Guthrie woman makes art of boot making
By Kim Brown
October 11, 2011
GUTHRIE – Lisa Sorrell spent her childhood wearing dresses – not cowboy boots. Now the internationally acclaimed boot maker creates one-of-a-kind, custom boots that take more than a month to produce. Her skill and family story are part of a PBS documentary series, “Craft in America,” airing Monday.
“What I loved about boot making – I was raised in a very conservative little church, where the girls all wore long hair and dresses – my favorite thing about cowboy boots was I got to sew, but with cowboy boots, I also got to hammer,” said Sorrell, who has been making boots for 21 years.
Only one of a few women who designs and crafts custom boots, Sorrell began sewing professionally at 15. “Sewing was what I was expected to do,” she said. So when she married and moved to Guthrie, she answered an ad to sew boot tops. “I started stitching boot tops, and I had no idea what that meant. I had never even worn cowboy boots,” she said.
She soon learned that boot tops were the literal tops of the boots, and she made designs and patterns with leather inlay. She worked for a boot maker named Jay Griffith for a year and a half learning the craft. “After I left Jay, I started a small business stitching boot tops for boot makers across the country,” she said. But that was only a means to an end – Sorrell wanted to save her money to study with a master boot maker.
“There aren’t a lot of people who do it, and it can be difficult to get into,” she said. “I needed a master-apprentice experience, and you have to pay for it.” She apprenticed under a local man named Ray Doorwart and learned how to build every square centimeter of a cowboy boot. She has a gallery in Guthrie that she also rents to a man who sells Western collectibles, vintage saddles and art.
Sorrell mainly uses kangaroo leather because “it’s great for any sort of intricate inlay and overlay,” but she also uses alligator, crocodile and ostrich. She names each pair of boots after a classic country song. The base price for a pair of her boots is $3,500. “It takes about a month to build a pair of boots, and my waiting time for boots is six to eight months,” she said.
The Peabody Award-winning documentary series “Craft in America” features master craft artists from around the country doing what they love, such as woodworking and sculpture. The show’s director, Carol Sauvion, said: “Craft is once again proving its relevance as people return to the handmade. In this episode, it’s exciting to explore the age-old debate of nature versus nurture.”
For Sorrell, being filmed for television felt surprisingly natural. “I love talking to people about cowboy boots,” she said. “And I enjoy doing it so immensely that I would love to film a reality show.”
“Craft in America” features Sorrell fitting a customer for a pair of boots – a step she insists cannot be skipped. “I can build two to three pairs a month,” she said. “I like the heritage and the tradition of a craft where something is made entirely by hand. I don’t want to change it, I want to learn it thoroughly and do it well. I’m not interested in fast. I’m interested in being efficient but not fast.”
Customers all over the world know Sorrell. She said she’s making a pair of boots for a customer in Belgium, a couple in Sweden and is working with another in Germany. And she traveled to England over the summer to learn more from shoemakers there. “The show came at a really great time for me. I’m at the stage in my career where I really want to present my work more as art,” she said. “But all of the art shows I went to tended to be about fine arts, like painting and sculpture. I felt I didn’t have a place.”
When she first watched “Craft in America,” Sorrell felt an instant connection to the other artists. “I cried all the way through the first episode because I didn’t know there were other people like me,” she said. “I saw the show and saw all these fine craftsmen making functional objects but satisfying their need to be an artist.”
‘Cowboy boots are an American icon. You can show a pair of cowboy boots to almost anyone in the world and they can instantly connect that with America. They represent America in a way that ho other footwear does.’
– Guthrie resident and boot maker Lisa Sorrell on PBS documentary series, ‘Craft in America’.