Walking 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….
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.
The 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.The 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
The bags were originally built as ice carriers, meant to transport ice from the car to the ice box.
Each 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 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.
Brenda 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.
All images (c) Foster Huntington, 2009.