My last pair of boots. Part 3: Lasts, insoles, and design

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.]

Jerry%27s Boots1

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.

Jerry%27s Boots2

Both lasts are finished.

Jerry%27s Boots3

The insoles were wet and laid on the last. We wrap the lasts with an Ace bandage while they dry.

Jerry%27s Boots4

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.]

Jerry%27s Boots5

He’s cutting them out according to your leg measurements.

Jerry%27s Boots6

Fronts and backs of top patterns cut out. Time to draw the design.

Jerry%27s Boots7


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):


A nail used for the shank (not my boot but still a Lee Miller boot)

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.


  1. Randall Schenck
    Posted June 16, 2016 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Possibly the U.S. needs a program similar to what exists in Japan – a government agency to preserve and protect cultural properties.

    Otherwise such artisans and their abilities will become a lost art because there is nothing in place to ensure they are passed down. The lost art of hand made anything…

    • Posted June 16, 2016 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      I think that one way artisans survive is by using their skills to produce other products on the side that have greater demand but require less work.
      So bootmakers will have to start producing leather iphone cases in mass quantities!

      • darrelle
        Posted June 16, 2016 at 11:06 am | Permalink

        I have seen some beautiful leather cell phone cases.

      • barn owl
        Posted June 16, 2016 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

        I have a couple of leather journal covers, each of which holds multiple notebooks or memo books, which were made by artisans – these are very popular with art journalers and planner fans, and you can have them made in all sorts of sizes to accommodate various types of notebooks. I also have an artisan-made case for my fountain pens.

        Yes I have Luddite tendencies … why do you ask?😉

    • E.A. Blair
      Posted June 16, 2016 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

      It’ll never happen unless you can figure out some way to make a profit from it. It’s the American way.

  2. Johan Mathiesen
    Posted June 16, 2016 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Gosh, “last pair of boots”? Planning on wearing them to your funeral? Heck, Id try ’em on a couple times before you go.

  3. Dominic
    Posted June 16, 2016 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    What a wonderful workshop – everything about it, the tools, the work benches etc – a proper traditional craftsman’s workplace.

  4. darrelle
    Posted June 16, 2016 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Jerry, all you need to do is find a new crib with more closet space. Or perhaps convert your existing pantry into boot storage.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted June 16, 2016 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

      Far be it from me to indulge in interior design, but most houses I’ve been to don’t make much use of the storage potential of the ceilings. In particular, if I understand them correctly, cowboy boots have loops on each side to pull them on, whih would make the whole ceiling available for boot storage.

  5. Posted June 16, 2016 at 10:24 am | Permalink


    How did you become interested in cowboy boots? There must be a story there!

    The fancy boots made by these master boot makers are real works of art. Wow. Working works of art.

  6. Posted June 16, 2016 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    I’d love to know how much a typical pair of handmade boots from Lee would cost. I’m guessing its over 1000 and that’s the reason the art is dying out.

    • darrelle
      Posted June 16, 2016 at 11:13 am | Permalink

      I think it’s a little more complicated than that. But yes, basically high quality, custom made hand crafted things can’t be made at a cost that can compete with a factory. In a previous era a shop like Lee’s would employ several people making boots in a somewhat larger quantity, but still not competitive with a factory. Given that people like Lee end up doing it for the sake of love of the art, producing a low quantity of master pieces for a very small clientele.

    • barn owl
      Posted June 16, 2016 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

      I think there’s a subpopulation of potential clientele that most of us never encounter or think about. Apart from the wealthy celebrities who might happen to love cowboy boots, I can also think of successful PRCA cowboys, the often-quite-wealthy owners and riders of cutting horses (and other equine athletes in the Western tradition), and super-wealthy heirs to vast ranches and oil money, who ride horses and play sports like polo.

  7. Gasper Sciacca
    Posted June 16, 2016 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    What a hoot. A Jewish, big city professor with the best made cowboy boots in the world.

  8. DrBrydon
    Posted June 16, 2016 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    I am guessing the design is either a cat (Hili?) or the double-helix.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted June 16, 2016 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

      or the double-helix.

      That rings a bell – in the boot discussions, I think.

  9. Posted June 16, 2016 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    I’m about to get fit for a custom pair of boots Pascal Davayat, the guy who made boots for Motorhead’s leader Lemmy. Jerry,I think you’l appreciate this detail during construction; every pair have a quote, meaningful to the person ordering them, set in under the sole.

    Here’s an example from Pascal’s instragram:

    Mine will most likely contain a Monty Python quote: “Is this the right room for an argument?” “I told you once!”

  10. Posted June 16, 2016 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Oops, didn’t mean to embed that, wordpress must have a new auto-embed widget. Sorry about that…

  11. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted June 16, 2016 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Iron shanks? I guess you won’t be dancing en pointe in those.

    In ballet shoes the shank is usually made of leather, cloth, or cardboard, and even so some ballerinas cut or break the shanks in new shoes to further increase flexibility.

  12. Hempenstein
    Posted June 16, 2016 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating about the nail. Had no idea!

    • Posted June 16, 2016 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      easy source of the right size/stiffness of material!

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted June 16, 2016 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

      Most boots have a shank of some sort – though it’s often a strip of wood or plastic in the mass market. They greatly change the walking behaviour of the boot. Those are what we’d probably classify as half-shanks in the UK because they end so far back from the toe. But my close attention to boots has been with respect of how they’d behave when rock climbing or kicking steps on snow slopes. Then you want the sole to be considerably stiffer so that your foot stays on the little ledges.
      Actually, one size of shank fits all – well they’re obviously boot intended for the bulk of any travel to be done on the horses shoes. Walking 30 or 40 km in a day in cowboy boots probably isn’t on the agenda.
      The implication of the text is they use one size of nail for all boots. But since they flatten it, they can probably control that if they so desire.

  13. E.A. Blair
    Posted June 16, 2016 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Good ’til the last drops.

  14. Jiten
    Posted June 16, 2016 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    How long do leather soles last? Presumably not as long as rubber soles?

    • E.A. Blair
      Posted June 16, 2016 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

      I don’t know about that. Rubber Soul came out a little over fifty years ago, and it’s still holding up well.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted June 16, 2016 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

      It is easier to replace a leather sole, as often as necessary too
      A traditionally made leather shoe will last a lifetime with care, use af a shoe tree, maintenance & repair
      In a dry climate leather is best

      In a wet, humid climate such as the UK one needs rubber soles for grip, but when possible it’s lovely to switch to all leather because ones feet remain cool & fresh due to the ‘breathability’ of leather
      Indoor slippers made of leather are ridiculously comfortable – though not recommended if one has slippery floors anywhere about or dogs of course who’ll covet them for chewing

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted June 16, 2016 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

        There are flesh-free alternatives to leather which also have good breathability. I was considering getting a couple of pairs of made-to-measure shoes in such material a while ago. But I got married instead.

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