The town of Red Wing, Minnesota, sits on the Mississippi river an hour southeast of the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul. Sleepy streets are lined with brick buildings from the turn of the last century. It’s a place that could easily be lost to time, except for the fact that it’s home to one of the most prolific boot makers in America, the Red Wing Shoe Company, which manufactures over 1 million pairs every year. Here’s a look at how they’re made.
These photos were taken on a factory tour in 2017.
The leather used in Red Wing boots is produced locally at the S.B. Foot Tanning Company. Founded in 1872, the company started producing leather at its current facility in 1908 and was eventually acquired by Red Wing in 1987. Freshly prepared chrome-tanned hides are soaked, shaved and added to giant wooden drums filled with a mixture of oils, tanning agents and dyes. Once fully treated, the leather for Red Wing boots is loaded onto a large truck and driven just minutes across town.
The Red Wing Shoe Company’s first factory was located in the heart of the city on main street, a couple blocks from where the company’s offices now reside. The original factory still stands, but production has moved three miles down the road to a new facility, built in 1964 to handle a greater output. The nondescript exterior is in stark contrast to the almost constant motion inside, a whir of activity producing over 1 million pairs of boots per year.
Leather is cut and boot uppers are sewn together. The leather begins to take a form as boots are individually lasted. The classic silhouettes from the company’s history, which make up the popular Red Wing Heritage line, are Goodyear welted. Soles are stitched and glued into place. Despite the din of machines, the workers are calm and confident. Both the process and the product are time tested.
A back portion of the factory is the designated repair shop, a place where customers can send worn boots to be serviced. Boxes of creased boots with worn soles and heavy patinas line the walls awaiting various forms of restoration. The Repair Shop does everything from reconditioning the leather upper to replacing welting and resoling boots.
In a world of consumable goods designed to be disposable, Red Wing Heritage’s commitment to quality manufacturing is a powerful reminder to purchase products that will age gracefully with you. The boot designs haven’t changed much over the passing decades, much like the city of Red Wing itself. In this case, that’s a good thing for everyone.