These Boots Are Made for Walkin’

A tribute to cowboy boots and their time-honored history

Shannon Asher

Store-bought boots are like canned biscuits—they are easily obtainable and will satisfy the customer’s immediate needs. High-quality, handmade boots, however, take a while longer to reach you because they are built like a Winchester ’73 —each one timeless and expertly crafted.

On a recent work trip through Kemo Sabe, I traveled down to El Paso, Texas to learn first-hand how cowboy boots are made. The factory makes Grit boots and was recently acquired by Kemo Sabe, the Galena Street shop and expanding western wear company. The expansion has Kemo Sabe producing its own boots and employs about 20 talented workers who have been in the boot-making business for generations.

From humble beginnings in the 1800s as functional ranching footwear to the glitz and glamor of Aspen, where cowboy boots are standard attire, the cowboy boot is as American as it gets. But few people realize the amount of work and craftsmanship that goes into each pair of boots. Witnessing gifted practitioners of this art in the act of creation, I felt compelled to write about these boot makers and share their unique stories.

“There’s basically 150 steps to make these,” says Diana Farmer, who has been making boots for over 30 years and rules over the Kemo Sabe Grit factory. “It all just depends on the boot. You have all these little intricate steps that the consumer never even gets to see.”

Diana collaborates with Andrew Wilson who is the director for both the hat and boot factory as well as a part-owner. Both boot connoisseurs walked me through the assembly line step-by-step explaining how the boots move through each station.

Trying to frantically keep track of every development at each station, I follow Farmer around and scribble down notes like an eager intern on their first day of work. She takes us to each site and illustrates in detail what’s happening. We are only at the third station, and I am already floored.

The essential operation includes gathering the raw materials (the leather, the soles, the heels, and the findings), cutting out the pieces, decorating the pieces, assembling the top of the boot, attaching the insole, assembling the sole and, finally, the finishing process. Within each of these actions, there are about fifteen other intricate steps that are all done by hand at each station. It’s an elaborate, labor-intensive process.

Most boots are made inside out,” Farmer explains. “You’ve got this front section, and you’ve got this back section that have been created and now they’re going to be sewn together.”

“Any minor change is a huge change in footwear,” Farmer warns as she writes down measurements. “Even though this looks like it’s a tiny change, it does make a difference. Once you get into the boot, it should feel like it’s a comfortably snug tennis shoe on your foot.”

When differentiating between the boots this team makes from mass-produced boots, Wilson says that it’s all in the details. “It’s precision in the cutting and the selection of the quality of leather. It’s the way it’s stitched together. It’s tweaking the patterns on each individual boot for the designs to fit. It’s the details in the way that it’s lasted and the hand-sewing steps.”

Wilson continues, “I think one of the big things that distinguishes what we do from a lot of the other factories is that our workers are all paid by the hour as opposed to by the piece. Most of the other shops are by the piece. If you’re paid by the piece, you’re going to do the bare minimum to pass through quality control because you want to just get it done as fast as you possibly can, but that doesn’t necessarily give you the highest quality, finished product.”

To truly understand a product’s worth, you first have to understand how it’s made. So, next time you’re out shopping for a new pair of boots to complete your full “Aspen look,” stop to think about where they’re created and how they’re created. Just think, would you rather have canned biscuits or homemade biscuits?