The hides are then rolled, stretched, dried, and finished. “There are different characteristics that you impart when you finish, which is the second stage. That’s when we color and texturize the leather. The color is one element. The surface finish, you can make it very shiny and finished, or you can make it very natural and oily, which is more of what of we do. Our boots have a more natural, rugged characteristic than other brands.”
The next major step is cutting the leather, a portion of the process loaded with complexities. “You have to cut different parts of the shoe from different parts of the hide because of the grain and the natural variations in the leather,” said Murphy. “If you cut the toe box from the belly, it won’t fit right because the belly is flexible. You need to cut that from the stiffest, most heavy duty part of the hide. You can cut the tongue of the boot from softer material. It takes probably three years before a cutter is able to cut both with exceptional quality and efficiency. Because you don’t want to throw away any leather you don’t have to.
“Imagine fitting all these different pieces together. Imagine taking a roll of cookie dough and six different shape cookie cutters and trying to maximize the amount of cookies that you get. And by the way, they have to be a certain number of this kind of cookie and a certain number of that kind of cookie and a certain number of this kind of cookie. And, the dough is different at the top of the dough and the bottom of the dough. These guys are working algorithms in their head as how to maximize yield.”
You might think that every shoe company approaches their product the same way, but you would be wrong. While Red Wing Shoes goes out of its way to maximize the amount of usable leather in each hide, they refuse to use the smaller, weaker pieces of leather scrap that are incorporated into other company’s shoes. “In China, they use lots of little pieces and throw away 10% of their leather,” said Murphy. Red Wing on the other hand is much more selective, using only 70% of the leather. “It’s expensive, but it’s a better boot.”
After the pieces are cut, the shoes are sewn together by hand using the plant’s Puritan Stitch Machines. These industrial sewing machines were first manufactured in 1893 and are no longer in production today, so Red Wing Shoes employs a staff to maintain and repair the machines. Individual machines have been in use at the factory for 50 years or longer. The machines lend the shoes their trademark triple stitching and are a key part of the Red Wing Shoe quality.
The only way they’ve found to cut and fit all these pieces together at the level of quality demanded is to use minimal automation, said Murphy. “We use sewing machines and we use powered stampers, but it’s really done by hand. We try to automate where we can, but we will never compromise the quality or the performance of our footwear even if there’s a little bit of a shortcut. We really take pride in what we end up with.”
The focus on quality is working for Red Wing Shoes. The company is on pace to have a record year in 2014 and has added 200 employees in the last six months. If history is any guide, many of the employees will be with the company for a long, long time. Red Wing Shoes employs one out of every ten people in Red Wing and the average tenure in the factory is 18 years. One employee recently reached her 50th anniversary with the company.
Unsurprisingly, another craft-focused business has recognized Red Wing Shoes with a product named in its honor. The Red Wing Brewery has a flagship brew called Work Boot Red.
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