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Dispatches: Red Wing & S.B. Foot Tanning Co.

September 20, 2011

Last week I was invited to Red Wing, Minnesota to tour the Red Wing Shoes factory as well as their tannery, S.B. Foot Tanning Company.  Red Wing and S.B. Foot are among the few remaining quality American footwear manufactures, each having been in operation for over a century.  With the tannery and factory floor sharing the same city, this trip afforded the rare opportunity to see footwear go from initial inception to final packaging.

Founded in 1872 and acquired by Red Wing Shoes in the mid-80s, S.B. Foot Tanning Co. is one of the oldest operating tanning companies in the country.  Known for producing quality leather for footwear and accessories, S.B. Foot maintains tried and true methods throughout their tanning process.  Although much of the tannery has been updated with modern machinery (mostly Italian), remnants of the tannery’s past remain present.  Wooden drums are still used for dyeing and waterproofing, the same way it was done when the tannery opened in the late 1800s.

From start to finish, it’s amazing to see all that goes into the final product.  Each hide gets handled no less than ten times as it makes its way to the Red Wing factory, every time getting checked for imperfections.   By the times the leather is ready for use it’s been shaved, dyed, dried, oiled, tanned and tested.

At the end of the day, I have a new-found appreciation for the leather that goes in Red Wing Shoes and nearly all the footwear worn by American service men & women.  The level of detail that the fine mid-western folks of S.B. Foot put into their product is impressive.

Hides, from Nebraska, arrive blue from the chrome treatment which turns the hide into a lasting piece of leather.

Shavers remove a fine layer, opening the pores of the leather before dying.

Wooden drums used for dying and waterproofing.  Each drum uses one specific color throughout its life.

Leather, rolled and ready for the factory floor.

Leather that does not pass quality inspections is packaged and shipped off for use elsewhere.

On top of everything that goes into the tanning process, S.B. Foot also does their own testing.  In the lab strength, heat resilience, waterproofing and a whole list of other testing is done.  When it comes to waterproofing tests, each piece of leather is bent 20,000 times.

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