These Boots Are Made For Working

The Allegiance Footwear factory.

Looking back on it now, I think it all started with the goddamned chainsaws.

We don’t have a wood burning stove (although we keep talking about it) so I don’t need a chainsaw very often, but chainsaws are kind of like nosehair trimmers – when you need one, nothing else is going to do the job. Except maybe napalm.

So I’d go out to the garage, dust off the chainsaw, sharpen the chain, add some bar oil and fuel, and the damned thing wouldn’t start. Or, if it did, it would run for about 10 minutes and die. I’d take it back to the garage, take it apart, figure out what the problem was, then go looking for chainsaw parts.

Have you ever tried to find parts for your average chainsaw? Not happening. Eventually I’d get sick of looking, and go down to Lowe’s or Home Depot and buy a new chainsaw. Over a period of 15 years or so, I’ll bet I bought 4 of the damned things. I started thinking of them as one-time-use gadgets. Disposable tools. Might as well pitch it in the trash when you’re done, because it’s not gonna work next time.

Love the door.

Last year I decided I’d gotten sick and tired of the disposable chainsaw routine, so I hit Google and started researching. To make a long story short I ended up buying a Stihl (which you can’t get at Lowe’s or Home Depot because their entire business model is based on selling you garbage) because they’re made in the US, built to last, and they promise you’ll be able to get parts for any model for a minimum of 10 years after you buy it – but that’s not really the point of this post. The point of this post would be that in the process of doing all this research, I learned a lot about Chinese manufacturing techniques.

Sheets of leather, ready for cutting.

See, if you’re a Norte Americano or a European or something, when you think of a factory, you think of a factory as a place where a specific thing gets built. That’s the chainsaw factory. That over there is a furniture factory. That other one is a widget factory. Whatever.

We do it that way (or we used to do it that way) because labor is our biggest expense, so you save money by developing and installing machinery and systems designed to build chainsaws (or whatever) as efficiently as possible. In China, labor is essentially free. You can make up for any inefficiency by throwing more people at it. So in China, they have factories that aren’t specialized at all. They make whatever someone is paying them to make.

It’s kind of like an auction. Some businessman shows up in Shanghai with an order for 3 different models of chainsaw, 20,000 of each. 100 different factory owners bid on each model, sometimes even splitting the orders between a bunch of smaller factories. The whole system is stacked to encourage every factory to cut as many corners as possible, first to keep their bids low and then to shave a little profit.

Mike cutting patterns for boots.

So why can’t you buy parts for that chainsaw you bought last year? Because every model is slightly different, every year they get built by different people in a different place, and the factory where they built your chainsaw is building DVD players now.

Except Stihl chainsaws anyway, as I said. But enough about chainsaws. Let’s talk about boots.

Construction people get just a little bit obsessive about boots. Don’t believe me? Do you know any construction workers? The next time you see him, ask what kind of boot he prefers. Two hours later you’ll be catatonic, but he’ll just be getting wound up on the subject. We spend a lot of time standing and walking, in the mud, on rocks, around oil and fuel and (sometimes literally) shit, and we put a lot of thought into what we put on our feet.

I’d been a loyal fan of Red Wing boots for around 20 years, but I’d really been unhappy with the last few pairs I bought. I couldn’t get a pair that fit right, they didn’t last as long as they used to, and they always seemed to have a bunch of flaws. I discovered that Red Wing farmed out the majority of their manufacturing to China at about the same time that I started getting weird-ass size problems, and combined with my newfound knowledge of Chinese manufacturing techniques a lot of things suddenly started making sense.

Once again, it started with a Google search. “Does anyone make work boots in the United States anymore?”

Not many do, but there are still a few, and it turned out that one of them was less than an hour from my house.

Timberland used to have a little factory in the town of Mountain City, TN. When Timberland sent all the work to China, a couple of employees bought the equipment from the factory, decided to call themselves Allegiance Footwear, and started making boots. More importantly, they started making the kind of boots they wanted to make.

A sewing station at Allegiance.

My most recent pair of Red Wings had decided that they didn’t really want to be waterproof anymore, so I was in the market for boots again, so Vicki and I went to visit the Allegiance factory store back in January. They keep quite a few boots in stock, but they don’t normally make them with steel toes, so I had to place a custom order, but that ended up being pretty cool, just because you can choose every single option. Type of leather, height of the boots, padded collar, steel toed, type of sole, everything. They even asked if I wanted hooks or eyelets for the bootlaces.

But the best part of the whole deal was having the owner measure my feet. Length, width, top to bottom, he even measured my arches. It doesn’t take long to realize that the guys at Allegiance are even more obsessed with good boots, and a good fit, than construction people.

It took about 6 weeks before my boots were ready. All the work, from cutting the leather to sewing the boots, is done right there in Mountain City, but they have to ship them to Wisconsin to glue the soles on, and that adds a few weeks to the wait time. I had planned to have them shipped to me, but as it turned out I was going to be passing through the area a few days after they called, so I was able to stop by and pick them up myself.

Mike in the factory store.

I can’t speak to the durability yet, but I can honestly say they’re the most comfortable boots I’ve ever worn. In fact, when I put them on the first time I thought they had messed up and forgot the steel toes – but they are steel toed. They’re just so well built I couldn’t even feel the caps.

The price impressed the hell out of me, too. A new pair of Red Wings would have run me about $150. My custom, handmade, US-built Allegiance boots cost $165. I’ve always said that if I could get something of good quality, made in the US, I’d gladly pay a little more for it. It was really nice to be able to back that up. If I hadn’t needed a custom pair, they would have been even cheaper.

Allegiance takes orders online or over the phone, but if you can make time to go by the factory store in Mountain City, I highly recommend it. It’s a fascinating experience, and a good opportunity to meet some cool people, who are devoted to doing great work, producing a great product in a great place.

- Ken

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3 comments to These Boots Are Made For Working

  • Mike Higgins

    My son is a tool & die guy at Stihl’s NA headquarters in Virginia Beach, and I can vouch for the obsessiveness of their engineering practices. The company is German, but most of the equipment sold here is made here.

    As for the boots…wonder how they deal with remote orders? Alex (the son who works at Stihl) goes through a set of work boots about every year. A pair from Allegiance might make a great birthday gift for him. It’ll be tough for him to stop by and have his feet measured, though.

    I always try to use local craftsmen when I can. Most of the time, the quality is better, and worth a little extra to get. Best of luck with the new boots!

  • I think I’ll try these boots soon. Quality shoes are getting as difficult as chain saws to find.

    My solution to chainsaws is to rent them. You’re right about the normal chainsaws and a Stihl cost to much(even through they’re worth it) for how few times that I use one. When I rent, it’s guaranteed to run and the chain’s sharpened and ready to go.

  • empath

    Wow. You found an honest-to-goodness cordwainer’s (that specializes in the exact type of footwear you needed). CUSTOM-MADE boots, made specifically to the measurements of your own feet; no wonder they fit so well. :)

    Betcha those suckers last longer than most of your previous boots did, too – ill fit can place more wear and tear on footwear since stresses and strains are being placed on them other than what the design intends to deal with, and stitches stretch, seams loosen, etc.

    Makes me hanker to hunt down similar, not that I’ve the funds to afford such a expense…someday…