Okay, we’re going to take a break and consider the cowboy boot. If you don’t like ’em, don’t read on. I happen to collect them (I won’t divulge the number), because I like the way they look and consider them an indigenous American art form: one of the few items of clothing—besides jeans—that’s uniquely American. A well-made boot is a thing of beauty, a joy to wear, and the product of a lot of labor. While off-the-shelf boots are churned out by the thousands by firms like Justin, Lucchese, and Tony Lama, the craft survives in a resilient band of custom bootmakers (many in Texas), who either make the whole boot themselves or supervise a small workshop. (There aren’t any online videos of the custom process, which is said to involve 370-odd steps, but you can see the making of a high quality factory boot here.)
Custom boots are not cheap: a basic calf or kangaroo boot with simple stitching from a custom maker begins at about $1200. Fancy stitching, inlay, or tooling can take prices to the stratosphere. Tres Outlaws, an outfit in El Paso, has made some boots selling for upwards of $25,000!
When I was in Texas I sought out a few bootmakers and boot collectors, for fellow fanatics are thin on the ground in the chilly Midwest.
And, in Austin, I found Lee Miller, Vermont expatriate and bootmaker extraordinaire. Lee and his wife Carrlyn run a small shop in Austin, Texas Traditions, where they turn out some of the country’s prettiest boots. Here’s Lee with his latest project:
Lee isn’t taking new customers, because he has a huge backlog. Even if you were to order a pair today, you wouldn’t get it for three and a half years!
Here are some of Lee’s boots. The inlay and stitching are lovely, and take a ton of skill and work, but what makes Lee’s boots stand out is their purity of line. Even without fancy decoration on the shafts (the tube-like tops; the foot part is called the “vamp”), they’re eye-catchingly graceful. Have a look at the boot that Lee is holding above.
Lee took over the shop from the famous Charlie Dunn, who worked as a bootmaker in Austin’s Capitol Saddlery for many years and then, after retirement, started his own shop in South Austin. Lee moved there to apprentice with Charlie, and took over the business when Charlie passed away. (Lee makes the boots, Carrlyn does the business side and helps design). Here’s a lovely “pinched rose” design—the yellow rose of Texas, of course—made famous by Dunn and produced by Miller (note the initials, which most custom makers will add to your boot for a small fee):
Here’s Charlie Dunn in his later years, an elfin man with a hot temper and a fierce passion for making good boots:
Charlie was the subject of a song by Jerry Jeff Walker, probably the only bootmaker to be so immortalized. Here’s a pair that he made for himself, incorporating a unique mirror-signature design. Charlie had a bunion on his right foot, and you can see where it’s worn through the ostrich vamp:
Lee has saved all of Charlie’s designs. Here’s Charlie’s famous “marijuana pattern”, used on the shafts when the counterculture took up cowboy boots in the 60s. Apparently Charlie had no idea what marijuana looked like, and so a customer brought him a sample.
Here are the ingredients of a good cowboy boot: leather, a steel shank to support the arch, lemonwood pegs to peg the sole, and thread to stitch the tops and soles. That’s it. No glue, no paper, no plastic.
Here’s the “hide room,” where they keep all the different leathers on hand to make the latest batch of orders. Some of the hides commonly used in boots are calf, kangaroo, ostrich, lizard, alligator, crocodile, shark, water buffalo, and snakeskin. I even have a pair of camel boots (camel is a very rare hide because they don’t kill the beasts to make leather: hides are taken from camels who die of old age).
The making of a custom boot begins with a complicated process of measuring your foot. This can take up to an hour, and can involve all kinds of tape measures, calipers, and even inkpads (Lee has people step on one and then make a foot impression). From those measurements a wood or (more commonly) fiberglass model of the foot—the “last” is made. Around this is built the bottom of the boot. Here are some of Lee’s lasts with the names of celebrity customers:
Here’s a boot that Lee made for Lauren Bacall (note the “LB” initials inside the pull). They didn’t fit at first so they were replaced:
I also visited John Tongate, retired librarian at the University of Texas and famous boot collector. John’s specialty is tracking down vintage boot designs and having them reproduced by custom bootmakers. Here’s John with a small part of his collection:
Boots with elaborate inlay. Left to right: Model Boot Co./Morado Bros, Houston, date unknown; James Morado, Houston, 1995; Bo Riddle, Nashville, 1994; James Morado, Houston, 1994.
Tooled boots (very expensive!), and a lovely purple pair with vamp stitching. Starting with single boot on extreme left: Jack Reed, Burnet, TX, 1998; Jack Reed (Bob Dellis, tooler), Burnet, TX 1993; James Morado, Houson, 1999.