Interview – Lisa Sorell

There are some people in this industry I admire for their precise, talented work. Lisa is one of them. I met her work first when I joined to a western boot forum. Her work was just outstanding. I don’t mean that there are no bookmakers beside her – there are some, but she is very special. You can tell her work in a second. I don’t think that anyone else work that meticulously on the upper, than she does. I spent a week in her workshop this summer, teaching a course, and besides instructing some apprentices, I had a chance to watch her work – that time I decided to make this interview, which I finished recently.

– Please tell about yourself – how did you learn bootmaking? How did you start this?
I found boot making by answering an ad placed in the local newspaper looking for someone to “stitch boot tops.” I had no idea what that was and I’d never worn cowboy boots. The reason I noticed the ad was because I could sew. My mother began teaching me to sew clothing when I was 12 and by 15 I was sewing clothing professionally. The ad was placed by Jay Griffith, an alcoholic old cowboy boot maker who was given to screaming cussing fits when he got mad or ran out of vodka. I’d never been around anyone who cussed or drank so it was all new to me. I fell in love with boot making immediately and quickly made up my mind to learn the craft.
– Didn’t you find it hard to make boots? I mean you are a lady… I am sure you got this question a lot, it’s just not so usual to find ladies in this craft, isn’t it?
I really never felt boot making was more difficult for me than anyone else. I had to build up some muscles when I first started but I assume most people would also have to do the same. Being short was a pain but that was only because my master was over 6 feet tall and I’m not much more than 5 feet tall. all of his benches were too high for me and I had to carry a stool with me as I worked around the shop. When I first started people would always come into my shop or my booth at a show and talk to any male who happened to be there instead of me. As I gained knowledge and confidence that stopped being a problem.

– Are you the only independent female bootmaker in the States?

There are a few other independent female boot makers in the States. The first women boot maker to open her own shop was Deanna McGuffin in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She opened her shop in the mid 80’s, and I remember Jay (my first master) showing me a magazine article about her in around 1990. That’s when I truly realized that I could be a boot maker and have my own shop too.

– Where is the western bootmaking tradition coming from?

Western boot making definitely has its roots deep in the tradition of European shoemaking. I’ve only just started traveling to visit shoemakers and begin learning about their craft. Every time I visit a shoemaker or see examples of their processes I learn more about cowboy boots–where the techniques came from, why they’re the same, where the techniques have altered, and why.

– I have the impression that classic bootmaking is a small, not so competitive market. Is that true?

I like to say that there are more buyers than boot makers. Each boot maker has their own unique style which appeals to different buyers. I never allow people to say “your competition” to me, I always correct them with “my fellow boot makers.” The trade is small enough that we need to support and encourage each other.
– What is the best thing for you in bootmaking?
My favorite part of boot making is inseaming. I enjoy the physicality of it and the quiet repetition of the work. When it’s done well it’s beautiful and the satisfaction is a personal thing, because it’s covered up and no one ever sees it.
– How long it takes to learn bootmaking and what is the best way for a beginner?
There is NO substitute for hands-on learning with an experienced boot maker. I teach both two and four week classes but that’s just enough to get a student started. The more time a student can spend in a shop with a maker the better. I was extremely fortunate to be able to spend a year and a half with Jay Griffith and a year and a half with Ray Dorwart. Even after that there were days in my own shop when I wondered, “OK, what’s the next step?” I had an old boot maker tell me once that I wouldn’t know what I was doing until I’d made 500 pairs of boots, and he was right.

– Is there anything that do you want to learn, improve?

I’ve been doing this long enough that I’m working on refining every step of my work. Starting out and learning the entire process was easier. Now, to get better at each step of the way…it’s a vast journey and I love the security of knowing I’ll never master it all, there will always be something to learn. My 15 year old daughter makes ladies’ shoes and I occasionally am attracted to that. It doesn’t call to me like boot making does but it’s a fun distraction. I would love to be able to take the time to learn pattern making and grading for shoes. When I sewed clothing my specialty was grading patterns to any desired size and I enjoyed that part of it the most.
– What will be the next amazing Sorell boot?
All of my boots are commissioned and I rarely ever have the opportunity to make the boots I want to make. I’m dependent on what the client orders. I always have visions of boots in my head that I’d like to be making. If I have time I’m going to make a boot with 10 rows of stitching on the tops and foot for the International Shoemaking Days in Wiesbaden, Germany.
– What is your plan about this craft? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In ten years I’d like to have authored several books about boots and boot making, and be speaking and teaching on the topic of the American cowboy boot.
– What would be your message for the next generations of bootmakers?
Apprentice with a successful boot maker. Don’t assume you can watch a video and master this craft. The more time you can spend with a master or masters, the better you’ll be.Learn marketing. Go into the craft mindfully–think about who your clients are, who you want them to be, and how you can reach your intended market.– How do you see the future of the handcrafts, especially shoe- and bootmaking?
I personally think bespoke shoes and boots are, and will become, a luxury product. Our materials have become more expensive, and our time has also if we wish to actually making a living being shoemakers. At the same time, the price of a factory shoe has become less and less. The average consumer doesn’t expect to spend much money on footwear and doesn’t know or care that their shoes are plastic trash.– What do you think we can do more to preserve these traditions?
Education is the answer. People have to be taught the value of craft and bespoke footwear. We cannot be a grumpy, dirty old hermit and expect people to find us and order shoes. We have to be articulate about the value of our work and make our trade and our craft visible and attractive.– Do you have some interesting stories from your career you want to share? 

One of my favorite experiences is the story behind my “Cherokee Fiddle” boots. Several years ago I was reading an issue of “Cowboys and Indians.” There was an article in the magazine about the man who owns Belgium’s only western store. His email address was at the end of the piece so I wrote to him to say I enjoyed the article, and invited him to visit my shop if he were ever in Oklahoma. Two weeks later he walked into my shop.  As it turned out, he owned a large collection of Native American regalia. The collection was on display at a museum in Brussels, and he gave me a museum booklet about the exhibit. There was a beautiful headdress on the cover. I sat the booklet on a shelf above my work bench and it kept whispering to me, “Make me a boot top. Make me a boot top.” One day I sat down and drew a design featuring a Native American headdress. I made the boots and entered them into a competition in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where they won first place in the Leather category. I emailed him again with the news, and he came back to Oklahoma and ordered a pair of boots with that design for himself.


Lisa Sorrell Custom Boots

I illustrated this interview with her boots. They should be on shelves not on the dirty ground shouldn’t they?

11 thoughts on “Interview – Lisa Sorell

  1. Lisa is a fellow Oklahoman. I heard of her bootmaking several years ago when I took my first shoe workshop in Massachusetts.
    I cannot imagine a more delightful boot than Lisa’s.

  2. What a treat – thanks, Marcell. There are other bootmakers indeed but Lisa’s got her own special, curvaceous, graceful style and wholly admirable skill…a beginning bootmaker can only be awed and inspired by seeing her work.

  3. A very fine interview and gorgeous boots. And, no they shouldn’t be on a shelf, they should be on my feet! Best regards.

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