L.L. Bean’s Brunswick, Maine Factory

factoryWalking into L.L. Bean’s factory in Brunswick, Maine feels exactly like it should. It smells of stale solvents; of tannery leathers oiled thick as an outfielder’s glove in mid-September; of raw canvas so heavy and fibrous that filaments cling to the insides of my nostrils. These smells, they fight for air as people flit back and forth in small work stations, moving through tasks with the grace and ease of highly skilled dancers. It looks like a factory should: a collection of task-specific machines designed by the very workers who use them every day, because, unlike the iconic Bean Boots produced here, you can’t find a triple-stitch machine in a catalogue. Each station has been retro-fitted to suit the assigned employee, right down to decorated oscillating fans and CD players blaring “Bleeding Love,” by Leona Lewis into cheap Chinese headphones; “It’s one way to make it through the day,” the stitcher yarns in an accent thick as a lobster roll. It sounds like a factory should sound: plenty of drumming and punching and carwonging, the zip of the skiving machine, the heavy-hammer thunk of the leather press….

green-hatMaryJo Tufts gets into the spirit of St. Patrick’s Day while she works the needle.

At one time, the region was rife with industry, but the smaller companies have, for the most part, folded, and the bigger ones have outsourced their factory work. Not Bean, though; to their credit, the creator of the classic duck boot and a now ubiquitous canvas tote has weathered swinging economies and the coming and going of trends of every variety. Offering high quality, affordable products and first-class customer service, they stand for all that is truly great about America. While other heritage brands clamber to collaborate with hot, young designers, Bean has, thus far, stayed the course, offering relatively unchanged classic American styles and inviting the customer to return to them. Time and again. Time and again.

rackThe Bean Boot was an invention of necessity. Leon Leonwood Bean, Maine-based shop owner and avid outdoorsman, noticed that when traipsing around the wet woods his leather boots would become water-logged and rotten. Rubber boots would dry out over time and crack. In collaboration with his cobbler, he lopped off the top half of a rubber boot and, using glue and thread, attached a soft leather upper which could be laced tight. Despite early failures – the first 90 pair were returned due to cracked rubber or the separating of the leather from the seam (hence, Mr. Bean’s insistence on the triple stitch) – the boots went through several trial variations until they settled on the two versions offered today. Both the Bean Boot and the Maine Hunting Shoe feature injection molded rubber, steel shanks and a chainlink tread.mhs-v-beanThe boots differ in the composition of their rubber. The Bean Boot has a stiffer construction that holds up well over time and withstands just about anything. I own a pair of the Maine Hunting Shoes. I like their flexibility. I don’t know if they allow me to “feel the forest floor,” as the company’s description claims, but for someone who does a lot of walking, I can barely tell that they are on my feet. For much of this winter, I only wore Maine Hunting Shoes. boot-tops

Saturday at dawn, beneath the blood orange sun of a walk in the cool, crisp air of Freeport, Maine, I peered down at my boots in disbelief. The day after learning about the repair process, I discovered a small break in the rubber of my late 1980s Maine Hunting Shoe. It may be time for a repair. Foster’s post on the repair process is a must-read.boot-bottoms

Tammy Seguin in boot repair, a 14-year veteran of the factory, has a collection of great stories from all the customers she’s helped. Of all the stories, my favorite involved a repair for an Alaskan Inuit with a return address of “Igloo Eight.”

repair-center1Jack Samson (L) and George Fox (R) listen as Tammy Seguin tells the tale of Igloo Eight.

She showed us a pair of boots from a construction worker in Missouri with concrete chunks clinging to the rubber like barnacles to a battlecruiser, a grass-caked twosome from a landscape artist in North Carolina, and a blood-stained three-eyed set, courtesy of an avid buck hunter from right there in Maine.

“Do you ask them to clean them?”

“No, but Lordy, with the smell, sometimes I wish we would.”

I asked her what the worst smell tends to be. “Fish,” she replied with a belly laugh.

heel-capQuick with a knife, mean on the machines, Tammy capped this heel in less than 10 seconds.
half-calf“I call it ‘Half Calf.'”

I especially enjoyed our lecture from Norm Bellmare (L), the leather man, on the different prices, weights, and cuts of the genuine hides. Although, it says something about me that he made a point to include that this piece was only cut from half the cow.leather-and-shearling

bandt-1Note that Connie Rose wears her wedding ring on the outside of her work gloves.

As might be expected, the Boat and Totes department, nestled behind all the boot folk, is far more serene. That isn’t to say the people behind the machines in toteland are any less hardy. They pump out several hundred of the sturdy canvas bags, with their intricate folds, double reinforcement, and high-quality construction each day.

loopAnn Chartier’s sewing machine spits the handle’s fabric quickly and in a loop pattern.

The bags were originally built as ice carriers, meant to transport ice from the car to the ice box.

boat-bottom1Each side of the base is stitched to the Leaping Labs Boat & Tote in one fell swoop.

The machine built to attach the double-layer base to each bag is set with two sewing machines and microscopic cameras affixed above each needle. They work in tandem to streamline the process.

crab-bagCrab Bag: The canvas for the Tidepool is cut and ready to become a Boat & Tote.

Leaving the factory, as I waved goodbye to the fine people who’ve made this their life’s work, I wondered to myself why Americans assume the production of high quality, stylish, and affordable products like the two shown here is no longer possible in our country. As author Anne Wilson Schaef has said, “Differences challenge assumptions.” L.L. Bean: Different, and with good reason.

tripleBrenda Smith applies Bean’s signature triple-stitch construction to a new pair of Bean Boots.

Stayed tuned tomorrow when I talk about our visit to the company’s headquarters where we met with the production and design teams.

Be sure to check out Foster’s post over at A Restless Transplant for more on our visit.

All images (c) Foster Huntington, 2009.

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “L.L. Bean’s Brunswick, Maine Factory

  1. stlcolleen

    Pretty cool indeed. Great idea for a “field trip” and the photos are top notch. I agree – why do we assume we can not have great yet still affordable American-manufactured goods, whether it be clothing, furniture, etc.?

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  3. Awesome post, great shots. Nice work Max.

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  5. Memphis88

    I got my first pair of Bean Boots this past fall and despite drawing many a curious stare when I wore them (which was often), I think I’m gonna have to get a pair of MHS next fall. I really like how detailed this post was.

  6. things like this make me want to do only one thing and to do it well. I hope more companies see the story inherent in quality and craftsmanship.

  7. Simply an amazing post. “Thank you” to you and A Restless Transplant for posting these photos. Simply, the best posts I’ve seen in a long time.

  8. The Dude

    Well done. Or well plaid, rather. Now my mom is a fan of yours.

  9. Colleen, thank you for reading!

    Folks, if you can think of other ideas for “field trips,” please be in touch. I would love to make this a regular thing for me.

    Ryan, again, honored that you’re reading my blog. Thanks so much!

    Memphis, just curious, why the additional pair?

    GJ, what would that one thing be if you had to choose today?

    HTJ, thank you so much! You’re a hero of mine, and it’s a thrill to know you read my blog. And yes, Foster is a killer!

    Dude, this is what happens when you find a stranger in the alps.

  10. BobT

    Do you think they will ever start producing the 100% cotton shirts again and not the iron-free ones from maylasia. I emailed them and they told they have a demand for it. I would love to wear the soft cotton LL Bean shirts I wore in the 80’s

  11. M@

    This is great Max. It’s refreshing to see an in depth look at an American company producing a good, and not just selling a service.

  12. BobT, call them. They’ll give you the rundown.

    M@, thank you so much for checking out the blog. Big fan of your work.

  13. Ex Back

    If you ever want to hear a reader’s feedback :) , I rate this post for four from five. Decent info, but I just have to go to that damn google to find the missed pieces. Thank you, anyway!

  14. ER

    I love LLBean and were hoping they’d hire me to design after this.

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  16. Thanks for this article

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