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Boot maker sets up shop in Marfa

May 12th, 2011 under Top Stories

By EMILY JO CURETON

MARFA – The human foot consists of 20 muscles and 28 bones. An indefinable mix of reason, emotion, pride, vanity and God only knows what else make up the human psyche. When western boot maker Colt Miller sets to work his unusual task is to fit for both the foot and the person attached to it.

Hunched over a cluttered table in his workshop on South Highland Avenue in Marfa, he patiently tools a pair of custom cowboy boots for his girlfriend of the past five years. The complex inlay depicts her namesake, Mt. Logan, in tri-colored calfskin. In the end he’ll spend upwards of 60 hours working on this pair.

It starts simple enough. He traces the outline of each foot and takes down certain measurements: instep, toe box, width, length and the like. But Miller’s handiwork brings dirt kickers to another level – replete with a whole spectrum of colors and different types of leather, intricate inlays and embroidered designs laden with highly specific, personal symbols.

“I’ve noticed that it’s a lot of the cowboys who want the most flamboyant boots,” Miller says.

But of the 50 or so pairs he has crafted in the past seven years, only about half went to cow folk. The rest outfit concrete dwellers, those concerned less with rattlesnakes and mesquite thorns than with fashion.

Since cowboy boots appeared in the late 1800s, (a close cousin of military boots designed specifically for riding on horseback all day long), they have been subject to the whims of every generation, from polyester paisley to Ralph Lauren.

Despite, or perhaps because of this enduring demand for western wear, one-man operations like Miller’s Cobra Rock Boots are a rarity these days.

Colt Miller at work in his workshop. (staff photo by ALBERTO TOMAS HALPERN)

At the Justin boot factory in El Paso a computer-programmed embroidery machine replaced 100 workers who used to do the ornate stitchings. The factory churns out 1,000 pairs of boots a day.

Miller averages one pair of boots a week, on a good week.

While still an enduring symbol of Americanism with a capital A, modern cowboy boots are predominately manufactured overseas: another commodity in an ever-globalizing economy. In all, the value of US production of men’s western style boots fell 40 percent between 1997 and 2002, according to the US Census Bureau.

Roughly 35 to 40 percent of the Tony Lama line is outsourced, while between 75 and 80 percent of the Justin Boots brand are crafted in China and Mexico.

Cobra Rock Boots are made from start to finish by 30-year-old Miller, who grew up in Borden County, Texas, about 70 miles south of Lubbock, the son of a cowboy and a schoolteacher. The nearest town to his family’s ranch boasts a population of 180 and a Main Street full of shuttered business, save the post office.

After studying geography and financial planning at Texas Tech, Miller returned home in search of a job he could hold down while still playing guitar in a touring country band called the Thrift Store Cowboys.

Then he met a boot maker in Post, who taught him the time-honored trade in exchange for guitar lessons. After a yearlong apprenticeship, Miller made his first pair of handmade boots for his granddad.

“It was finally something where I could be creative. I was always too self-conscious to do anything in school,” Miller says.

He moved to Marfa in August and now spends much of his time either working on boot orders or touring with Thrift Store Cowboys, whose fourth studio album came out in October.

A pair of Cobra Rock boots runs $600 for an all custom design and fit; $525 for a standard fit, designed to suit; and $300 for custom lace-up western ankle boots.

The design aspect of Miller’s work is time consuming and totally personalized, but he says it’s a good fit that makes or breaks the deal, often after 40+ hours of labor:

“You do a lot of sweating just measuring someone and shaping the last. You won’t really know until they try them on”.

Cobra Rock Boot Company is located at 207 South Highland Avenue, just north of Marfa National Bank. Samples of Miller’s work can be seen online at cobrarock.com.

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