Stitch by stitch—and laser cut by laser cut—U.S. workers craft state-of-the-art shoes. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look from the factory floor.
Every New Balance sneaker created at one of the company’s five New England-based factories moves quickly, stopping at each worker for an average of just 22.5 seconds. But those 22.5 seconds come full of precision, both mechanically and individually, as New Balance still churns out over 4 million sneakers—roughly a quarter of overall production—from the United States, the only major sneaker brand making product domestically.
As the Boston-based company continues to grow—it plans to add a sixth factory to its stable in Massachusetts and Maine—don’t expect that 22.5 seconds to slow anytime soon.
While all five current New Balance domestic factories produce sneakers, the Lawrence, Massachusetts site serves as the flagship factory, perched overlooking the Merrimack River in a converted mill building.
The latest sneaker designs may come from the company’s new headquarters in Boston three miles from either the Harvard campus or famed Fenway Park, but the engineering and production know-how lives on floors three through five at the Lawrence facility, all perched atop the second floor factory and in the shadow of the building’s four-sided mill clock with dials, the world’s largest of its kind and, at 267 feet high, second only to London’s Big Ben for the tallest clock in the world.
But that clock doesn’t tick in 22.5-second increments—that’s the role of the 220 workers producing a shoe every few seconds on the second-floor factory.
A finished sneaker begins with raw materials, from synthetics to rubber to leather. New Balance starts with the leather and the newest addition to the factory floor, a numerical control cutting machine from Italian manufacturer Comelz.
The Lawrence factory runs one 6 a.m.-to-2:30 p.m. shift daily, with three main production lines all working on identical products. Lately, the classic 990v5 has filled all three production lines in different sizes and colors. To start the 990v5 process, the factory floor needs flats full of pigskin hide. That’s where the NC cutter comes in handy.
Once the shoe finishes its pass through the sole press, the last is removed for reuse and the shoe gets laced, tagged, cleaned, and inspected. It even passes through a small metal detector to check for any unwanted material. When it clears final quality control, the shoes get boxed and sent to distribution. In all, it’s a 55-step process that takes three hours from cut to pack.
The other side of the Lawrence factory floor contains a slightly different process: a complete custom production line for the company’s NB1 program that allows customers to customize lifestyle sneakers and baseball cleats with chosen colors, embroidered messages, and materials.