What inspired you to become a bootmaker?
It’s always been clear to me that if I ever had passion for a career what I needed was the right mix of creativity and structure, with a reasonable amount of madness. As the only Brooklyn boy that wore boots to school I was reassured that the teenager is quite possibly the most ruthless animal god put on the planet. It was there in James Madison High School’s crowded hallways, following the roar of mocking laughter, that I decided to never wear boots again. It happened just after the football team captain’s loud and piercing crowd-pleaser “Yo Edie! Where’d you park your horse?!?!”
30 years later as an avid traveler working in engineering I frequently went out West. Each trip included a purchase of a brand new cowboy hat. One night in a Houston bar, several whiskeys come and gone, in a beautiful new hat, dressed in my finest suit it was revealed to me by a well-intentioned, intoxicated Texan that everyone knew I was an imposter. He was passing me the following glass of brown liquid, eyeing my nice Italian shoes, saying “There ain’t nothin’ wrong with those, but we all know you’re a tourist.”
Thus, as an adult in the late 2000’s I redeveloped my appreciation for the cowboy boot. In the turbulent years following the deaths of several members of my family, my hope to find a “passion” grew to a bigger, more pressing, existential necessity. My boot collection began to catch up with my hat collection, slowly becoming an obsession, until my wife suggested I try to make a pair myself.
By the time I did my first bookmaking class I was uncontrollably hooked. I became energized with seeing every new step of the making process, every technique, tool, detail. With time, the significance of the cowboy boot, its influence on worldwide fashion, culture and especially its extremely American story has become my strongest advocate for pursuing the craft. I was becoming a bootmaker.
Who were your teachers? What was it like to learn from them?
The first legit bootmaking class I took was with Dave “Hutch” Hutchings in Parker, Colorado. Hutch learned to make boots as a kid, worked in several shops even during his time as a US Marine, had his own shops and taught many students like myself. His familiarity with the craft was substantial, the way he engaged with the tools looked very natural. I found him accepting of how others approach techniques and liked his encouragement to go out there, practice and figure out one’s own favorite way to do a task. Hutch wanted his students to stay in touch, call for advice, send him examples of their further work and I have my own regrets for not keeping contact with him more regularly. On a personal level it was easy to like him, mainly because of his sense of humor, constant wisecracks and a warm approach to people.
I’ve had the fortune and honor to spend time with other gifted bootmakers throughout the country. Jim Brainard, also a student of Hutch’s as well as his workshop mate, has very freely offered me his help, advice and his beautiful shop.
Luis Jovel of Fresno, California, readily shared the tricks of the trade, hosting me at his home, introducing me to 4 generations of his family. Spending time with Bill Niemczyk of Wild Bill’s Custom Boots in his workshop in Granby, Connecticut, is something I try to do whenever the chance arises. His unparalleled attention to detail is almost scary and the innovative approach in all he does is overwhelming. Having him near me in the Northeast is an invitation to hand making decadence and great conversation.
No one however has been more influential in my development as a bootmaker than Lee Miller of Texas Traditions in Austin, Texas. From the day we met Lee has given me access to any and all kinds of knowledge. I’ve truly appreciated his passion in the subject, interest in its history, encyclopedic knowledge of the discipline and his unwavering goal to share what he has so effortfully applied himself to for decades.
In my annual visits to his shop we’ve spent hours dissecting how a last should be fit, working on patterns, understanding why people do things differently, discussing our approach to working through rough days, building heels, welting, so much more. His nurturing approach and devotion to teaching captivates and inspires me to pursue this challenging and slightly crazy discipline. The skill level at which he’s able to carry out a project is often intimidating, but in his presence and with his encouragement the goal often feels realistic. My own ability as a bootmaker is very much a result of my time at Lee’s shop.
What were some of your early struggles and successes as a young bootmaker?
The biggest challenges for me as an East Coast bootmaker have been learning to make boots far from where most boots are made. Some travel, lots of reading and watching videos, many phone conversations and more trial and error than I care to calculate has been my way of life these last several years. Additionally, finding customers has proven to be more difficult here locally than I expected.
What advice would you give to bootmakers just starting out?
If you’re not at least a little bit crazy, don’t do it. Bootmaking has no universal formulas, no standard methods, no “right way” to do everything or anything. With an open mind you’ll get to do more, try more, enjoy failures and ultimately appreciate the successes. And of course, don’t rush… this thing takes time.
What are your hopes and expectations for the future of the craft?
It is a sad and scary proposition that the American handmade boot will someday soon disappear. Fewer and fewer Western bootmakers exist in this country and those that retire or leave us are often not replaced by younger, interested ones. With the relatively recent explosion of the “maker” or “making”, and its resistance to the corporatization of everything, my hope is that our craft will develop a bigger following. I hope to somehow play a part in perpetuating interest in this unmistakably American craft.
Old Bitchin Cat Boots • Edie Kudlis
The Cowboy Bootmakers. Memories and photos collected by Dana Perrotti, 2019.