Down East 2013 ©
Excerpted from Guaranteed to Last by Jim Gorman, Melcher Media, New York, New York; hardcover; 224 pages; $19.12
Image Courtesy of L.L.Bean
In a sequence of practiced motions that takes but forty-five seconds to perform, Brenda Smith re-creates the origin of L.L.Bean — hundreds of times each day. As she first pushes, turns, and then pulls toward her an unfinished boot, her triple-needled Puritan “vamping” machine lays down three neat rows of waxed cotton thread that marry leather top to brown or tan rubber bottom.
Smith’s margin for error as she free-hands the seam is no greater than an eighth of an inch on either side. So assured is her handiwork that she jokes around with Matt Elwell to her left, who hands her boot halves he has just stuck together after Nora Elwell applied a thin strip of glue to the rubber bottoms. There is economy and precision in Matt’s and Nora’s movements, too. Work like theirs was once plentiful in Maine — shoemaking was the largest source of manufacturing jobs in the state until the industry collapsed in the mid-1980s.
That tradition of Maine leathercraft lives on in the making of the Maine Hunting Shoe and the closely related Bean Boot in Bean’s Brunswick factory. It’s a commitment L.L.Bean has made to its employees, its customers, and its home state. The notion of making the Maine Hunting Shoe anywhere but Maine is inconceivable. And yet a funny thing happened from doing the right thing: the Maine Hunting Shoe is proving that American manufacturing can be competitive in a global market.
By streamlining the manufacturing process and getting every employee committed to total quality, the factory now makes boots better, faster, and cheaper than ever before. Defects, a big subtraction right off the bottom line, are down 90 percent. Volume is up: the factory will churn out more than three hundred thousand pairs of Maine Hunting Shoes and Bean boots in 2011, compared to 219,000 in 1982, at the height of the preppy fashion boom.
It’s a long way from the cramped cellar beneath L.L.’s clothing shop, where the Maine Hunting Shoe was first cobbled in 1912, to the light-filled, high-ceilinged manufacturing facility in Brunswick. A high-capacity ventilation system whisks away the faintest whiff of glues and solvents; group stretching sessions on the factory floor every few hours break up the workers’ day and help prevent repetitive stress injuries. The boot at the center of all this attention hasn’t exactly stood still for one hundred years while the world revolved around it. It’s been updated in big ways and small to keep pace with technological advances and remain a step ahead of its many “duck boot” imitators.
The substantive changes to the boot aren’t things you see. But stick your feet inside and walk around outdoors on a cold, wet day and you will notice the difference. Which was the point of the boot’s most recent retrofit in 1999: retain the boot’s outward appearance while overhauling its inner workings. A narrowed heel cup yields a better fit and eliminates the boot’s former tendency to suck socks down into a clump; improvements to the arch lend lateral support; the leather upper is softer now and completely waterproof due to a new tanning process; and a new synthetic integrated liner minimizes the buildup of sweat.
A number of the changes to the boot came at customers’ suggestion, like stronger laces and the brush guard, a small rim of rubber that nestles up against the leather upper. The guard prevents small sticks from sneaking in between the leather and rubber, which a number of customers had complained about.
By far the biggest performance-related upgrade was to the boot bottom. Previously vulcanized, in a process involving compression- molding rubber onto a form using heat and pressure, the bottom is now injection-molded.
The old version of the boot bottom was prone to cracking and splitting long before the tread wore out, says Jack Samson. The new bottom is lighter, more slip-resistant, warmer, and substantially more abrasion-resistant, according to the technicians in L.L.Bean’s test laboratory.
Owners of the boots, like “Bowlman,” a customer from Spokane, Washington, are impressed with the new bottom. “How can you improve a product near perfection already?” he wrote online. “Well, when the time came for a resole of a pair of Bean boots my father got me in the fifties from the original Freeport store, sure enough, they really were better! I’ll always be wearing a pair of them.”
A major plus in changing boot bottoms was Bean’s ability to bring its manufacturing in-house. The vulcanized bottom had been produced in Wisconsin under contract until the late 1990s. Now the thermoplastic soles are made at an L.L.Bean facility in Lewiston, bringing fourteen jobs to the state.
Style-wise, selection in the Maine Hunting Shoe, which had been straightforward for decades — pick tan or brown, and a height between six and sixteen inches — now has exploded into a wide range of options. Customers can choose from a variety of liners (insulated, shearling, Gore-Tex/Thinsulate) and uppers in full-grain bison leather; colorful quilted nylon (women’s only); and navy, green, and blue waxed canvas in the L.L.Bean Signature line, which has brought contemporary twists to classic products and revived a number of discontinued items. An all-black version — black bottom and black canvas upper — debuted in autumn 2011. In all, the Brunswick factory makes fifty-six variations on the Bean Boot-Maine Hunting Shoe, according to Samson.