A Ladies Touch
By Danna Burns Shaw
When you visit with Lisa Sorrell you soon realize that she has a zest for learning and chooses to live a bigger and kinder life.
Lisa was raised in southwest Missouri in a conservative church where the women all wore long hair and long dresses. Her mother began teaching her to sew when she was 12 years old, and by age 15 she was making dresses for ladies at church.
Lisa met and married Dale in 1990 and moved to Guthrie, Oklahoma, after the wedding. After six months of being a new bride Lisa became bored and restless after leaving her sewing business behind in Missouri. Seeking employment, she answered an ad in the local newspaper looking for someone to “stitch boot tops.” The ad was placed by Jay Griffith, who had recently moved to Guthrie from Fairfax after managing Blucher Boots. (Historic record shows that during Jay’s time at Blucher Boots it actually became Griffith Blucher Boots.) Jay was quick to point out that sewing material was nothing like sewing leather, but he decided to give this young naïve woman the job.
Growing up, Lisa had never been around anyone who cussed or drank alcohol. Lisa said Jay did both… passionately! Eyes wide open, Lisa was overwhelmed with her new job. She had never seen a machine that had a foot or a knee lift and had never sewn on leather. She was trying to navigate this new world of people screaming and cussing at each other and amid all the utter confusion, Lisa found that bootmaking appealed to her at a basic level.
Jay never showed Lisa anything but her job; he didn’t teach her how to build boots, he taught her to sew boot tops and that was it. But Lisa was now immersed into a full working boot shop. She became very interested in all the processes of bootmaking, the creative side and the physical side of hammering and constructing a pair of custom boots.
“Every time Jay fired up the straight needle machine, I would go stand at his elbow and watch him work. I was fascinated with it. I loved the sound of a straight needle; it kind of goes caachunk, caachunk. Sometimes I would go in the back and watch his stepson, Woody, work too,” said Lisa. “The way I was raised, girls did girl things and boys did boy things. What appealed to me about bootmaking was there was a place for my creativity to flourish. I got to sew beautiful designs and work with beautiful colors of leather and thread, but at the same time I would get to hammer and use huge machines, doing more physical things as well.”
Within a few weeks of discovering the craft of cowboy bootmaking, Jim showed Lisa an article about Deana McGuffin, a female boot maker from Albuquerque, New Mexico. At that moment Lisa realized she’d found her calling…because women could be bootmakers too! After seeing that article, Lisa analyzed in her head how long it would take before she could get her own shop. Lisa estimated seven years; it only took her five years.
After working for Jay for 1 1/2 years, Lisa decided to go out on her own. She bought a flatbed Singer 110W 125 and started stitching boot tops for bootmakers throughout the country.
She purchased Tyler Beard’s The Cowboy Boot Book, went to the directory and sent letters to all the bootmakers in that book, stating she would stitch one pair of boot tops for them for free so they could judge the quality of her work. Evidently her work was great because she never had to stitch a boot top for free.
After 1 1/2 years of stitching other bootmakers boot tops, Lisa got the opportunity to train with Ray Dowart, a former student of Jay’s. He told Lisa she could purchase two months of training with him. Ray allowed Lisa to be an unpaid apprentice for a year and a half, and the reason she didn’t have to be a paying apprentice was because she could stitch boot tops. So Lisa paid her way by stitching boot tops for Ray.
In October of 1996 Lisa, opened her new boot shop in her husband’s auto-part warehouse, where he gave her a 10’x50’ space. She was pregnant and they had a two-year-old, so Dale made a loft where the kids could play while Lisa built boots.
Lisa’s big break came when Tyler Beard asked if he could feature her in his second book, Art of the Boot. Tyler noticed she was doing fun colorful things and asked for some samples of her work. Because she was so new and didn’t have a big customer base, she sent Tyler her and her husband’s personal boots. They were very colorful with emphasis on design. Since those were the boots that were featured in the book, that’s what Lisa became known for. Lisa assumed she would be making four-row stitch pattern, working cowboy boots, because that’s what everyone else was doing. But as luck would have it, clients picked the boots that were featured in Tyler Beard’s book, and that’s what set her on the path where she is today. From that experience, Lisa learned that how you present yourself is very important.
When asked what the biggest challenge in making a custom boot is, Lisa answered, “I am always going to go with fit, because no matter how beautiful the boot I make is, no matter how technically perfect it is, and no matter how much I think it fits, if the customer doesn’t think it fits, it doesn’t fit. So, fitting will always and forever be a challenge. The old bootmakers used to say, ‘You don’t fit their foot, you fit their head.’ If you could take people’s opinions out of boot fitting, then you could perhaps make a formula for boot fitting. But because you have people inside those boots, you are going to have opinions about how the boot feels to them.”
When beginning a new pair of boots Lisa always starts by fitting the last. This allows her to get “a feel for the customer” by fitting their last. Once that has been done, she gets the insole ready and proofs the vamps. Lisa stated, “Those things that take time, I like to have ready and waiting for me. I get annoyed with myself when I go through steps and reach a point where I must wait for two days. This could’ve been ready if I had been paying attention.”
Lisa isn’t trying to get 18 pairs of boots out a month. She is a bespoke bootmaker, creating $10,000+ boots, a far cry from her early imprinting of just building four-row stitch pattern, working cowboy boots. Even so, Lisa is obsessed with efficiency. When speaking of her shop she said, “I keep my shop clean; every tool has a place. I like things to flow in my shop; the machines are in order, so I move from one to the next in a logical manner. I like pieces to be ready for the next step. I do not like wasted motion or wasted steps.”
Lisa’s expertise has led her to teach others the art of cowboy bootmaking. “I always tell my students, if you’re routinely spending time looking for a tool, you’re wasting time. Put your tools back and you’ll know where they are.”
Lisa also stated, “There is a common misconception with people trying to get into this industry. I’ll get calls or emails and people will say, ‘I want to learn how to make boots, how much will you pay me?’ No that’s not how it works…I don’t pay you.”
Lisa’s new business is Sorrell Notions and Findings. She started the business in 2014 to help other bootmakers find the tools and notions that everyone was looking for, but weren’t finding. Viewing it from a bootmaker’s perspective, Lisa knew it was difficult to find a certain pair of boot lasts or water-based glues or a particular tool that no one was offering in the US. Her philosophy for the business is if she wanted or needed these items, then other bootmakers did as well.
Starting the company offering water-based glue and two knives, the lucrative business has just kept growing and has turned into Lisa’s primary business. It has given her the opportunity to make the kind of boots she wants to make, for the people she wants to make them for. “Cowboy boots are commissioned; sometimes you get to guide a customer, but you make what the customer wants. Over the years I began having design visions, opinions and wishes, and it was always a dream that I would get to slow down and someday turn these dreams into reality. Sorrell Notions and Findings has given me that freedom…to begin exploring what I want to do,” says Lisa.
She is currently growing out of her 2,500-square-foot space and will soon be limited, if she doesn’t find a bigger space, to expand her line of products. The company is run primarily through a website that Lisa supports. Her vision and goal is for folks to be able to go to one website and find all the things that are needed for bootmakers.
Lisa doesn’t offer classes anymore; these days she spends the entire day behind a computer and this limits her ability to teach. But occasionally she will open up her space for an apprentice, someone who wants to come in and rent her fully-equipped space. This person must know what they are doing and be able to handle the tools and the machinery without being supervised.
Lisa enjoyed teaching over the years and said, “Teaching is about more than saying words at people. If you don’t understand what you are doing, you can’t teach it. Sometimes your students will ask you questions that you don’t know the answer to, so you have to dig deep to figure out why you are doing what you are doing.”
Lisa would love the opportunity to teach at a university for a full year, not having to cram everything into a two-week class. To be able to spend time teaching each technique completely would be a dream for her.
If Lisa had a bigger building she would possibly go back into teaching and bring in guest teachers, but for now she is very content running her shop and Sorrell Findings & Notions by herself.
Lisa has a YouTube channel and monthly show called It’s a Boot Life. Several years ago, she filmed a bootmaking video, which is available for purchase on an eight DVD set. She wanted to contribute to the industry she loves and felt this was a great way to do that.
The hardest thing Lisa has had to endure is losing her wonderful daughter, Paige, in May 2017 to suicide. Paige was her first student and her best student, which has made going back to teaching seem impossible right now.
Lisa said she learned early on in the grieving process that she would have to make a choice…this would either make her bigger or smaller. Despite the unbearable tragedy of losing her daughter, Lisa chooses to be bigger and kinder, proving that hard circumstances don’t make the person, they reveal them. She has many talents and uses them to become bigger by learning more, giving more and being more.
Lisa’s website says it best:
Lisa’s dedication to learning the craft of bootmaking and her flair for design has established her as a master bootmaker. Her work offers fresh ways to examine the art of the cowboy boot within the context of heritage and tradition. She creates dialog through interplay of color, texture and technique, preserving tradition and keeping consistent with pioneers of the craft by interpreting vintage designs in contemporary and modern ways.
Accolades & Awards
Lisa has won many awards for her work at competitions throughout the United States, as well as Germany and the Netherlands. In 2011, she was a featured artist on the PBS series “Craft in America.” She’s been featured in multiple magazines from “Cowboys and Indians” to “American Craft,” and her work is in Tyler Beard’s books The Art of the Boot and Cowboy Boots and Jennifer June’s book Cowboy Boots: The Art and Sole. She’s also the author of the first book ever written documenting the way art is traditionally created on cowboy boot tops. The Art of Leather Inlay and Overlay is published by Schiffer Publishing and was released in June 2016.
217 E. Oklahoma
Guthrie, Ok 73044