What does it take to make a boot that got a seal of approval from the Prince of Wales, now King Charles III, in the form of a royal warrant over 35 years ago?
A royal warrant is a mark of recognition that a product is sufficiently high quality to outfit members of the British royal family and their staff. So it makes sense that the company we’re looking at today is the United Kingdom’s oldest shoemaker: Tricker’s.
Founded in 1829, Tricker’s is headquartered in the English shoemaking hub of Northampton — see our visit to luxury sneaker brand Crown Northampton here — and has the simple goal of making footwear that’s functional and durable. They didn’t begin as fashion accessories: Tricker’s boots and shoes were functional pieces engineered to thrive in outdoor environments.
“When the Tricker’s family first started making shoes, it was always about ‘built to last,'” says David Jeffery, the company’s Sales Director. “To be worn in the field — some were working in the field, but a lot of the people were roaming their fields hunting, shooting, fishing. That’s how what I would call our iconic hero product, the Stow boot, was developed.”
We journeyed from New York City to Northampton to find out just how such an iconic piece of footwear is made. See our video below and keep reading to unravel the mystery of what truly sets Tricker’s apart and what it takes to craft a boot that receives the royal seal of approval.
Sorting the Leather
Each pair of Stow boots undergoes 260 individual processes over 12 weeks. The first is sorting the leather: selecting which hides get sent to which stations to be made into which boots.
We visited Richard, the man in charge of this first step, and learned an interesting fact: the tannery that makes the famous “Acorn” leather used for the Stow boot is a secret.
What we do know is that it’s a slightly corrected calfskin made with combination of vegetable and chrome tannage: chrome tanned leather is flexible and vibrant, vegetable tanned leather is tougher and molds better to the foot, so combining these two methods attempts to get the best of both worlds.
“It’s one of our iconic colors and iconic styles,” says Jeffery. “Even in its state before we start burnishing it and polishing it, you can see what a lovely color this leather already is.”
Indeed, before this leather leaves the factory it will have undergone polishing and burnishing to give it what they call a nice English finish.
Know that this is a very hard-wearing calfskin: calfskin is typically found on dress footwear because of its fine grain, but the tensile strength is as high or higher than cowhide because the fibers are closer together. With time, this golden Acorn color darkens and will develop an attractive patina.
The Clicking Room
Clicking is the term given to selecting the pieces of hide that will form different parts of the boot. With an expert eye, workers inspect the hides to ensure that blemishes and loose grain are either discarded or placed in areas that will wind up underneath other parts of the boot, like under a toecap or, in the case of the Stow boot, broguing.
“The reason it was called the clicking room (is) many years ago was there’s a lot of hand cutters,” notes Jeffery. “So when they were cutting with their knives, when the knife went through the leather and hit the board, it made a clicking sound.”
The clickers, true artisans in their own right, are entrusted with the responsibility of selecting the finest portions of leather. But the skill goes beyond inspection: they need to cut the leather into precise sections, following the unique requirements of each order, and every effort is made to maximize the use of the precious leather, minimizing waste and improving sustainability.
Skiving is the process of shaving some of the pieces of leather down at the edges. This helps to make it easier to stitch, makes seams less bulky, and improves comfort.
The Closing Room
This is where the pieces of the upper come together to make a whole — well, minus the sole — that can then be lasted.
“All the leather pieces have been cut out upstairs in the clicking room and now they come down to the closing room, which is basically where we start to stitch all of those pieces together before the eyelets go in,” explains Jeffery.
To add structure and stability to the boot’s front section, a celastic toe puff is introduced. This component is positioned between the lining and the upper. When heated, the toe puff becomes pliable, molding itself to the contours of the boot. As it cools and hardens, it sets the shape of the toe area, enhancing both durability and aesthetics.
The Steam Room
“Once the uppers have all been finished up here, ready to go down for lasting, we’ll tend to put them into this mulling room,” says Jeffery. “It’s basically like a steam room, or sauna. It’s wet, high heat, and that just makes the leather more supple. So when you start to pull it over the last, it again helps form the shape.”
The Lasting Room
An extremely important part of the process, this is where the uppers are pulled over a last, a foot-shaped form that imparts the unique fit and character of each Tricker’s boot.
Before this happens, heel stiffeners and toe stiffeners are inserted under the lining. Positioned between the lining and the upper, the stiffener is subjected to heat, causing it to become pliable. Once the desired shape is achieved, the stiffener is gently placed onto a cold mold, where it solidifies into the perfect form.
It’s worth noting the boot is lasted in three separate processes: back lasting, front lasting, and side lasting.
The Stow boot is made on the 4497S last, which is a hair wider in the toes than dressy footwear, but nowhere near the bulbousness one might expect from American work boots.
The result is a boot that is not only visually striking but also structurally sound and exceptionally comfortable.
When it comes to attaching the upper to the sole, some shoes are cemented — glued, in other words — some are Blake stitched, with the upper being sewn right into the sole. But for a great combination of longevity and water resistance, the Goodyear welt is seen as the gold standard.
(There are some other, more niche methods of soling boots, but these are the broad strokes.)
The Stow boot is Goodyear welted, meaning instead of the upper and sole being attached to one another, they’re attached to a strip of leather called the “welt” in between them. This makes it much easier to resole and much more water resistant than Blake stitched shoes.
“What we’re doing here is we’re taking a strip of leather and we’re going to sew it through the insole rib and into the upper,” explains Jeffery. “This basically helps us form a base to then put the sole on.”
A Goodyear welt makes a cavity in a shoe that’s filled with cork, which molds to the shape of the foot over time, improving comfort while also helping to manage moisture. (Tricker’s has had the same cork recipe for 150 years.) A shank is also placed in the cavity: this is a stiff piece of material (in this case, wood) that helps with stability.
Prior to the invention of the Goodyear welt machine in the 1860s, the welting process was done by hand. This was extraordinarily laborious, perhaps taking hours. The Goodyear welt machine brings that down to seconds, and played a pivotal role in reshaping the shoemaking landscape of Northamptonshire. What was once a cottage industry evolved into a mass production phenomenon, thanks to the precision and efficiency of these machines.
Sole Pressing, Stitching, and Heel Attachment
The journey continues as the soles are expertly glued and pressed into place, followed by trimming the soles to refine their appearance. To further fortify the boots and enhance their durability, the soles, midsole, and welt are stitched together.
Sanding, Buffing Heels and Waxing
The heels and edges of the sole are sanded smooth and then waxed for an aesthetic sheen and enhanced weather resistance. This wax not only enhances the visual appeal by giving the edges a neat and polished look but also serves as a formidable barrier against the elements. It’s a process that demands a delicate touch and a trained eye, where every brushstroke contributes to both the aesthetics and functionality of the finished product.
“It’s very skilled, but everyone makes it look so easy in this place!” says Jeffery. “We’re adding a hot wax that will set, and then you’ve got different brushes to brush it down. It makes it look neater, but also helps with stopping water getting through different layers of the sole.”
Finishing and Quality Control
These are the final touches to hone a boot’s aesthetic: polishing, smoothing, burnishing, antiquing, taking care of loose threads, and more.
“We’ll put the heel socks in. A piece of leather that covers the top half of the insole,” says Jeffery. “After the heel socks goes in there’s lots of cleaning, lots of polishing, lots of nourishing.”
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There are multiple stops where the boot receives a final inspection and one of them is by Sharon, something of a celebrity on Tricker’s Instagram.
“Sharon runs the shoe room, but then we have another level of inspection after Sharon’s done it as well, which is a QC (Quality Control),” says Jeffery. ” So we are looking for stitch detail, stitch issues, and marks in the leather. Basically going through it with a magnifying glass, and giving it another level of polishing.”
When the Stow boot goes into the shoe box, it’s a 12-week process that comes to an end.
What Connects Tricker’s to the Royal Family?
We visited Tricker’s during a time of flux: Queen Elizabeth II had passed, and Prince Charles had yet to be coronated. At the time of writing, the Royal Warrant is yet to be assigned by King Charles II.
“As it stands up to the point of the Queen’s passing and King Charles becoming King, we were Royal Warrant holders to make shoes for Prince Charles and the Royal Household,” Jeffery explains. “King Charles is very much about trades, skills, apprenticeships, as well as ‘made in the UK’ and sustainability. So all of these things you have to be seen to be doing. It’s really special for us and we work super hard to maintain it.
“To keep the Royal Warrant you have to supply the household with so many different products each year. We supply some of the bodyguards, some of the drivers, some of the chauffeurs, some of the valets. King Charles himself has shoes from us. The Royal Warrant is a really good thing to have, and long may that continue.”
What’s Distinctive About The Staw Boot
The Stow Boot, an enduring symbol of Tricker’s craftsmanship, has been an integral part of their heritage since its introduction in 1939. This iconic footwear piece traces its roots to a fundamental need for functionality.
Originally developed for those who braved the fields, the Stow Boot addressed a common problem: waterlogged leather. In challenging terrain where solid leather shoes were the norm, water absorption became a significant issue. The solution came in the form of brogue punching, which not only added a touch of style but also served the practical purpose of dispersing water, preventing it from pooling in one place.
Over time, the brogue punching has evolved into a design statement, a testament to how function and fashion can coexist seamlessly. The Stow Boot also boasts a full bellows tongue, expertly stitched into the upper, offering an additional layer of weatherproofing to keep your feet dry in damp conditions.
Another distinctive feature is the split reverse welt, which allows the upper to snugly embrace the top of the welt. The “lip” you can see curling up onto the upper of the boot is that split reverse welt, which is like a more flexible version of a storm welt. This tight fit acts as a formidable barrier, essentially making it even more difficult for water to penetrate the interior of the boot.
While the initial investment may be on the higher side, Tricker’s boots offer significant value over time. When cared for and used as intended, they prove to be enduring companions, a testament to quality and craftsmanship that stands the test of time.
“We are super proud of what we do in this factory. The staff that we have, the skills that go into making a pair of shoes,” says Jeffery. “We have people who have gone to school in Eton and when they go to their first job, whatever that may be, it’s almost a rite of passage that their father will take them to Jermyn Street, where our shop is in London, you’ll have your first pair of shoes. You’ve come of age.”
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