When we set out to design and create our boots, we had one mission in mind: To blend aspects of our favorite boots, sneakers, and dress shoes to create a design that not only spoke about the owner, but the inherent confidence they carried. We set out to challenge what is expected of American-made boots and shoes.
We began making our boots in Istanbul, Turkey in 2009. Our initial designs were simple yet dependable, adding creative elements with different colors, zippers, and straps. We played with different sole ideas, and ultimately, set the groundwork of what is currently known and recognized as HELM brand elements, like the stacked-sole, for example. Effective as we were, though, we brought our manufacturing stateside in 2012.
Today, we produce and manufacture our signature line in both Maine and Arkansas. Despite initial plans to do so, the move West enabled, and caused, a shift in design. While our mission remained the same, the method in which we designed our boots changed, shifting more towards U.S. inspired designs and American-influenced lasts. We adopted the handcrafted shoemaking process.
Handcrafted vs. Handmade
The basic differences between handcrafted and handmade products aren’t in the design or detail that goes into making a custom-made product. In fact, in its most basic definition, the difference is in the use of machinery. A product made entirely by hand lends itself the title of being handmade; a product made with the help of machinery acquires the handcrafted label.
An important element to note, however, is that while the use of machinery can speed up the construction process of a shoe, the process is no less challenging or demanding. Handcrafted products, including boots, nevertheless require similar attention to detail and traditional methods of shoemaking to produce a quality product.
In a recent blog we wrote, we discussed in detail the differences between the two. We dove deeper into the history, methods, and trends seen in both the handmade and handcrafted shoemaking methods.
When we founded our brand and manufactured our products in Istanbul, we crafted every boot by hand. Each stitch and every sole; every pull of leather. And while we were able to design what is today known as HELM staples, we realized that to successfully reach the design elements we wanted to achieve, we had to adopt the handcrafted method.
According to our founder, Joshua Bingaman, the reason to do so further supported our brand’s mission. “Using handcrafted techniques and methods, we’re able to achieve a classic style that’s both modern and versatile,” Bingaman said. He also explained such techniques result in a premium product of both design and quality.
There were numerous reasons that encouraged our decision to be a handcrafted boot company. One of the main reasons rests in the ability to be a productive and efficient company. “Using machinery,” Bingaman explained, “enables us to make more products, employ more workers, and sell more [products].” Bingaman also said the use of machinery overtime allows our products to be sold at a more market-rate price. The productivity of using machinery, he said, is paramount.
While we do use modern machinery in our boot-making process, it’s important to note that every machine is operated and managed by skilled shoemakers. We don’t simply send shoes through a conveyor belt. Instead, workers are present at every stage of the process, ensuring each boot is made correctly and exceeds standards.
The ability to resole and re-craft our boots is another reason we handcraft our products. Our resoling program allows customers to send their well-worn boots back to the factory for resoling, offering the option to choose from any of the soles we currently offer. This process, and the manufacturer’s control, gives your boots a second—or third—life, while also ensuring your boot’s new soles meet our standards.
Despite our decision to design and sell handcrafted products, Bingaman says it’s important to strike a balance between the different methods of making a shoe or boot. He says while we use handcrafting methods, we also use a few handmade shoemaking techniques we practiced in Istanbul. “We use machinery to ensure durability,” said Bingaman, “but [we use] handmade influences, like artwork or stitching, to add creative elements and style to the finished product.”
At HELM, we use two main shoemaking methods: the Goodyear Welt construction and the Blake Rapid (stitch) construction. The Goodyear Welt construction is one of the oldest methods used to construct shoes—the most labor intensive as well—and produces an incredibly durable final product. This method can be constructed by hand or machine. The Blake Rapid (stitch) construction, however, cannot be completed by hand, as the stitching is done on the inside of the boot.
Whether they’re using the Blake Rapid construction method or the Goodyear Welt construction technique, our shoemakers know our shoes inside out. So if and when you send your worn boots in for resoling, you can rest assured knowing they’re in the care of someone who understands and respects the product at hand.
A final reason for our decision was rooted in our desires to support American-made products and to encourage the country’s manufacturing industry. We believe that American designers, and American designs, are strong—and we wanted to support that. Bringing our company stateside and choosing handcrafted shoemaking techniques has enabled us to do so.
In an op-ed published via Forbes, Bingaman discussed the importance of empowering our country’s manufacturing industry. “Many of today’s factory jobs require a more educated worker,” wrote Bingaman. “This means we need to focus on passing bills and hiring politicians who understand the value of early education and its ability to create a systemic change.” In his piece, Bingaman encouraged individuals and companies to invest in the citizens of this country to build pride.
Our family here at HELM believes that instead of letting modern technology replace the jobs of the American people, it’s on us to educate and supply jobs for individuals to work in tandem with the technology we use and methods we entail. We also believe that through our shoemaking process, we can further support other industries.
An example of this is seen in the leather we use, as we source all of our leathers from various leather companies and suppliers around the country. These include Horween Leather Company in Chicago, S.B. Foot Tanning Co. in Red Wing, Minnesota, and Tasman Industries located in Hartland, Maine.
Moving our production site to America was never part of the initial plan. But we’ve realized that doing so has enabled us to further support our mission to take aspects of our favorite boots, sneakers, and dress shoes and meld them together to create an alternative perspective and to challenge what is expected of American-made boots and shoes.
Machinery aside, one of the most important tools we use in our factories is the last. Like we mention in our blog, Shoemaking 101, every step of the shoemaking process revolves around the last. From pulling the upper around it to determining a specific heel height or shape of the shoe, the last plays a vital role in the shoemaking journey.
To mimic the results of a handmade or personalized last, we have a line of signature lasts. It allows us to design ready-to-wear collections that fit standard foot shapes and sizes. Furthermore, each last references a particular shape the shoe will have, making it easier for customers to choose which style they prefer. In other words, one last lends itself to a rounded toe whereas another creates a narrow, squared off toe.
We currently have four signature lasts: The 323 Last, the 415, the 512, and the 405. While all four are typically an “average D width,” they all have different attributes. If you’re looking for a work boot style shoe, for example, opt for a pair of boots made on the 323 last. The rounded toe is most similar to a classic American work boot. Alternatively, if you’re looking for a dress shoe-inspired look, go for the Sam Original or Sam Black, as both styles are constructed on the 512 last.
There are many methods and techniques used to make shoes these days. And while the rise and availability of modern technology and machinery has made it easy to mass-produce shoes that go in and out of style, we’re dedicated to using those same technologies to create a boot that can be worn across generations, trends, and seasons. That’s why we handcraft all our boots.
Our design studio is covered with hand drawn boot designs, color swabs, and possible last shapes; our factories are occupied with educated, skilled workers who oversee and operate the machinery we use. Both scenarios work together to marry the benefits of modern technologies with traditional handmade shoemaking methods.
And while we continue to challenge what a traditional work boot, dress shoe, or sneaker looks and feels like, we’ll work to not only grow and expand our company, but the manufacturing industry as a whole.