As I noted in the last two boot posts, Lee Miller of Austin, Texas is making my last pair of boots: a spiffy custom pair that I designed myself (or rather, with the help of his wife Carrlyn). Those two posts (here and here) also showed the beginning of the process of making boots, which, as you’ll see as this series continues, is a complicated craft and art: a dying tradition in America. It’s far more involved than you or I could imagine.
Lee is widely considered the best bootmaker in America (and therefore the world), and I’m lucky to get this pair, which will be the last one I buy given that I have no more space to put boots! Any reader who likes cowboy boots should have a custom pair made at least once (they’re not cheap given the labor and materials involved); unfortunately, Lee is not taking new orders. But there are plenty of good bootmakers in the U.S., most of them in Texas.
The whole process began with a fitting in Austin last summer (see post here), a complicated process that ensures a good fit. That process resulted in the construction of a last: a model of my foot precisely shaped to the measurements, and around which the whole boot is constructed. It begins with a form that is built up or shaved down to conform to one’s measurements. The indented captions below are from Carrlyn:
Lee marks the pivot point on the last that corresponds with your measurements. [JAC: note the metal heel plate nailed onto the last. I’m not quite sure what the “pivot point” is; perhaps it’s the place where your foot bends when you walk.]
The last is then whittled down and built up till it precisely matches the measurements of the foot. Notice the complicated measurements of my foot, which involved me putting my feet on a big ink pad and standing on the paper. It also shows the pressure points. The square front shows the box toe I choose (another tradition, and one that involves a lot of work, as a leather “toe box” must be specially constructed).
One last is done; the second one is coming right along.
Both lasts are finished.
The insoles were wet and laid on the last. We wrap the lasts with an Ace bandage while they dry.
Insoles are the leather on which your foot rests when you put on the boot. They are stitched to both the foot part of the boot (the “vamp”) and the outer soles: the thick part on which you walk. Making an insole is itself a complex job. The video below shows how Lisa Sorrell, another fantastic bootmaker—and one of only a handful of women who make boots—does it. There’s a bit of comedy at the end.
Lee is beginning work on the paper patterns that will have your design. [JAC: I haven’t revealed the design yet, but it will probably become evident as these posts continue.]
He’s cutting them out according to your leg measurements.
Fronts and backs of top patterns cut out. Time to draw the design.
For more information about Miller, Carrlyn, and their Texas Traditions bootmaking operation, go here; at the bottom of that post you’ll see the wooden pegs used to fasten the outer sole to the bottom, as well as the large nail that’s hammered flat and put between the sole and insole for support (the “shank”; a tradition):
You can find a nice interview with Lee here, which explains the dedication that bootmakers have to perpetuating a dying tradition. Cowboy boots are one of the few pieces of distinctly American clothing, and it would be a shame if artisans like Lee Miller didn’t pass on their craft to others. Fortunately, he has young apprentices to teach, and was himself an apprentice to the great bootmaker Charlie Dunn.
An interesting snippet from the interview:
What is the most extravagant boot that a client has ever ordered?
It’s very hard to say what has been the most extravagant boot ever ordered, but the one I remember the most is when a customer wanted parts of a Picasso painting inlayed on his boots. What a treat and a challenge to do, and I discovered the greatness of Picasso when we made those.