What inspired you to become an apprentice bootmaker?
I’ve always had a love for art. As a kid, it was drawing. In high school and college, I fell for black and white 35mm photography. And as a 20-ish young woman living in Brooklyn, I really got into sculpting with metal. Melting metal is like witnessing the dawn of the earth, when everything was molten lava swirling about. Beyond thrilling. And yet, the pressure to mold the metal into some form that is new, inspired, original, devine…made me feel lost at sea.
Bootmaking, however, is the one artform that fully aligns my personality with my purpose.
I love the deep traditions of bootmaking, there is no expectation to “reinvent the wheel.” As a young bootmaker, I can reach back into the history of the craft as I begin my journey. This solid foundation of tradition, however, comes at a price. A promise to uphold high standards and strive to make each pair better than the last. I like this never-ending challenge.
Having my own fitting issues, I am motivated to understand the foot and it’s glorious counterpart, the last. I like the investigative nature of carefully recording the feet, and then translating these observations onto the last, which must be pleasing to both feet and eyes.
I like that in bootmaking there are many steps. To make a pair of boots from start to finish, I use different tools, muscles, and parts of my brain. I like that I get to move around the bootshop in what sometimes feels like a choreographed dance. And like the dancer, the bootmaker must move with intention and precision. As the dancer trains by repetition towards refinement, so does the bootmaker.
The process of bespoke tailors and haute couture has always intrigued me, but to be frank, I don’t really give a damn about clothes. Give me a black cotton tank top and some good-fitting Levis (no stretch!), and I’m set. Footwear however…I want it to fit right, I want an elegant toe shape, the perfect color of leather, graceful design, heel height to my liking. I want some really nice custom Western boots, that will only get better with time. And I want to make them myself.
Who are your teachers? What is it like to learn from them?
I have learned everything I know about bootmaking from Lee Miller. Many people I have met in the bootmaking world are quick to say how Lee is one of the best bootmakers around. So as an apprentice, not only am I tasked with learning how to make boots, but how to make boots of the highest quality and reputation.
Lee has devoted his entire life to bootmaking. Even after making boots for so many decades, Lee still has a clear passion for the craft, fueled by curiosity. He is always seeking out answers, looking for ways to make “the best” even better. Sometimes this can be confusing around the shop:
Wait, how are we cutting the angle on the vamps now?
Has anyone seen the new template for the ladies’ upcut pattern?
Should we cut seamline for ¼” or ⅜” under shortheel for this pair?
Well, that last one depends. It depends on the customer’s instep (a high instep should be cut smaller than a low, sloping instep), the leather being used (smooth ostrich stretches more than calf), and if the boots are for a lady or a man (ladies generally have smaller measures, which means less leather, so less overall stretch occurring. Thus, cut more generously.)
From Lee, I am not merely learning steps. I am learning how to approach bootmaking as an intellectual pursuit. How to make observations that will inform the making of the next pair. How to strive to never settle for “the best,” because it can always, always, be better. How to never get bored with bootmaking, even after four decades, because there are always more questions to answer, more observations to analyze, and more ways to continually improve myself and my boots.
How would you describe your experience as an apprentice?
Blood. Sweat. Tears. Three-O’clock break. Repeat.
What is the best bootmaking advice that you have gotten?
“It’s better to fit long and narrow than short and wide.” — Lee Miller
“If you have a passion for this you will succeed.” — Lee Miller
“You just gotta smooooooooooth it out.” — Alan Bell
…Any advice on top design and color combinations from Carrlyn Miller.
How do you plan to perpetuate the craft?
Apprenticing at Texas Traditions, there is an unspoken agreement. The shop was opened, in part, to pass along the craft to future generations through apprenticeships. Charlie passed his knowledge onto Lee, Lee is passing his knowledge onto us…
When I open my shop, I will have apprentices, too. Which is kind of a terrifying thought. How do you effectively teach boot babies, while also maintaining the high standards of work coming out of the shop?
I’ve messed up plenty of stuff in Lee’s shop, most recently the American Straight Needle, but I’ve also:
- Jammed the post machine
- Broke off the tip on Lee’s brand new clicking knife, a few days after he got it
- Cut the holdfast too deep on a pair on insoles, messing up the whole making timeline
- Water stained an ostrich vamp while toeboxing
- Made a number 8 heel way too slung under at the sides
All in just under two years! Teaching is hard, maybe in some ways harder than bootmaking. But that is the deal I’ve entered into. Boot gods, grant me patience, resilience, and an ample stash of whiskey for the end of the most difficult days ahead!
The Cowboy Bootmakers. Memories and photos collected by Dana Perrotti, 2019.