The last century has registered the incredible rise and unfortunate decline of the footwear industry in Maine. Though the early decades of the 20th century were booming, many brands moved manufacturing overseas in the ‘80s and ‘90s, shuttering factories across the state. A large, skilled workforce became unemployed as the region’s signature style — hand-sewn moc-toe boots — were offshored. While the industry isn’t what it was 100 years ago, a handful of brands are keeping the domestic tradition of handsewn moccasin footwear alive.
One of the best examples is actually a new brand from the state, Maine Mountain Moccasin, which was founded in 2017. Its owner Dan Heselton had worked at Timberland before teaming up with designer Greg Cordeiro to found New England Outerwear in 2012. The duo enlisted the hand-sewing skills of Bill Herrick — who had perfected his craft for years at Warren Shoe and Quoddy — to create a line of traditional handsewn shoes and boots which quickly gained a well-earned reputation for their quality and style. After Cordeiro left the brand for a design job at Clarks, Heselton decided to further refine his vision and start Maine Moccasin Company.
The brand offers a range of hand-sewn boots and shoes utilizing local materials like Tazman leather and made-in-Maine threads. The company doesn’t cut corners when manufacturing the different styles and the boots feature Blake/McKay welting, true moccasin construction and true double-vamp mudguards. Vibram soles come standard and each style is available in sizes 7 to 13. Also impressive is the price-point, which is noticeably less than some other Made-in-Maine brands. The shoes start at $270 and boots top out at $399. For the attention to detail and level of craftsmanship, that’s quite a reasonable price.
While Maine Mountain Moccasin footwear is a shining example of what Made-in Maine can offer, it’s also a top contender for one of the best American-made boot brands. To learn about Heselton’s background, vision for the company and favorite styles, we caught up with him after the Thanksgiving holiday.
Q: What is your history in the footwear industry?
A: I spent a number of years working at a major footwear brand and during my time there, one of my coworkers was an engineer who held the belief that making shoes or boots had become too segmented. There’s designers, engineers, and supply chain people all working separately. Most people at this company didn’t know the entire process of constructing a shoe. So he started a class that would meet early morning a day or two each week and we would tape shoe lasts, learn construction processes and pattern making. We moved to the sample room and got to use some of the machines, which was an amazing thing to be part of. That was sort of my point of realization that I wanted to do something more, something my own.
Q: Did you always want to own a brand?
A: I’ve always wanted to be part of something DIY, that has a community around it and means something other than just the bottom line. I spent my early 20s touring with my punk/hardcore band, so that experience sort of instilled that in me. I had always dreamed of owning a brand and never really knew how to make it happen until that moment where I felt like it made sense to give it a try.
Q: What was the impetus for starting Maine Mountain Moccasin?
A: It was a very organic thing; once I took that class, I couldn’t stop thinking about doing it. I had become fascinated with hand-sewn moccasins specifically. So my wife bought me an industrial post bed for my birthday and when we met the seller to pick it up, he told me he was a technician in Maine who serviced some of the factories still there. He was shocked that we wanted a machine and were looking to sew moccasins, so he connected me with a couple of guys who were doing a very small scale production. This was under a different brand at the time, and we had our ups and downs trying to beat the insanely difficult task of making shoes in the US. Soon enough, I found myself holding the reins solo, and decided some huge changes were needed and it was time to let some old ways go.
With Maine Mountain Moccasin came a rebirth in our processes and methods for making shoes. Old styles were dropped because the pattern work on them didn’t meet our standards, so we focused on four to five patterns and perfected them. Our lasts are uniform and we’ve added several components to our shoes to increase their durability. I believe we are making one of the best made-in-the-USA shoes on the market right now.
Q: What is unique about how your boots are made? Can you talk about the process and materials?
A: We order a maximum of our materials from the last remaining tannery in Maine, which specializes in military compliant leathers but can tan really any leather. I feel like it’s vital to support them and they are down the road from where we make our shoes and boots. The workers are all interconnected and both businesses help feed the communities they’re in. We also still use a good amount of Horween‘s leather products as well, so between the excellent products of both Tazman and Horween we’ve found a balance that’s really working well.
For our shoes, we’ve chosen to mix in some more modern technology into our moccasins, like tucks and shanks. I used to be of the opinion that doing so took away from making them true handsewns, but I’ve realized it helps with retaining their shape and overall longevity. We also had some customers come to me saying they love their lined boots but they are too hot to wear often, so we started using some heavier weight leathers to avoid having to line them and remedy this problem. We’ve also started to use a welt on some pairs as well (starting this spring). It’s more of an aesthetic choice than anything, but it offers something new people aren’t used to seeing. All our shoes and boots are still 100 percent handsewn and hand cut, we still go through over 50 processes for each pair. I really feel happy with the direction we’ve taken.
Q: Where do you draw inspiration for your styles? How has your collection changed?
A: I think at this point in time the collection is at its most honest and “real” in terms of authenticity and uniqueness. There’s no one out there doing exactly what we do, materials, construction, and details all taken into account. I feel like in this industry there can be a need to chase or keep up with others in your realm. That’s sort of gone away for me, and now I’m just making a product I feel delivers a high value, looks great, and I can stand behind.
Inspiration can come from a number of places, it can be an old pair of moccasins I see online or in a second-hand shop, from technical fabrics on super expensive performance gear, or walking down the street and seeing someone who might not even be trying to have a unique style but something comes across as noticeable and attention-grabbing.
Q: What’s most important to you in a pair of shoes or boots?
A: Fit is huge: I tell people there is nothing worse than a pair of shoes or boots that stretch out too large. Get them super snug and allow for that natural stretch to occur. Materials are of course really important as well. I like earth tones and roughout leathers, a more minimal look is my speed.
Q: What style(s) are you most excited about from the current season?
A: The 7 Eyelet Field Boot came out really well, the make-up in the waterproof gunmetal might be my favorite. Next would be the Walk On Boot which was sort of a happy pattern-error-turned-new style. This fall so far I find myself wearing my Scout Boot in Chestnut Frontier the most — about to give them a treatment in prep for the coming snow.
Q: Tell me about Beaux Biens — how does the shop compliment the brand?
A: Beaux Biens started as a way to have my own outlet, to carry friend’s brands and others I really loved and felt strongly about. It’s more of a personal expression for me of what I’m about, and a place to be able to do some fun collaborations with Maine Mountain Moccasin and others as well. We’ve been adding to our team for both Maine Mountain Moccasin and the store which has already started to really free me up to plan what direction to go next with the store, hopefully opening a second location in Salem, Massachusetts or Beverly, Massachusetts and expanding to more brands as well as expanding the in-store brand. There are four new collaborative boots about to drop between the store and Maine Mountain Moccasin which are a bit more wild and fun — keep an eye out for that.