Freed Of London is one of the oldest ballet shoe manufacturers
3rd November 2019 by Will Stewart
A touching and personal film more about the long standing workforce at Freed of London, than the company itself. Freed of London have been making hand crafted ballet shoes since 1929, when Frederick Freed, his wife, and a single assistant opened a basement shop in Covent Garden. Freed of London still have a premises in London’s West End, but this film was made in their factory in Wells Street in Hackney, East London, and make pointe shoes for professional and amateur dancers all over the world. Freed pride themselves in making shoes that are made completely from natural materials, that breathe and expand as they heat up with the dancers body. This also gives the shoes the added advantage of being completely silent and they bend and brush across the floor, something that wouldn’t be so easily achieved with a shoe made from plastic or other synthetic materials.
But rather than concentrating on the professional and technical qualities of the shoe, film makers Jack Flynn and Nick David instead decided to make their documentary from interviews with the workshop staff. This gives the film a very personal feel, and is more of a study of human behaviour than it is of ballet shoes. I also note that none of the management of the company were interviewed, which is to the film’s credit, and stops it from sounding overly like a promotional piece about the company.
As one worker puts it, “Other companies exist, but none for as long as Freed”, and by listening to the way the workers talk about their job, it’s easy to see why. More than one of the employees opens with, “I came here when I left school, and I’ve been here ever since”, and all of the workers featured have been employed by Freed of London for 20 odd years and up. There doesn’t seem to be much of a passion for ballet per-say, it’s not even clear if any of the staff have actually ever been! But there is a lot of respect among the workers for ballet as a profession, and indeed for the craft of making the shoes itself.
The film has some beautiful and therapeutic footage of the workers effortlessly working the machines, sewing and hammering the shoes. What I really love about the film is the little personal touches from the interviewees. Every tradesman has their own makers stamp, “Mine’s a crown”, one worker enthusiastically tells us, “I make 41 pairs a day”. One couple even got secretly married one weekend, then came back to work on Monday without telling anyone! That was 35 years ago, this year they’ll have been working at Freed for 40.
It’s sad to think that Hackney was once full of small industrial workshops like this. The level or worker satisfaction you hear from those working in practical trades, such as shoe making, seems like to be a rare thing now. Let’s hope people will continue to see the value in a bespoke, hand crafted product, and companies like Freed will find a way to survive.