Time to Reboot: Boot Making 101

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By Roxy Rowton

When it comes to fashion, it often begins at the feet, and there is no other footwear more stylish and versatile than boots. While the choice of boot can clearly articulate an individual’s sense of fashion, preferences in boot styles reveal an eye for detail and inclination for practicality or ingenuity. A great pair of boots can elevate an outfit, make pounding pavements a pleasure, and provide durability for treading through whatever Mother Nature dishes out. The first footwear was probably little more than soles fabricated from hide, wood or plant matter as a protective covering for the feet to tread over the earth’s topography. Originally, footwear was made by hand one pair at a time. Every town or village had a local cobbler, who worked alongside the butcher, the baker, the seamstress or tailor.

Like so many industries, the art of shoemaking was industrialized, and the mass production of footwear replaced the timehonored methods of boot making. The traditional handicraft of shoe and boot making with attention to detail, quality and craftsmanship gave way to the escalation of rapid and economical methods of production. Like any other item of clothing or accessory, boots have design features that distinguish the way they will fit and wear. Generally, boots will fit the foot somewhat differently than shoes, sneakers or sandals. For the sake of reference, below is a quick breakdown of a boot’s anatomy.

While boots are available in a variety of designs and styles, a great pair of boots is only as good as the material from which it is fashioned. Within the boot-making industry, full-grain leather is still considered the best and finest material. Full-grain leather increases the boot’s likelihood of longevity and durability. Most boot makers use calfskin leather because of its soft and fine grain as well as its durability. However, boot makers may also use bovine, Cordovan (horse), pigskin or kidskin (goat).

Whether the boot is handcrafted or handmade, an individual should pay attention to these design features when making a boot purchase.

Vegetable-tanned leather is the oldest method to treating leather. This method uses natural tannins in vegetable matter or barks from trees to stabilize and preserve untreated leather. However, veg-tanned leather products can shrink and become brittle after getting wet.

Rough-out leather is a reverse suede technique using the underside of the hide’s grain. It’s thick, full-grain leather that wears well and needs minimum maintenance. Rough-out leather also provides exceptional support and durability. The matte finish and textured surface of a rough-out give a more rugged, distressed appearance to boots. It is an excellent choice for individuals that pursue outdoor activities or work in construction industries.

Oil-tanned leather or pull-up leather is imbued with oil or waxes. When the leather is stretched or pulled, the color migrates and becomes lighter in the pulled areas. Therefore the term “pull-up” refers to the change in color. Although leather tends to leave a history of marks and patterns on the surface, light scratches, scuffs and scrapes are absorbed or can be softly buffed away.

Suede leather uses the underside or flesh side of the hide’s grain like rough-out, but the skin is buffed and sanded to a soft nap. Because suede is unfinished leather and highly porous, it is prone to absorbing stains and water. Suede’s nappy surface and velvety appearance make it the favored leather for casual boots.

Nubuck is full-grain leather with a buffed surface that results in a fine gauge nap on the grain side (top surface) of the leather. The buffing of the grain-side leaves a velvety, plush surface. The appearance of nubuck is very similar to that of suede, but due to nubuck’s creation from the grain side of the hide, it has a strength, thickness and finer grain than suede.

The boot-making process begins when a highly trained leather cutter carefully lays out the cutting dies on a hide. The cut leather pieces are sewn together by hand or machine to form the upper boot. Next, the sewn-together boot is molded over a last to give each boot its distinct shape and the toe its form. (A boot last is the solid form on which a boot is molded. The boot last must represent the anatomical measurement of the foot, while giving the boot the intended design and style features.) Then, the welting process involves attaching the outsole to the upper.

Welting is a strip of leather sewn around the boot upper to which the sole is attached. There are various methods of attaching the boot sole to the upper, but the basic methods deployed in boot construction are cementing, Blake welting, and Goodyear welting. Each method has its strengths and weakness.

The cement method is the least expensive, quickest and most common method for attaching the sole to the boot upper. In the cement method, the upper is shaped around the boot last, and the sole is attached with adhesive. No welting is involved in the cement method.

Pros:

  • Inexpensive, yet an ultra-quick way to attach the sole
  • Makes the overall cost of a boot competitive
  • Great method for attaching rubber soles to casual shoes and boots

Cons:

  • Will weaken the durability of the seal around the boot upper and sole
  • Boots cannot be resoled.

The Blake Method is the most common and the simplest of the two primary methods of welting. A byproduct of the Industrial Revolution, the sole is attached to the upper by stitching done from a machine. The upper is wrapped around the insole and between the outsole. Stitching attaches the upper, insole and outsole.

Pros:

  • A simpler method than a Goodyear welt and less expensive
  • Boot can be resoled once the outsole is worn or damaged.
  • Fewer layers involved in the welting construction makes the Blake method more flexible.

Cons:

  • Although a Blake welt can be resoled, a special machine is required, and the cost to resole can be expensive.
  • Fewer layers to construct the Blake welt make it less water resistant.
  • Interior stitching may irritate feet for an uncomfortable fit.

The Goodyear Method is the oldest, but most durable method of construction. The Goodyear welt is constructed in multiple steps by hand or machine. The first step is to prepare the insole for stitching. A channel is created to run alongside the insole. A craftsman creates the channel by cutting and sculpting the insole. In step two of the process, the upper is stretched and molded over the last and stitched to the insole. The third and final step of the process is the actual welting.

A thick thread is sewn through the welt, the upper and the insole channel. Another stitching is sewn through the welt and outsole. Both stitchings use a lockstitch to prevent unraveling.

Pros:

  • Two-tier stitching makes it very simple to resole.
  • Extra layers make the sole more water resistant and durable.

Cons:

  • Additional layers and the labor-intensive process make the Goodyear welt sole more expensive.
  • Additional layers increase durability but decrease flexibility.

Boots have become a classic footwear obsession with good reason. From workweek to weekend or from workshop to boardroom, boots can complete a look and be appropriate for almost any occasion. Although a full-grain, welt-soled boot may cost a tad bit more, one can’t deny the benefits. These boots have durability, breathability and versatility constructed in every stitch. Much like an investment, full-grain, welt-soled boots are worth the initial purchase price.

If you want to add a pair of boots to your daily footwear rotation, expect great things from your boots when a little extra attention to detail is constructed into the design.
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Wardrobe and style consultant Roxy L. Rowton ([email protected]) spends much of her workweek in the closet or the fitting room helping women look and feel their best. She has two-plus decades in the fashion, apparel and beauty industries.

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