Traditional cowboy boots have narrow toes, high heels that slope under the
foot, and leather tops that reach halfway up the shins. Designed for men
who spent virtually their entire day in the saddle, cowboy boots are
notoriously uncomfortable to walk in, and though adjustments have been
made over the years, the boots remain unsuited for almost any work a
cowboy or a rancher has to do on foot. Cowboy boots have also led a long
double life as fashion accessories, beginning in the early 20th century,
when Western life and work done on the open range were first mythologized
in movies. Most cowboy boots that are manufactured now are not sold to
people who will ever wear them on a horse, and the boots are valued more
for the image they have acquired than the work they were originally
intended to do.
In the 19th century, Anglo-Americans moving into the Southwest found
people of Spanish descent already working the cattle that roamed the West
Texas plains. Branding cattle and the practice of roping them from
horseback were originally developed in Mexico, as was the basic design of
what we now call the Western saddle. Though American settlers adopted many
of their tools and methods, the Mexican
wore short, flat boots that were not well suited to the demands of their
profession. Cowboy boots are direct descendants of the Northern European
riding boot, and they may be the only contribution these settlers made to
the essentially Spanish tradition of working cattle from horseback.
The Northern European riding boot was adapted for use on the range by
German bootmakers who settled in Texas during the second half of the 19th
century. The original German bootmakers designed a boot to meet the
requirements of working in stirrups. Narrow toes made it easier for
horsemen to put their feet in and out of stirrups while mounting and
dismounting, and the high heel prevented the foot from slipping all the
way through the stirrup and getting caught there. A foot caught in a
stirrup could be especially dangerous if a cowboy were thrown out on the
range, where he could be dragged for miles by a running horse. The length
of the leather tops reduced chafing from stirrup leathers, and the boots
also had high, reinforced arches, designed to make standing in the
stirrups less strenuous. All of these features make the boots difficult to
wear while working on the ground; they are particularly hard to run in,
and when not on horseback many cowboys and ranchers today wear sneakers or
a boot called a
with a round toe, a low heel, and a softer, more flexible sole.
Modern bootmakers divide into two categories: custom shops, where boots
are made individually and much of the work is done by hand, and fully
automated factories. The large industrialized companies, such as Tony Lama
and Justin Industries, were originally family businesses that developed
from smaller shops. The custom shops that remain in operation are often
staffed by family members, and there the craftsmen are traditionally
divided into "top men" and "bottom men." The
former group cut, decorate, and assemble the
The most widely used material for cowboy boots is calfskin, which is
both easier to work with and more durable than cowhide. They are also
made from pigskin, horsehide, and kangaroo skin.
upper parts of the boot, and the latter group shape the heels and soles.
Top men are largely responsible for how a boot looks and bottom men for
how comfortable it is to wear. Texas still remains the center for the
manufacture of cowboy boots. Though a factory such as Tony Lama's
in El Paso may produce thousands of pairs a week and a custom shop such as
Charlie Dunn's in Austin may produce only few, the basic steps are
The most widely used material for cowboy boots is calfskin, which is both
easier to work with and more durable than cowhide. Most calfskins used in
bootmaking actually come from Europe rather than the U.S., as few
Americans eat veal and the skins of European calves are less likely to be
scarred by brands or
In the 1990s, however, changing eating habits have brought on a worldwide
shortage of leather: fewer people are eating beef and so fewer cattle are
being raised to any age. Though calfskin is the most common material,
cowboy boots are also made from pigskin, horsehide, and kangaroo skin. For
dress boots, bootmakers use a variety of exotic leathers including the
skins of armadillos, ostriches, sharks, alligators, eels, lizards, and
large snakes such as pythons.
Cutting out the pieces
1 Once the leather has been selected, the process of making the top part
of the boot begins by cutting out the individual pieces. This might be
done by hand in custom shops, but in factories it is done by metal dies,
which work like cookie cutters. The top of a boot consists of three
parts: the part that covers the top of the foot, the part that encloses
the back of the heel, and the part that fits around the bottom of the
shins. These are called, respectively, the
The vamp is like the top and sides of an ordinary man's shoe,
but it is one piece instead of several, without lace holes and a
separate tongue. The counter covers what the vamp does not. The uppers
are cut in two pieces, one for the front and one for the back, designed
to join each other at the sides. At this stage, the lining for the
inside of each of these pieces is cut out and then glued into place. The
lining is particularly important for boots made of fragile skins such as
snake or eel, for the leather backing will provide most of the strength.
Decorating the pieces
2 If the boot is to have any kind of stitched decoration—whether
pattern, or an elaborate picture such as a yellow rose, an oil derrick,
or the state of Texas—this is done before the pieces are
assembled. In custom shops, the design is sketched on a paper pattern or
stencil and then outlined with a series of small holes. This stencil is
laid over each piece and then sprinkled with a marking agent such as
white powder, so the design can be followed by someone operating a
sewing machine. Factories tend to use computerized sewing machines for
this task, with preprogrammed designs, so marking the leather
isn't necessary. Any additional colors the design requires are
dyed into the leather at this stage.
Assembling the top of the boot
3 The boot is initially assembled in two halves, front and back. The
vamp, the part that covers the top and sides of the foot, is sewn to the
front upper; the counter, the part that covers the heel, is sewn to the
back upper. Excess leather around the stitching is then trimmed off. A
long strip of leather called the
is then attached to the back of the counter and left hanging there. The
welt will be used at a later stage to attach the top of the boot to the
4 The front and back halves of the boot are then glued and sewn
together. These seams are made first on the inside, so the boot
initially takes shape inside out, like a shirt. Leather is, however,
harder to work than cotton, and once the seams are made the top of the
boot must be soaked in water until the leather is flexible enough to be
turned right outside out again. At the end of this stage, the top part
of the boot is complete; in a custom shop, the work of a top man would
now be done.
Attaching the insole
5 The first step in building the bottom of the boot is attaching the
insole to the vamp and the counter. The
in any shoe or boot, is the part you see when looking down inside it;
it often bears the imprint of the maker's name. A key component
in this part of the process is the last. The
is basically a model of a foot—an anatomically accurate version
of a shoetree—which is left inside the boot during the rest of
the manufacturing process. In a factory, lasts are standard sizes and
generally made of molded plastic. In custom shops, they are made of
hardwood and adjusted to the precise shape of an individual's
foot. The workshop of these bootmakers may contain
thousands of lasts, hanging from the walls and ceilings, available for
the customers they expect to reorder.
6 The insole is first tacked to the last. Then the vamp and the counter
are nailed over the insole into the last—first in front, at the
toe, and then working around on both sides towards the back. At this
point, a stiff piece of leather is inserted at the front of the vamp to
reinforce the boot at the toe. The welt, which has been hanging on the
back of the counter since the top was first made, is then sewn onto the
vamp and the insole. The boot is now almost complete, lacking only a
heel and a sole.
Assembling the sole
7 Because the welt now binds together the insole, the vamp, and the
counter, the nails that tacked the leather to the last are no longer
necessary. The nails are removed, but the last remains inside the boot
until it is finished. A metal shank is then attached to the insole, to
reinforce the high arch; it is held in place by a piece of leather. The
sole is shaped to fit the insole and then stitched to the welt. The heel
is then nailed on, and then both the heel and the sole are shaped by
8 The finishing process gives the boot its final appearance. The last is
removed and a boot tree is used to make fine adjustments in the shape of
the boot. Seams are trimmed and stray threads cut short. Final dyes are
applied, if necessary, and then the boot is waxed and polished. The
boots are checked for quality at this stage, though the standards of
quality control vary between factories and custom shops. In a custom
shop, how the boot fits an individual customer will distinguish an
approved product from one that may need to be reworked or rejected. But
with both kinds of manufacturing, the number of stitches per inch is
important, as is the quality of the leather, and the strength of the
The manufacture and marketing of cowboy boots, like western wear in
general, experienced dramatic cyclical changes in the 1980s and 1990s.
Most bootmakers still remember the consequences of one boom-and-bust
period in western wear, the socalled "urban cowboy" fad of
the early 1980s, when many companies expanded their production capacity
only to see demand plummet. One manufacturer, Justin
Industries in Fort Worth, Texas, was only saved from bankruptcy by its
investments in other sectors of the economy. Another growth cycle in
fashion sales of cowboy boots began at the end of that decade, with
actors, rock stars, and fashion models wearing them, as well as
politicians and businessmen. Though slower, growth in this cycle lasted
longer. In the mid-1990s, some retailers and manufacturers speculated that
demand for cowboy boots had peaked, but others saw prospects for growth in
the increasing popularity of country music.
Some industry observers feel that new marketing strategies can guarantee
continued growth in the sales of cowboy boots, but these cycles may also
be what characterizes the new life of this particular commodity. In a
world where few people work on horseback anymore, where even most of a
typical rancher's day is no longer spent in the saddle, cowboy
boots are now largely a fashion item.
Where To Learn More
DeLano, Sharon and David Rieff.
Viking Press, 1981.
The Cowboy Life.
Simon and Schuster, 1993.
Holly, Susan. "A Country Twist: Business Profiting from Country
March 1993, pp. 8-13.
McKay, Deidre. "Western Bootmakers Vigorously Scratch Their
July 10, 1994, p. 10.
Sheehy, Sandy Granville. "Boots to Live and Die In."
Town and Country Monthly,
March 1994, p. 10.
Thomas, Les. "These Boots Are Made for Texas."
December 1994, p. 40.