The tiger that never was

(NZZ Folio March 2006)

by Jeroen van Rooijen

There are a few things that have a place of honour in the long-term memory of many Swiss people under the heading "favourite childhood memories": Bernhard Russi, Ovomaltine and Tigerfinkli. Generations of children between Geneva and St. Margrethen have worn the cute children's shoe with the red pompom.

The Tiger Finches have been manufactured since 1938, for a long time in Fehraltorf, where the factory of inventor Edi Glogg was located and at peak times produced 80,000 pairs per year. After Glogg's bankruptcy, production continued at Russ & Co. in Diessenhofen, Thurgau.

In 1986, Hans-Ruedi Dussling from central Switzerland bought the company, thus securing the rights to the classic and transforming the company into Tiger Swiss AG. Four years later, Dussling realised that he would no longer be able to produce the shoe at marketable prices in Switzerland and moved production to a specially founded Tiger Swiss factory in Wagrowiec, Poland. There, a large Swiss flag now flies above the roof. Sheepdogs, Hans-Ruedi Dussling's favourite animals, stand guard in the courtyard. Inside, 35 pairs of hands work to produce around 20,000 pairs of the children's shoe classic every year.

First the pattern pieces are prepared: there are separate punches for each size (from 16 to 47). The bout, the red cap leather on the toe section, is glued in place and then topstitched. After sewing on the instep straps, the upper is sewn together at the heel seam, the seams are sanded down and the gusset string is pulled in, which is later used to pull the shoe over the last. Before that, however, the back cap has to be sewn in and the red edging ribbons and the fluffy pompom have to be attached.

On the last, the Tigerfinkli is then pinched, unfolded and finally glued onto the sole, which consists of a robust natural leather and a rubber heel. Before the last is finished, the edges of the sole are milled off, then the press stud is pressed onto the strap. After half an hour's work, the final "cosmetic" steps take place: painting the edges of the sole and styling the pompom. The pompom is first inflated with compressed air and then cut into a round shape.

Even Hans-Ruedi Dussling is not sure where the tiger finches got their name. The pattern of the shoe shows a giraffe or at best a leopard skin, but never that of a tiger. Nor does the shoe resemble the bird of the same name that is common in Asia. The name probably came about because the main target group, i.e. children of pre-school age, called the shoe by that name. Tigers, leopards or other jungle animals - it's all the same to children's eyes. The name was already in use in Edi Glogg's day.

Not much else has changed about the Tigerfinkli. Admittedly, it used to have a small glass button instead of a press-stud (a tiger's eye?), and the pompom was made of wool instead of polyester. But otherwise the shoe is still made the way Edi Glogg last produced it.