The first time I walked into my brother’s custom boot shop, I noticed the row of leather hanging near the wall. Different animals, different colors—I was mesmerized by the possibilities they presented.
Many love the smell of leather, but I never cared for it until I was in a room full of earthly hide. For the first time since my brother opened his business, I was genuinely curious as to how he could take one of those pieces of leather and create a pair of western boots by hand. What I learned was more than how he does it, but why, and that turned out to be the most important part.
Years after my brother, Zephan Parker, apprenticed under some of the most well-known boot makers in Texas, he opened Parker Custom Boots. It was an American dream he never thought was his, but through the process showed me an American past that I was forgetting. I realized it wasn’t a good thing to forget how things used to be done—and how things should still be.
Machines Can’t Beat Trained Hands
Leatherwork is a craft that takes time and patience to learn, as well as the willingness to use your hands constantly. Unlike many business ventures that tend to be a survival of the fittest, the craftsman masters of the western world willingly take in newcomers to the craft. They show them different techniques to stitching the panels, how each curve of the stitch must be perfect—in the kind of way that’s completely imperfect, but because of how a hand guides the leather through the sewing machine, it becomes humanly perfect. Newer craftsmen are taught to create their own patterns, a kind of signature that can be recognized years down the road by other craftsmen. They’re keeping a tradition alive through hard work rather than replacing it with cheaper means.
I saw more than rows of leather when I walked into his shop. I heard a sound that echoed from the past. Vintage machines lined the walls, ticking and rumbling the same way they did decades ago in some other boot maker’s shop in some other part of America. Boot making is an American tradition that requires the hard-working hands of a craftsman, but hands also keep integrity in the process of creating a product.
We live in a world where efficiency comes before quality, and consumerism before value. I don’t believe this is inherently bad, but through the process of understanding the custom boot world, I’ve seen that the less we use our hands to create the more we lose well-made things and the less we are able to give to the future in antiques and heirlooms.
A human hand touches every single part of the custom boot. Taking a customer’s measurements, building the last, designing and stitching the side panels, creating the toe box so the toe doesn’t cave in, sewing on the welt, and many other things are required to create this wearable art.
What’s More American than Work Ethic?
More importantly, these human hands shake the customer’s as he or she walks into the shop. A craftsman’s integrity is in his product, but it’s also in his relationship to other people. By watching my brother interact with people I recognized that to make the right boot for his customer he needs to know who his customer is on a deeper level than the question, “How are you doing today?”
The customer is more than a number walking through the door, and the craftsman is more than a person making something. A relationship is built by conversing about life, values, and family—what a person actually cares about. Both parties to this relationship see the American tradition in the handmade boot and want to hold onto the past in this vastly changing world where American culture and values are being forgotten or distorted.
I looked around my brother’s shop and saw how he maintains history and preserves a good work ethic. It was easy for me to say Zephan worked hard to make boots, but I truly didn’t understand it until I watched a needle and thread pushed and pulled by hand back and forth between the welt and the thick-layered leathers of the boot’s insole, which keeps the boot together.
It made me realize that there’s something about creating with your own hands, working hard to do so, and being able to pass that knowledge down to the next generation that is the essence and integrity of America. I finally began to understand the difference between what is ultimately better and what is easier. I recognized and appreciated the difference between the two—America was founded in hard work, while ease is only possible because of what that hard work gave us.
Generations before us worked hard so their children could have what they didn’t, which gave us the ability to pursue anything we wanted—the American dream. Yet we’ve come upon a generation that takes that for granted and instead of appreciation for the good we’ve been accustomed to the ease of technology, confusing easy for better.
If we are to be American, we must be American by remembering our past and passing it to our children. This is the philosophy of the craftsman: to create well-made products by hand, to pass down a piece of history, and to recognize that there is a better way of doing things.
Handmade western boots are better, not because they have a higher price tag, but because they’re authenticated both by the maker and the American way. We’re constantly surrounded by indulgence; let’s take a second to love what is real, what is American, and what is genuine—like the handcrafted western boot.