A Close-up Look at Stitchin’

I grew up in an age of magical machines…remote controls, microwaves, fax machines and handheld computers. A world where a person can cook a frozen lasagna in 7 minutes, send a picture over a phone line, and stitch a 10-row boot top in 3 minutes flat.

I grew up in California, looking at factory-made boots, mostly Justins and Tony Lamas. Someone once told me that you can tell the quality of a boot by how many rows of stitching it had on its top, but I didn’t believe them…’cuz if you had an automatic stitching machine, then one row is just the same as ten, right?

Well, I now understand there are a lot of differences between factory boots and those that are custom-made —only one of which is the top stitching. Here’s what I know now about stitching…

One row at a time

Top stitching on a custom boot is done with a machine, but it’s done using a single-needle sewing machine, and it’s done one row at a time. There is a person, a craftsperson, who is guides the leather through the machine and lines up the rows right next to each other, about 1/32 of an inch apart. It’s hard work, and it can take years of practice to get it right.

Stitching and inlay

Next time you admire an inlaid boot, try and notice the stitching that holds it all in place. When space allows, many of the best bootmakers will put 2 rows of stitching around an inlay or overlay pattern. Now that I am learning bootmaking, and practicing top stitching, it amazes me that someone can follow those tight curves and cut-outs…it’s like looking at a spot where lightning’s struck twice.

Artful design

Although some might think of a stitched boot as plain– stitching has an element of movement that is rarely seen in inlaid boots. The best stitch patterns can fill the space of a boot top and keep your eye travelling indefinitely along the pattern’s curves and points.

Original and historical designs

Stitch patterns can be as beautiful and expressive as inlay. Some stitch patterns were invented long ago, and have been adapted over the years. Other patterns were doodled into existence while someone was talking on the phone. Some bootmakers (now deceased) who are still remembered for their stitchwork are Mr. Willie Lusk, credited for the “inverted flame stitch” and Mr. Ray Jones, who invented a kind of crazy modern stitch (now carried on by his apprentice, Pablo Jass). (Click here for a close-up photo of the toe.)

Signature stitches

Some stitching provides a clue to its maker…if you know where to look. Many times near the sole of the boot, there is a short row or two of stitching on the side, which holds the reinforcing leather or “fenders” in place (a). Also look for the “toebug” or “toe flower” (b). Toe bugs are the fancy stitching or medallions that dress up a boot toe. Often bootmakers will choose one design and stick with it throughout their career. It acts as a signature and can identify the boot to others even without the wearer liftin’ their cuff.

And finally…

Stitching provides both strength and beauty to a boot top. By looking close up, past the distractions of the eye-catching inlays…good stitchwork allows a wearer to stop for awhile and truly appreciate those things that go into a quality boot: good leather, strong thread, careful craftsmanship and a classic form.

Custom made, vintage and popular cowboy boot brands. Advice from author & expert, Jennifer June (& others) about buying cowboy boots online.

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