I wrote last week about Lee Miller, one of the best bespoke cowboy-boot makers in the US. Other than the man himself, my prime interest in talking to Lee was the similarities with bespoke dress shoes. The process, I learnt, is largely the same but with a few marked differences.
We touched on how Lee measures people’s feet in the last post. That method is partly driven by the patterns, which are relatively simple in a cowboy boot. There are always four pieces: the front and back on the bottom, and front and back on the top. This creates a potential weak point, and rubbing point, where the four pieces meet on either side.
Second difference: bespoke boots rarely have a fitting. Lee has worked with several Japanese and Italian makers in his workshop over the years, and is familiar with fitting techniques such as cutting open a shoe made in waste leather. At a recent meeting with 60 cowboy-boot makers from across the US, Lee discussed the value of such fittings. But the US system has always worked on the basis of producing a single, finished product.
Part of that is down to cost. Bespoke cowboy boots were made for riding, for working, and remained a popular item long after bespoke dress shoes in England had become the preserve of the upper classes. Even today, $2000 for a full boot is very reasonable, given the time and volume of leather involved.
Cowboy boots are also never meant to fit as snugly as shoes. “That’s inevitable, as you don’t have the benefit of laces or any other means of tightening the boot,” says Lee. “We get the fit very close, but it’s never the same as a lace-up. If I were making dress shoes, I would do a fitting.”
The third difference is that the back half of the cowboy boot is attached with wooden pegs, rather than being sewn. This is the traditional method, but it has little practical benefit over stitching. “The only advantage is over cheaper boots, which use metal nails instead of wood. The metal doesn’t swell with heat and moisture, unlike wood, and so it is always fighting against the leather, pulling against it,” says Lee.
While the front part of the welt is sewn by hand, the sole is attached by machine – it is the one hulking piece of iron work in Lee’s little workroom. Incidentally, all three workers (Lee, Casey and Ben) use chairs that are effectively Swiss gym balls on wheels (above). Much better for the back.
Fourth difference: a 40-penny nail is used for the shank. The ends are heated and flattened, and then it is beaten to the shape of the sole, before being encased in layers of leather.
In fact, the use of layers of leather is a key differentiator elsewhere on the boot. The toe has to be built up more to get that extended look with sufficient rigidity, and putting the heel together is an art in itself. You get different heights of heel, partly depending on whether the boot will be used more for riding or walking, but all are higher than a dress shoe. And of course with an extreme pitch.
|Heel stacks waiting to be made|
The leather is generally thicker as well, which can make things easier or harder. It is tougher to work with but can take more punishment. The insole is often pretty thick – a spongy slab of Rendenbach leather – which then moulds more to the customer’s foot. Given the thickness of the surrounding hide, a cowboy boot can get away with this.
Lee repairs a lot of boots. Ones that are ripped, cut or otherwise in disrepair. They have all lasted decades. Sometimes he stretches them when feet change – though he prefers an old system of inserting scaled wooden wedges rather than the modern mechanisms.
|Lee inspects my Cleverleys. Don’t worry George, he liked them|