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Interviews

Lisa Sorrell (I)

November 24, 2013

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How did your story begin and where did you learn to make cowboy boots?

My story really began at age 12 when my mother taught me to sew. By age the age of 15 I was sewing clothing professionally. I found boot making by answering an ad in the newspaper for someone to “stitch boot tops.” I had no idea what that meant but because of my sewing background I applied for the job and got it.

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What is so particular about the cowboy boots from shoemaking technique point of view?

Cowboy boots are distinct because of the artistic canvas the boot top provides. Flowers, leaves, and butterflies were traditional themes for cowboy boots and I look to this history for inspiration. I tell my clients that cowboy boots are a way for men to wear high heels and bright colors! The way the boots are patterned and the intricacies of creating inlay and overlay is unique to cowboy boot making. After the tops are completed the construction is very similar to shoemaking. l enjoy visiting shoemakers in Europe and seeing how the construction of cowboy boots compares to shoemaking–where it’s the same and where it’s different. I can trace my boot making history back to an old German shoemaker named Gus Blucher so it’s the German methods that interest me most and where I see the greatest similarities.

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What are the key elements of a good cowboy boot?

Fit is the most important element. Looking good isn’t any fun if your feet hurt! There are three things in my opinion that define a cowboy boot and distinguish it from other footwear:

1) It should have a boot top that, even if it’s not colorful and intricate, should have an attractive and subtle decoration.

2)The shank area of the boot should be rounded, not flat.

3)The heel should be higher than a normal shoe heel and be slanted under. My typical boot heel is 1 3/4” (44 mm). Contrary to popular myth there’s no real function for the high heel, its only purpose is to make the wearer look good. One time someone came into my old master Jay Griffith‘s shop. They wanted to show off how much they knew about cowboy boots so they began telling Jay about how the high heel on a cowboy boot was for bulldogging cattle or some other such nonsense. Jay practically chased them out of the shop yelling, “The high heel is to look purty! And that’s spelled P-U-R-TY, PURTY!!!

What I found interesting is that your boots have such very beautiful names. What is the story of “Kawliga” and “A Satisfied Mind”?

I enjoy listening to music as I work and I prefer classic country and bluegrass. As a way to honor the inspiration the music brings I began naming my boots after bluegrass and classic country song titles.

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The “Kawliga” boot was inspired by a vintage boot with an Indian head inlaid into the boot tops. It’s become a popular motif but it’s somewhat politically incorrect. I decided to name it after the song “Kawliga”, also politically incorrect but revered within country music tradition because it was written and originally performed by Hank Williams, a legendary figure in American country music.

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The title “A Satisfied Mind” was inspired more by the client than the boot. The song is about a man who realizes money is useless if one isn’t happy. This client was a wealthy man, but he also had a business doing something he loved and he had a beautiful family. He had made the decision to be fulfilled and satisfied; I admired that.

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In 2010 you won a gold metal for “If We Make It Through December”  Lisa Sorrell boots in the very exclusive international competition, “Inter-Schuh Services (ISS 2010),” hosted by the Central Association of German Shoemakers. What is the story of “If We Make It Through December”? 

That was my first year to enter the competition and my very first time to visit Europe. I made the boots during a slow period in my business; I was working hard but had very little to show for it. The song “If We Make It Through December” is about a man who’s unable to afford Christmas presents for his children but he’s sure that things will change. When I designed the boots I chose the theme of butterflies and flowers in Spring but I used the subtle and gloomy colors of Winter.

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It was my way of acknowledging the reality of my life but choosing to believe it would get better. Winning a gold medal at that competition felt like a validation for me. Here in the US there’s no required schooling for becoming a boot or shoe maker, no guild system, and no formal way to judge the progress of one’s work. I was very intimidated at the thought of comparing my work to shoemakers from places with recognized standards for their work. I visit shoemakers and ask questions, and enter competitions whenever I have the opportunity. The only way to improve is to continually learn and grow.

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Where do you find inspiration for the models?

Almost all of my designs are directly inspired by vintage boots and even my original designs stay true to those styles for the most part. Occasionally though, I’ll design a boot with a Native American theme. One of my boots has a Native American headdress on the tops and it’s named “Cherokee Fiddle” There’s a line in that song about how Indians dress like cowboys and cowboys wear leather and turquoise. This melding of two cultures that were once so opposed interests me and I like to refer to it with my designs.

What memories do you have of your first order?

My very first boot order was placed by the husband of my first grade teacher. I had to make them twice because I scratched them quite badly when they were almost completed. American cowboy boot makers use electric finishers with sanding wheels to shape soles and heels, unlike European shoemakers who typically shape and finish everything by hand. Learning to use the finisher can be a scary challenge for a beginner. I was doing some final shaping on the heel and my master walked up behind me and spoke to me. It startled me and I jumped, which shoved the heel area of the boot into the sanding wheel. It was very sad.

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What is the most popular  Lisa Sorrell model and what is your favorite boot ever?

My most popular design is “My Elusive Dreams” My first mentor, Jay Griffith, was a grumpy old alcoholic who could design the most beautiful patterns. I’ve adapted the design to fit my own personality but the basic structure and inspiration is his. My typical client is male, and he often owns a company (or several), has a home in the American West, and collects Western art. This boot is popular with that client because it’s elegant without being feminine and it allows for several color choices without being too extreme. I like the design because it reminds me of Jay. Choosing my favorite boot would be like choosing my favorite child – I love them all! When I’m asked which boot is my favorite I always say “the next one.”

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Tell me more about the materials used for your boots…

The boot tops are exclusively kangaroo leather. Finding good-quality kangaroo leather in the US is a challenge and I’m always hunting for sources for kangaroo in a wide range of colors. My dream is to find a tannery that will send me their leftover colors at the end of every season; I don’t need large quantities and I don’t often require a specific shade but I do need a large color selection. For the foot of the boot I usually work with Ostrich, American Alligator or Nile Crocodile. American Alligator is my absolute favorite leather!

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My insoles are from Baker Leather in England and I recently became the exclusive dealer for Baker Leather here in the US. Finding good-quality insoles here had become almost impossible. When I realized that all of the other boot makers were frustrated about it also I decided that someone needed to begin importing it and making it available in the US. I use both Baker outsoles and German Rendenbach outsoles. I use a metal shank in my boots. A strong shank is very important in a cowboy boot because of the high heel. Other than that, the only other metal in my boots are the nails holding on the rubber heel cap. The soles and heels are fully pegged with small wooden pegs, which is the traditional construction for cowboy boots.

To be continued…