oregon or wherever, and I’m oohing and ahhing, boy this is so cool. And the people who work there are probably like, yeah we’re just making wine here.
It’s funny, the effect that it has on people who visit. They attribute a lot of mystical and magical qualities to it. That’s nice, but I think it’s just a place where we make stuff. It’s our workshop. For us, that’s our life every day. And you know you can get a lobster roll pretty much anywhere in Maine. And they’re all probably pretty good.
Stitchdown: “Probably,” from your perspective.
John: I mean D’Angelo’s has lobster rolls.
Stitchdown: Oh god.
John: I don’t discount the mystical and magical qualities of lobster. But doesn’t exercise any magic on me.
Stitchdown: I think we’d better end this right there. Big thanks for the time, John.
John: Haha, of course.