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Everything You Need to Know About Red Wing Heritage Boots and Shoes
Learn the history, take in the key terms and shop the essential styles.
Welcome to Brand Breakdown, a series of comprehensive yet easy-to-digest guides to your favorite companies, with insights and information you won’t find on the average About page.
Red Wing Shoe Company is named after the small Minnesota town where it manufactures a range of rugged boots and shoes. Founded in 1905 by Charles Beckman — and still privately held and family-operated today — the brand grew quickly, supplying doughboys with boots designed for the muddy trenches of WWI. After the war, Red Wing became a household name across the country thanks to its safe and hearty boots made for factory workers, farmers and outdoorsmen.
Sturdy, classic and well-loved by generations, the boots and shoes are still handmade in Red Wing’s Minnesota plant. While mainline Red Wing continues to supply construction workers and outdoorsmen, Red Wing Heritage, introduced in 2008, revives styles from the brand’s archive. Based on classic models, the styles prioritize work-ready function. “The foundation is built upon making quality footwear for people to wear on the job,” says Steve Spencer, Managing Director of Red Wing Heritage.
The brand’s boots are the gold standard for men’s footwear and are stocked at men’s clothing shops the world over. Made to the same exacting standards as their work boots, Red Wing Heritage styles have a wide appeal and are just as appropriate on the ranch or factory floor as they are in the office or at home. This guide will help you navigate classic styles from the Red Wing Heritage catalog, but before you dive in, take a minute to familiarize yourself with important boot terminology.
Every shoe is made up of a variety of parts that all affect the comfort, style and durability. These terms aren’t specific to Red Wing Heritage but are important to understand before exploring specific boots.
Outsole: This is the part of the boot that touches the ground. The outsole can be made from all matter of materials. Your dress shoes probably have leather outsoles while most Red Wings will have a rubber outsole or a combination of rubber and leather.
Midsole: This section of the boot separates your feet from the outsole. The harder the midsole, the longer the break-in time, but the longer the lifespan.
Welt: The welt is one of the keys to a long shoe life. This is the piece of leather around the edge of the sole which the rest of the boot is attached to. Most Red Wings are made with Goodyear-welt construction. This patented process makes the boots weather resistant and allows them to be resoled again and again.
Last: This is the silhouette of a shoe or boot. In the manufacturing process, the shoe upper is pulled over the last to give it its shape. Red Wing uses at least eight different lasts dating back to the 1930s.
Cap Toe: A self-explanatory style in which an additional layer of leather forms a reinforcement “cap” over the toe (read: added durability).
Moc Toe: One of Red Wing’s most recognizable toe shapes. Named for the moccasin style and shape, this style is created when the leather seams meet on the top of the toe.
Vibram: One of the oldest and most storied rubber outsole brands, Vibram is renowned for its quality.
Lug Sole: A classic rubber sole construction common in Red Wings and most other heavy-duty work boots featuring thick rubber treads. Invented by Vibram, the lug sole provides great traction and weather protection.
Traction Tred: This non-marking outsole is most closely associated with Red Wing boots. The large white rubber wedge won’t mark factory floors and provides generous cushioning.
Irish Setter: Irish Setter is a traditional Red Wing brand geared towards hunters. While the modern styles feature insulation and cushioning, the vintage Irish Setter line is more akin to Red Wing Heritage styles. You can find many older pairs on eBay and Etsy — they’re easily identified by the Irish Setter logo on the inside of the tongue. Red Wing Heritage also reproduces a few of the best vintage styles, but to get your hands on those you will have to look in Japan.
Making one pair of Red Wings takes about 250 steps from start to finish. While we are not going to list them in detail, here is a short breakdown of how these legendary boots are made.
It all starts with the leather. All Red Wing Heritage boots are made from leather tanned at S.B. Foot Tanning Company. Owned by Red Wing since the 1980s, the tannery has been providing leather for Red Wing since they opened their doors in 1905. All the hides are tanned by hand with the company’s wooden tanning casks in a factory just down the road from Red Wing’s facilities.
Once tanned, stretched, rolled and finished the leather is cut into patterns. Because no two pieces of leather are the same, it takes a well-trained craftsman to best utilize an entire hide. Once the leather has been cut, the shoes and boots are sewn together using Puritan stitch machines which provide unique triple-stitch lines. No longer made, these vintage machines are maintained by a cadre of in-house repairmen to keep them humming (some of them have been in use in the Red Wing factory for over 50 years).
After being sewn, the shoe is lasted and the upper is attached to the midsole and outsole with the Goodyear welting process. “The Red Wing brand is built on quality, craftsmanship and premium materials,” explains Spencer. “There is no marketing story that can create that.”
Red Wing Heritage is constantly expanding, pulling from its archives as well as designing new styles that fit the brand’s mission. “We always reach back into our archives, whether is it something directly we would pull and bring forward to today or simply inspiration,” says Spencer. Here is a breakdown of designs that everyone should know.