Dr. D’Wayne Edwards, founder of JEMS and Pensole Lewis, at the grand opening of the first Black-owned athletic shoe company in the US.
On March 20, 2023, a shoe factory opened in Somersworth, NH. JEMS by PENSOLE, the first Black-owned athletic shoe company in the US, is an exciting revival of a tradition of manufacturing in the city. The factory is a partnership between Pensole Lewis College of Art and Design, the only design HBCU in the country, and Designer Brands, the parent company of DSW. All shoes manufactured in the facility will be produced in relatively small runs of 5,000 to 20,000 pairs each and sell exclusively at DSW.
For Dr. D’Wayne Edwards, founder of JEMS and Pensole Lewis and the most well-known Black shoe designer in the country, this has been a dream for a long time. One of his goals in building a factory in the US was to “bring back the craft” of shoemaking to this country. Currently, 75% of the world’s shoes are manufactured in China, India, Vietnam, and Indonesia.
Reestablishing shoe making in New England
In the 1700s, many towns had their own cobblers, as shoes were made by hand. By 1860, shoe manufacture was largely centralized and there were over 12,000 shoe factories in the US. In New England, nearly 75,000 men and women worked in shoe factories. Today, there are only 924 shoe factories in the entire country.
“[We want] to keep this trade of making alive,” says Carren Morris, president of JEMS.
The JEMS factory is a score for Somersworth, a small city on the border of Maine with a population of 12,000 currently experiencing an economic slump. When Michelle Mears, director of development services in Somersworth, sat down in a meeting with Pensole, she thought, “Are you kidding me?”
“It’s a huge deal for us,” Mears says.
Somersworth’s history has always centered on manufacturing. “We were built because of the mills,” says Jenne Holmes, member of the board of directors at the Summersworth Historical Society. Entrepreneurs from nearby Dover, NH (which was itself home to several well-known fabric mills), moved to Somersworth in 1823 to take advantage of a natural drop in the river—the Great Falls—to power six large fabric mills.
Left: Downtown Somersworth, a small city on the border of Maine. Right: Somersworth 70s shoes.
However, cheaper labor and proximity to raw materials eventually drew fabric production to the southern United States and then overseas; by the early 1930s, the mill buildings were empty.
In 1934, Harry Stein, an immigrant from Russia, took over one of the vacant mills to build Somersworth Shoe Factory. His factory, along with two others that came to the area, was a major employer. “It’s a big part of our history,” says Holmes. Frank Kennedy, Jr., vice president of the historical society, describes this period as “a boom—and three shifts all the time.” Unfortunately, in the 1980s, shoe production went the way of textiles—overseas.
“We’re really just bringing back a part of the history of Somersworth,” Edwards says.
What JEMS will provide
Not only will JEMS create 30 highly skilled jobs, it will also provide an onramp for emerging Black shoe designers to bring their shoes to market. Black designers make up less than 5% of all designers in the US, and the footwear industry can be difficult to break into. Edwards got his first job in shoe design after slipping index cards with sketches into the suggestion box at LA Gear, where he happened to be working as a temp. Since then, he has worked tirelessly to help other Black designers make it in the industry, first by founding Pensole, a design school in Oregon, then moving to Detroit to reinvigorate Lewis College, a former secretaries’ college, as Pensole Lewis, a design school the provides rigorous, experiential training.
Another crucial player in this process is Designer Brands, which is an investor and partner in JEMS. Morris, president of JEMS, says that one of the hardest parts in starting a new brand is finding a retailer to introduce it. Now, students can experience the entire shoemaking process, from design to manufacture to marketing, distribution, and retail, through JEMS.
“That’s called economic development,” Edwards says.
Jan Ernst Matzeliger, inventor of the lasting machine.
Lasting legacy of Jan Ernst Matzeliger
JEMS stands for Jan Ernst Matzeliger Stu/deo, and is named for a Black immigrant inventor from Suriname who created a machine to perform a crucial step in making shoes: lasting. Lasting is the process of connecting the inner part of the shoe to the sole. Shoe “lasters” could only make 50 pairs of shoes each day; Matzeliger’s machine could make 700.
Matzeliger was an engineer by trade. When he arrived in the US at 21, he worked his way up in shoemaking factories, first in Philadelphia and then in Lynn, MA, which was at the time the “shoe capital of the world.” He worked after hours putting together prototypes from scrap metal and even rationed his meals in order to pay rent on a private workroom. His invention was so complex that the US Patent Office sent an official to see the machine in action.
When Edwards learned about Matzeliger, he was blown away. Always on the hunt for Black representation in the shoe industry, Edwards remembers thinking, “This dude has been here the whole time.”
Matzeliger received a patent for his lasting machine on March 20, 1883, exactly 140 years before JEMS opened its doors. However, in order to fund and build his design, Matzeliger was forced to give away two-thirds of his shares in the profits of his invention to white investors. After contracting tuberculosis, he passed away at the age of 39. He never saw the impact his machine made on the shoemaking industry, which still uses a version of his invention today.
Exterior and interior images of the JEMS factory in Somersworth, Maine.
Edwards initially wanted the factory to be in Lynn, in homage to Matzeliger, because, he says, “I’m a storyteller.” But the availability of an affordable space—a vacant paper printing factory—made Somersworth more attractive. The number of apprenticeship programs that the city and state provides was also a plus, opening up possibilities to train new makers in Somersworth. “It just made a lot of sense,” says Morris.
Matzeliger’s birthday, September 15, will see the debut of the JEMS 1, a design by Edwards that will have an initial run of only 915 pairs. Thanks to a new construction process, the labor required to make this shoe has been reduced by half. A more efficiently made shoe—a perfect homage to the original JEM.
Alicia de los Reyes
Alicia de los Reyes is a freelance writer who loves to make things. She has her MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of New Hampshire and her work has appeared in the Billfold, the Archipelago, Sojourners Magazine, and others. See more of her work at aliciadelosreyes.com.
The factory is in Somersworth, NH
Really? I live in the town next to it. Will they have a shop here o wonder?
I’m not sure—but I know you can buy all of the shoes from this factory in DSW! There should be some of the JEMS 1 in the DSW closest to Somersworth.
Yes! It’s incredibly exciting.
What an inspiration this company is! Great article, Alicia.
Thank you so much, Kathy!
Good on you Dr Edwards, for championing local manufacturing!
What an interesting read! Thanks for shedding light on a topic I otherwise would not have known anything about! I’ll have to look out for these at DSW!
Awesome! Thanks for reading, Madeline!