July 5, 2017
Made in USA: See How Each Pair of New Balance 990v4 is Crafted
The New Balance 990v4 is a celebration of 75 years’ domestic manufacturing – their ‘Made in USA’ program is a testament to the quality of old-school craftsmanship still found on home soil. To find out exactly what goes into a pair of 990v4s, Sneaker Freaker visited NB factories in New England, and, steered by 990v4 designer Scot Hull, followed the manufacturing process every step of the way. We came away with a new depth of appreciation for the workers whose skill and dedication keeps the tradition of USA-made footwear alive and kicking.
Cut From a Different Cloth
Historically, the New Balance 990 has been constructed with premium pigskin suede – the 990v4 is no different. Because of the hide’s smaller size in comparison to cowhide and synthetic materials, the workers cutting it have to be extra careful when choosing its best sections for key parts of the shoe’s upper, carving it up with a keen eye while also considering waste minimisation.
This first step in the production process is integral to the finished product. Workers operating stamping machines ‘nest’ each cut as close as possible to the last to maximise yield, analysing each hide like a puzzle. After all the panels have been stamped, a string cheese of waste product is all that’s left behind.
Concurrently, the polyether backing foam is cut and stamped by another set of workers. This micro-perforated material is the key to the increased breathability of the 990v4.
The polyether backing foam is stamped in bulk by big machines
Using templates, craftsmen cut each suede panel from the pigskin hide
Prepping the Panels
Once each individual section of the upper has been cut out, a number of different workers and machinery prepare the panels that require branding or additional finishing. The heel panel is stamped with the reflective ‘990’ while the top eyelets are sewn in place at the top of the throat.
990v4 tongue branding is stitched on
Carefully engineered for ultimate comfort, 990’s tongue is specially crafted to stay in place when laced up – a highly considered piece of design informed by issues with the 990v3, whose tongue slid to one side when worn and frustrated owners. The ‘Made in USA’ badging overlay is sewn on, and each unit is constructed inside out with 15 millimetres of foam sandwiched inside the tongue when all paired together and flipped the right way around.
‘Originally that “Made in USA” logo was designed only on the box rebranding, but I thought it would be really cool on the tongue – it’s just a nice look,’ explained Scot. ‘We’re very proud of this shoe being made here and I think it’s a great touch.’
Reflective 990 branding is stamped on the heel panel
Tongue is constructed inside out
Scot Hull worked closely with the factory to increase efficiency when constructing the shoe’s upper; the Orisol computer stitching stations were improved and programmed to build as much of the upper as possible on the flat polyether base.
Three manned stations are involved in this process, with each worker positioning panels before they are stitched together in flat templates. Hull streamlined a six-step process, resulting in a more consistent finish and increased efficiency overall.
The upper is constructed by layering each panel on the polyether foam base
Starting from the toebox, all the layers are added onto a template and fed through the machines. The reflective ‘N’ on each side of the shoe is the final part to be sewn while the upper is still flat, leaving the toe guard and heel panel for the next stage of construction. Removed from the template, the upper is sent to sewing stations, and the shoe begins to take shape.
A closer look at the Orisol computer stitching station
Reflective 'N' branding is added during the final stages of the flat stitching process
While still flat, the upper is adorned with its necessary sewn-on features before moving into the silhouette-forming ‘closing’ process. Unlike a lot of sneakers, the 990v4 does not have a traditional strobel insole to form the base of the upper. Instead, the firm cardboard strobel material is replaced by the same lining material used on the rest of the upper so the underfoot is as close to the midsole foam as possible to maximise comfort. This shoe construction technique is called ‘slip-lasting’.
The bottom lining material and flat upper are then paired, sewn together and ‘closed’ at the heel to conceal stitching under the heel counter. Highly skilled workers then apply their craft to the stitched collar lining.
The upper is 'closed'
‘If you ever watch these guys and girls stitch the collar lining together, it’s fascinating. The collar lining material is actually smaller than the part you’re stitching it onto, to stretch out the lining to avoid any wrinkles. They start at one side of the eyestay, work all the way around the ‘rabbit ears’ (the panel with all the eyelets), and then end up at the exact spot on the other side. It’s quite an art form.’
Scot Hull, New Balance 990v4 designer
Once sewn, the collar lining is held in place while the eyelets are punched. The toe guard and the tongue are added next, followed by the large heel section – the final step of the stitching stage.
What follows is the conditioning process, whereby the upper is placed on a conveyer belt and steamed and heated in order to relax the materials and stitches. In this malleable state, uppers are slipped onto lasts and the shoe begins to take its final form.
Heel panel is added
Uppers being 'conditioned' in preparation to be paired with the sole units
Combining the Upper and Sole Unit
Before the upper is glued in place, the shoe is ‘toe lasted’ – a process that tightens the toe and vamp area to ensure the upper is perfectly straight. The rest of the shoe is then crimped, glued and pressed together with high-pressure machinery to lock everything in place.
Crimping machine in action
This is when the sole unit strolls into the picture, delivered finished to the factory, pretreated with an etching material that will be heat activated. Each upper is seated onto its matching sole unit and marked across the midsole with an ultraviolet pen. Only visible under the gluing station’s ultraviolet light, these markings direct where the hand-painted adhesive needs to be applied to the bottom of the upper.
Prepping the sole units
Once painted with a layer of adhesive, both upper and sole unit are sent through an industrial quartz heater for 15 seconds to heat-activate the glue. A worker then carefully presses the two parts together to form the shoe for the first time. In this form, the shoe is placed in a deep-well press; using immense air pressure, the machine forces the midsole to bond with the upper before curing while still on the last.
Shoe is taken off the last
Removed from the last, the shoes are then paired up. Insoles, lacing and tagging are added and we begin to recognise the beloved 990v4. Pairs now make their way to the final station: quality control.
New Balance’s ‘Made in USA’ sneakers are painstakingly scrutinised alongside a go-by sample; the most miniscule variance will see the shoe considered a ‘second’, meaning it won’t reach consumers. Shoes blessed with the seal of approval are boxed up and shipped out for sale.
Quality control and lacing
Around 3000 pairs of 990v4s can be manufactured daily. From start to finish, 35 workers contribute to each shoe’s eight-hour creation process. By respecting old-world craftsmanship and embracing innovative tooling and techniques, the New Balance 990v4 epitomises the company’s dedication to producing seriously impressive home-grown product. So wear your ‘Made in USA’ NBs with boosted pride knowing they have 75 years of love and skill sewn deep in their bodies and soles.
The New Balance 990v4 collection is available now from the New Balance online store.