A Stitch in Time

Once upon a time, Maine was one of the world’s major shoe manufacturers. Hidden away in the hulking old mills of Lewiston and Auburn, artisans keep the tradition alive.

Peter Dorman, 87, stitches shoes for Easymoc in Lewiston. “What I enjoy about it? As long as I stand here and do the work? Nobody bothers me.”

Here is Peter Dorman, 87 years old, still standing. He sews moccasin-style shoes in Lewiston, 40 hours every week, earning $20 an hour. He doesn’t get sore anymore, he swears. “After doing it for 60 years? My muscles are pretty well trained,” chuckles Dorman. Callouses tell the story of his work: the tops of his middle and ring fingers are scuffed and bright, like freshly sanded pine furniture. The sides of his pinky fingers bear deep notches where he uses them to pull his threads taut, carrying the tension across his hands lest the stress break his needles.

Dorman learned to sew shoe leather by hand in 1962. In those days, Bass made a moccasin-style loafer called the Weejun—a name that evoked traditional Norwegian fishermen’s shoes—that was all the rage in preppy America. Dorman sewed as many as 45 pairs a day for around 75 cents a pair. The mills bustled. Across the river, Auburn shipped leather and canvas shoes worldwide, as it had since the days before the Union Army marched south in boots made in Maine. By the early twentieth century, the town manufactured millions of pairs of shoes and boots every year.

A work bench Dorman developed specifically for making shoes and has carried with him throughout his career.

The mills from those days remain. So do the old-time methods, carried on by the shoemakers who park their pickups and SUVs behind the loading docks today. Once upon a time, most workers walked. Leaving their three-story walk-ups on Ash and Cedar and Walnut Streets, passing Chapel Street and onto Canal, thousands of them filed into the hulking industrial castles on the Androscoggin River at the start of every shift. Now, the few commuters who still clock in arrive by car, clustering their vehicles on any flat patch of gravel or cracked asphalt that works.

Dorman meets me at the loading dock and ushers me past a “passenger use prohibited” sign and onto a freight elevator. The clanking green metal doors close, then open, and as we step out onto the sixth floor we are staring down the vanishing point of a vast and very empty hallway a hundred or so yards long. Cheerily, Dorman walks all the way down to the hallway’s other end, turns left, and opens a door. Inside is Easymoc, an independent shoe company that was founded by a 34-year-old but bills itself as old-school. In here, the industry’s past orchestral scale has been arranged for a string quartet: there’s the percussive tap of the machine sewer, the rough brush of sandpaper on an insole readied for glue, the rumble of the air compressor in a heel laster. And then, above it all, the elegant thwip sound of a hand-sewer’s needles pulling waxed thread through leather, time after time.

Green, foot-shaped molds called “lasts” guide a shoe’s construction. A shoemaker has a pair for every style and size.

Leather arrives here as it always has, smooth and tanned in a stack of “sides.” To the untrained eye, they’re amorphous, like 20 square feet of rolled-out gingerbread dough. But of course, you can see that’s a cow there: You can make out shapes of head, legs, haunches. There’s the scar where maybe she snagged her hide on barbwire as a calf. Farther down, there’s a section of wavy fat wrinkles she gained from grazing away her adolescence in full sun. These blemishes reduce a hide’s value and vex the cutter, who must devise clever ways to hide the bad marks—under buckle straps, between the insole and plug—in the finished shoes. The cutter solves hides like puzzles, arranging die molds of a shoe’s component parts close together and shoe by shoe, heel-to-toe across the cow. Each hide has its own personality, which can vary as much as the personality of its erstwhile cow (which is to say, somewhat). Leather stretches; placing the component parts together ensures that the shoe will stretch uniformly. In this way, under a capable cutter’s ministry, any decent-living cow can be delivered a new life as 28 size-nines (give or take a shoe).

But if the cutter gets sloppy, the leather won’t stretch properly, and before long he’ll have a hand-sewer cursing his name. “Hand-sewers are not shy people—I’ll tell you that right now,” says Kevin Shorey, co-CEO at Quoddy, which makes custom boots, shoes, and slippers on the second floor of the old Pepperell Mill on Lisbon Street. They’re ornery, and they’re older, Shorey explains, and there aren’t enough of them to go around—one of the reasons he’s been lobbying the City of Lewiston to add hand sewing to its vocational programs or introduce high school students to shoemaking in class.

Even on the day he first took the job, Dorman was an ambivalent shoemaker. “I didn’t have feelings one way or the other about it. I had to have a job.”

He had grown up in Canaan, Vermont, the youngest of 13 kids. Only 10 survived infancy. When Dorman was two years old, a piece of furniture crushed his ankle. When he returned home from the hospital, his mother was gone—committed to an asylum, he was told. His memory of it all is fuzzy, but the siblings became wards of the town, and Dorman and an older brother were sent to live with a prominent couple who lived downtown. He says he has only one memory of his mother: A sunny day in June after his high school graduation, the car taking her back to the institution stopped next to his house. He walked out onto the lawn. The driver rolled down the back window. They looked at one another but said nothing. “I guess neither one of us could think of anything to say,” he says. It’s still hard for him to talk about.

After high school, he worked carpentry and house-painting jobs in Connecticut for two years, then joined the navy, sailing the Mediterranean on the last tour of the USS Salem (CA 139). “CA stands for cruiser attack,” he says. But being the relatively peaceful years of the late 1950s, “for us, it was all cruisin’.” After his tour, he married his girlfriend from Connecticut. “I never got a Dear John letter,” he says, “so I figured this is the girl for me.” They moved to be closer to her family in Maine. A brother-in-law there sewed shoes and offered to get him a job at G.H. Bass in Wilton. He figured he’d better take it.

Dorman learned hand sewing at the Bass mill the way they’d always taught it, standing in a line of a dozen or so men, watching an instructor demonstrate the basic stitches from several feet away as the factory bustled around them. Most trainees quit in the first few weeks. Hand sewing can be tricky, tedious work. It’s also, for lack of a better word, pokey—even now, Dorman jabs his own fingers with his needles or diamond awl about once a week. In those days, only one in five trainees graduated to the production floor. Dorman refused to give up. “I was a stranger here. I had to make it.”

The tools of the trade have changed little in over a century, including D.B. Gurney Company tacks that were first manufactured in 1825, the same year John Quincy Adams was elected president.

The waste and neglect of the training process frustrated him. “The trainer would be off somewhere else, and this guy is sitting there with a totally perplexed look on his face.” Dorman kept his frustrations mostly to himself for three decades. When the head trainer finally retired in the late 1980s he piped up and applied for the job, offering a revised training program he’d gone over and over in his head for years. He’d train hand-sewers one at a time, in a dedicated part of the mill away from the other hand-sewers, giving them the individual attention and quiet he believed they needed to get the hang of the job. In short order, Bass Shoes went from 80 percent attrition among hand-sewing trainees to less than half, according to Dorman. His success gave him a sense of meaning and purpose, and his trainees felt bonded to him.

If a white-collar executive had overhauled the training program at a manufacturer of Bass’s size, they might expect six or seven-figure bonuses for an improvement as substantial as Dorman’s. But Dorman and his men got a different reward: in 1991 the shoemaker all but quit hand sewing shoes in Maine, laying off all but ten hand-sewers and moving operations to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

“This is the funny thing about business that I don’t understand,” Dorman says, shaking his head. “They trained all these people to do the job, and then they shipped it offshore.”

After Bass left, Dorman jumped from job to job for almost 20 years—attending automotive technician school, tuning skis at Titcomb Mountain in Farmington, working on marine engines at a boatyard on Lisbon Street in Lewiston, and eventually working in insurance customer service at an ICT call center. Ironically enough, ICT had its call center in the old Bass headquarters in Wilton. And the job was steady, with a 401(k).

While Dorman was working at ICT, his wife got sick and he quit to take care of her, shuttling her to doctor’s visits and hospital stays. Time passed, hospital bills piled up, and her health got worse. He cashed his retirement savings to cover the costs. He was broke when she died. This is how he found himself sewing shoes again in the Pepperell building in 2012, renting a small room with a hot plate and a cot for $300 a month in a part of the mill everybody called the Dungeon.

But Dorman found a little magic in that dungeon. One of the other millworkers was being picked up every day by his girlfriend named Joyce. Joyce and Dorman caught one another’s eye. When he heard the two broke up, he decided to show up at the Acme Social Club on Park Street, where he knew she liked to go. That’s how he, at the age of 77, met the love of his life.

With two needles and diamond awl, which he sharpens himself, Dorman sews together a shoe’s toe box using a single waxed thread.

“I saw him walk through the door,” Joyce says, recalling the day. “Offered him a place to sit. One thing led to another.” She tells me the story after church on a Sunday—Joyce and Dorman faithfully attend Pathway Vineyard in Lewiston—the three of us chatting over brunch at Governor’s Restaurant down the road. That night, she says, she invited him to go dancing with her and a friend at Mixers in Sabattus. “Now this place is a pickup, okay?” says Joyce, raising an eyebrow from behind her plate of eggs and hashbrowns. “If you wanna get picked up, you get picked up.” She smiles. “But Peter just sits there! I say, Peter, don’t you dance? Come on, then!”

“I gave her the opportunity, and she took it!” He shrugs and smiles craftily. “She picked me up! Oh, man.”

Dorman moved out of the dungeon and in with Joyce shortly after that. Three years later, he asked her to marry him—so they wouldn’t be “living in sin,” he says, grinning.

Dorman’s ship from his navy days is a museum relic now, open to the public in Quincy, Massachusetts, where it is billed as the last ship of its kind in existence. G.H. Bass left Maine decades ago. Dorman’s one living sibling moved to warmer Florida. He’s grateful his five children by his first wife still live in Maine.

But new signs of life are sprouting up in the mills: artisanal companies like Easymoc, which was founded in 2020. Easymoc’s founder, Greg Cordeiro, is one of a wave of disaffected millennials—the children of the generation that shipped all those jobs overseas in the first place—who aim to bring U.S. manufacturing back to its roots.

While growing up in the 1990s in the suburb of Pembroke, Massachusetts, Cordeiro says, he never realized he could simply make stuff for a living. Nobody he knew went to vocational school. Cordeiro’s father had a degree in architecture and loved computers. He was even featured on the cover of a 1980s Brøderbund Software computer catalog for his creative use of an early drawing program, but he got “stuck in sales,” Cordeiro says.

After Cordeiro graduated he marched into the corporate world as well, working as a design director for Timberland, where he made patterns to be assembled in factories out of the country. It wasn’t until 2012, when he purchased his own industrial shoe-sewing machine, that he realized he could make products and found a company.

“There’s a reward, a catharsis,” in manufacturing, says Cordeiro. “I can see the fruits of my labor. There’s a physical end—I see it on people’s feet.”

Cordeiro believes the postpandemic era presents an opportunity for artisanal manufacturers like his. The white-collar world is full of disenchanted desk workers seeking meaning and substance like he once did—and like his father still does. “He’s 65 this year, and he’s counting down the days” until he can retire from his corporate job, says Cordeiro. But he’s fighting an uphill battle, even on the home front: his father’s division sells manufacturing robots that automate factory work in North America. “Of course he’s trying to sell me a robot. I’m like, Dad, really? Your own son? You are a salesman through and through! Can you imagine us putting a robot next to Peter here?” Cordeiro laughs, gesturing at Dorman. In this mill, Dorman himself constructed many of the tables and workbenches by hand—“We call ’em Peterbuilt,” Cordeiro says—including the double-bench teaching station where he currently works.

Cordeiro introduces me to his newest trainee, whom I’ll call Evan, who graduated in 2015 with a degree in mechanical engineering and moved home to Maine during the pandemic.

“He’s just like me,” says Cordeiro. “He had a desk job, hated it, and decided to come in here.” Cordeiro says he views Dorman as a sort of secret weapon, whose charm and deep knowledge can inspire his next generation of hand-sewers.

“This man is a wealth of knowledge,” gushes the newest trainee, beaming at Dorman. “He’s got me all worked up!”

But six weeks later, Evan has all but quit too. His poorly cobbled moccasins are jumbled in a bin beside Dorman’s teaching work-bench. Dorman is frustrated with the man’s lack of stick-to-it-iveness.

“He can’t focus and just do his stitching,” Dorman says. He gestures at a pile of moccasins next to his workbench. “These are the three best shoes he did. And he did those two weeks ago. Oh boy, since then? He’s been going downhill.”

Dorman’s seen it plenty of times: a trainee makes progress and has a magical, masterful day when the needle grooves and every stitch lands just right. But then they go in the next day, and it’s a mess again. The backslide happens to everyone. That’s when most decide they’re going to quit—Dorman can see it in their eyes—even if they don’t say so out loud. “He’s done it. He didn’t recover,” he says. “100 percent of people have that rollercoaster. There’s good days and bad days. It’s human nature.” Yet others persevere, as Dorman did. “They would all make it if they’d stuck with it.” He wishes he could get everyone to see that.

With no one to teach, Dorman turns back to his sewing. He pulls the vamp around a size-8½ wooden dummy foot, known as a last, and hammers metal tacks into the heel and toe, holding it in place. He does the same with the smaller top piece of leather—the plug—so they sit loosely alongside one another. The leather and the last are cozily warm, fresh out of a makeshift toaster-oven/heat-lamp rig that Peter calls his hot box. He punctures the vamp and plug together in one smooth motion with his diamond awl, then slips two needles through the newly made holes in tandem, in opposite directions, and pulls the threads tight, raising his arms wide. As the waxed thread zips through the firm leather and goes taut, it’s satisfyingly audible from yards away, even as the heel laster’s air compressor goes full bore.

Production slows down in summer, however, so Dorman can spend more time working in his garden. “That man stands all day long!” says his wife. “If I can get him to sit, know what happens? He goes to sleep.”

He gingerly tucks a needle in the crook of his thumb and forefinger. Switching back to the awl, he places his index finger firmly against the side of the shoe—the same distance from the seam every single time—and repeats again, and again, and again. The meditative rhythm of Dorman’s work makes it look easy, but it belies the complex calculus at play in his hands. In 2023 computers can best humanity’s chess champions and peer into the universe’s far reaches through the infrared astronomy of the James Webb telescope, but no machine can efficiently make an elegant and even moccasin seam, as Dorman does now with his needles and diamond awl. His fingertips sense the pliant leather—its warm, animal idiosyncrasy—and from those small touches, he knows its needs. Deftly, imperceptibly, his fingers adjust the angles of his needles to stitch an unpredictable hide into a smooth and perfect curve, one that will someday cradle an individual foot. A sturdy shoe.

They call it muscle memory. Dorman’s got six decades of it. He swears six weeks is enough to do the job. Just don’t quit on him.

Dorman sews the seam until he reaches the tacks hammered into the toes of the last. He pries them out. He keeps sewing.

If a shoe remains unfinished at the end of a workday, so be it. “When it comes time to quit? I quit. I might have one needle through the hole, the other one’s danglin’, all right?” But really, Dorman has no plans to be done. He wants to put his own sturdy shoes to good use. He’s taken up hiking and is eyeing the Appalachian Trail. The dream came to him one day in church, he says. He wants to hike the entire trail by the time he turns 90. Sure, it’s not easy. But it’s simple: you put one shoe in front of the other.

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