Behind the Scenes at Red Wing Shoes’ Minnesota Factory

Red Wing Shoes boots
Daryl Mark walks like a man who’s been on the job for 44 years. His tall frame and groomed gray mustache present commanding air as he garners a friendly hello from just about every assemblyman along the line.

As Quality Manager at S.B. Foot Tanning Co. in Red Wing, Minnesota, he oversees thousands of cowhides that enter the factory as bare carcasses and leave as precision-tailored slabs of lustrous leather destined for any number of applications around the world. Most notably, much of what’s produced here will move right down the road to the Red Wing Shoes factory.

He was our tour guide for this special look into the leather making process at a tannery that’s been in continuous operation since 1872.

Red Wing Shoes
The hides move slowly on belt through a drying room for several hours. This process helps make the material more pliable for later use.

At first, the smell of the process is overwhelming.

A variety of chemicals fill the air, immediately surrounding the plant and masking the undeniable beauty and pride of the operation inside. These chemicals and dyes (and their contingent smells) are essential to creating some of the best leather in the country. A rainbow of browns, tans and reds are the end product of a process that has no less than six steps and dozens of man-hours per hide.

While modern Italian machinery has helped speed up the drying and maturing process to meet global demand, the process is largely unchanged from Silas Boot’s initial run more than 120 years ago.

Red Wing Shoes
The finished leather tends to keep the shape of the animal until cutting.

The leather is finished at a second facility down the road where it receives final drying and polish and is then divided into rolls based on where it’s headed.

The pride in assembly and attention to detail continues at Red Wing Shoes Plant 2, just a quick ride down State Route 61. This is where all of its shoes are made, including the Heritage line, which we were there to see in detail.

This newer line pays homage to some of the company’s older footwear lines with updated profiles that are putting Red Wing back in the country’s trendiest boutiques.

The operation is deceivingly large. One lobby door acts as the gatekeeper between the outside world and some of the most impressive manufacturing anywhere in the country.

Red Wing Shoes
A leather map is proudly hung in the S.B. Foot sales office.

Red Wing’s vast floor is organized much like an automotive assembly line. The familiar rainbow of leathers is a dead giveaway to the starting point for all of the brand’s models.

Each model – work shoes, Pecos (cowboy boots), Heritage, hunting boots – goes through much of the same process helmed by workers who have been perfecting their craft for decades. (A fabric cutter recently hung up her scissors after 48 years on the job.)

Once material has been measured and cut, the frame gets sewn around a “last,” which is a plastic model of the particular shoe that the heel and other essential parts are fixed around. Once the shoe takes shape, it’s removed from the last and enters a carousel where the outside sole is installed and the remaining stitches are placed.

The final product is a pristine piece of footwear that’s meant to last generations. For all of the stories about pairs of Red Wings that have been through hell and back, they do eventually need more TLC than the owner can provide.

Red Wing Shoes
Rolls of leather at the starting point in the Red Wing factory.

When that times comes, the shoes are sent to the Repair Shop: a small back corner of the factory that re-crafts more than 40,000 pairs annually. A team of five master shoe artisans take apart and put back together decades of leather ranging from simple crack fixes to full sole replacements.

It seemed especially pertinent to take this tour only a few weeks out from the day where we celebrate our independence and everything that makes America America. Red Wing Shoes is a collective of more than 300 (many union) who take immense pride in crafting a generational product.

Red Wing Shoes
Red Wing’s Repair Shop will work on more than 40,000 pairs of shoes this year.

Even though our country is divided as ever, we should take solace in and protect traditions like Red Wing Shoes. American manufacturing is a dying art, but it’s one of this nation’s cornerstone foundations and something that people on both sides of the aisle can agree on.

Red Wing Shoes boots
Pecos boots headed towards a final check before packing.

Perhaps that’s all we need: A reminder to look within every now and then.

Fashion & Style

Make Western Wear Work for You with The Best Men’s Denim Shirts

Grab one now for the perfect piece to wear as summer turns to fall and temperatures oscillate.

Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones Hat Fetches $520,000 at Auction

Information about the buyer is yet to be disclosed, but we assume they must be a huge fan of Harrison Ford. Or really like fedoras. Probably both.

See The Manual Podcast Crew Live at the Portland Podcast Festival

What's that? Never heard of the Portland Podcast Festival? Get in the know and come see us in Portland this November.

Fall Foliage Forecast: Where and When to See the Leaves Change in 2018

Leaf-peeping isn't just for fanny-pack-wearing Midwestern housewives.
Food & Drink

Dogfish Head Remains the Sultan of Sours With New Program of Small-Batch Wild Ales

“Wooden it be nice" to drink more wood-aged sour and wild ales? Yes, it wood.
Fashion & Style

Keep Your Pants On With the Best Leather Belts for Men

There's even one with a 100-year warranty.
Fashion & Style

Dive In Feet First With the Best Rubber Boots for Men

Fortify your feet with a pair of the best rubber boots and shoes. Our picks are both sensible and stylish.
Fashion & Style

The 5 Best Sneakers for Men You Can Buy Right Now

Whether you're running, walking, playing basketball, or — dare we say it — sneaking, you're probably going to find yourself inhabiting a pair.
Fashion & Style

The Best Fall Sales on Menswear and Gear This Weekend

Jackets, outdoor gear, watches, shoes — you name it, we've found a deal on it.
Fashion & Style

Boulder Denim 2.0 Are the Stretchiest, Most Comfortable Jeans You Can Buy

Yes, they really are the stretchiest. And the most comfortable.
Fashion & Style

Peak Design’s Travel Line Is the Kind of Compartmentalized Luggage Bag We love

This bag has pockets inside pockets inside pockets!
Fashion & Style

This Sweater Will Make You Think Twice About Hating Turtlenecks

When it comes to turtlenecks there are two camps and two camps only: those who love 'em and those who hate 'em.
Fashion & Style

The Best Men’s Cardigans Prove the Look Isn’t Just for Mr. Rogers

From the classic cardigan to modern print options, there's something for everyone this season.
Fashion & Style

Billy Reid Goes the Extra Mile to Make Menswear in America

The made-in-America approach has benefits for the consumer, both in matters of style and substance.