THE CRAFTSMAN BOOT, A LOVE STORY
Grandad wore them, Dad has them, and the kids are keen to follow that tradition, only now it’s with rolled up jeans that’ll show off the tugs. Gretel Sneath uncovers the legend of the Craftsman, R.M.Williams’ most-loved boot.
Half a million and counting.
That’s how many new boots will be venturing out into the world this year from R.M.Williams’ Adelaide workshop. The best-selling Craftsman will lead the way, and its distinct chisel toe and iconic tugs will be easy to track. “It’s the most recognisable boot in our stable, and it certainly stands out on the foot,” says R.M.Williams Head of Footwear Development, David Cook.
Originally built to withstand the worst the Australian outback can throw at them, the Craftsman has become the ultimate expression of quality, style and versatility. From generations of farmers to the hippest crowds, corporate high flyers and even global leaders, the universal appeal of heritage and tradition adapts to all manner of conditions.
“It can be a dress boot, but it can also be worn in the saddle, and it’s definitely a bit of a status thing in the cities,” David says. “The young ones are all keen to get their RMs, roll the jeans up and show off the tugs, but then you also look at our country customers - Grandad wore them, Dad has them, and now the kids are keen to get them on and follow that tradition.”
Every nick, scratch and crease on a Craftsman boot tells a story; symbols of a life well lived. They become part of their owner’s legacy, just as they have for Reginald Murray (RM) Williams, a horseman and an explorer with boundless entrepreneurial drive. RM first learned the secrets of bush saddlery and leatherwork during the Great Depression from a character named ‘Dollar Mick’. The chance encounter at a makeshift camp in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges would prove life changing, with RM taking his new skills back to the city. He set up shop in his father’s shed at 5 Percy Street, Prospect, and placed a sixpence newspaper advertisement for hard-wearing elastic side boots, made-to-measure for stockmen and drovers -‘People who are specialists. People who expect them to last,’ RM said.
There was purposeful design behind the single piece of leather used in their construction, requiring only one seam at the heel. “It meant that they wouldn’t rub against the stirrup when you were riding your horse, and it also stopped the water and dust from soaking through, which was of course very important out in the bush,” David Cook explains.
Their undeniable character also made them popular among city folk, and so the Craftsman was launched in 1966 to cover all bases. Handcrafted from the finest quality leather, it was an equally robust yet more refined version of the original one-piece of leather design. Durable for work, but also elegant for dress, it was the country boot that went to town. “It was the first step out of work boots and boots for the land, towards an all-occasion boot that could be worn out on a night at the pub or to a more formal event if required, and this is a feature of the boot still to this day,” David explains.
In fact very little has changed since it hit the streets and stockyards nearly 60 years ago, apart from a slight shortening of the toe in the early 1980s when wider fits were introduced, creating the iconic chisel shape. “At the time, everything was round toe and a little heavier looking, so this subtle wedge tapering to a slender silhouette was more of a step into fashion; a little bit edgy without scaring off our more conservative customers,” David says.
The design was a hit, and the pattern has stuck - a remarkable achievement in a fast-moving world. “There aren’t many products or industries that haven’t evolved, but our boots have barely moved in their DNA and soul,” David says. “It’s still the same boot it was way back when, and it hasn’t had to change over time to maintain its popularity – it just becomes even more popular.”
R.M.Williams is one of few bootmakers in the world to continue the centuries-old tradition of sewn Goodyear welt construction, enabling boots to be fixed if they’ve been worked too hard. This is what allows the brand to offer customers the ‘occasional tune up’ of their boots - the repair and replacement of sole, heel stacks and rubber, elastics and tugs. It’s the premium way to make footwear and also the only way to make it repairable; once you take a stuck-on sole off a conventional boot, there’s no going back.
The leather choices now include exotic NT crocodile, ostrich and ultra-tough kangaroo along with burnished seasonal colours inspired by nature, but they’re still cut and sewn as a single piece to ensure a perfect fit and lasting wear. Master craftsman, Steve Moore, says there are no shortcuts, with each pair finished to exacting standards. “It would be much easier and quicker to make boots out of several pieces of leather, but here, you don’t make; you craft - it’s all about precision, and we feel a responsibility to keep standards high,” he says.
RM advertised “Quality Goods made for those who are tired of the extravagance of cheap things”. And nothing has changed. Every boot is still made by hand, with each piece of leather passing through 80 sets of them before it’s ready to wear. “Human hands are the best craft tools,” Steve says.
Some of the craftsmen and craftswomen have worked side-by-side for decades. There’s been several marriages, and countless stories of mateship. “We’re a family; we spend a lot of time together, and we look out for one another just as you would with your own family, helping each other out and also passing on our knowledge to the next generation,” Steve says.
Three shifts run over 18 hours, and plans are afoot to introduce a fourth to meet ever-growing market demand - “They’re outrageously popular; we just can’t produce enough,” Steve says.
A bell rings and there’s a few cheers from the floor as the day’s target is met. Boot number 1300 is given a final polish before being carefully placed into a box, closing the lid on a perfectly orchestrated melody of skills. It took the unhurried craftsmanship of 80 dedicated men and women to get it this far, adding a small piece of their own story as it passed through their hands, building character with every step. And now the world beckons.