‘Cowboy Booties’ Ascending
by Gene Fowler
Shoe and bootmaker Murphy Thiel of Run and Hide Leather in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, knows a thing or two about taking it to the next level. She moved back to the Eastern Seaboard just recently after an intense, two-year apprenticeship with bootmaker Deana McGuffin in Albuquerque, New Mexico. But at age 30, her personal journey to leatherwork goes much further back and includes a number of forks in the road where Murphy hightailed her hide-craft to a whole ‘nother level.
Born in the town that I’ll always think of only as “Detroit City,” thanks to Bobby Bare’s 1963 tune of the same name, she began experimenting with design as a kiddo in her parents’ fine art shop. Exploring the uses of the store’s tools inspired her to haul out her mom’s dusty, steel-green 1970s sewing machine and try her hand at pajamas, prom dresses and other garments. After high school, Murphy enrolled in the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan, majoring in menswear design.
“I based my senior collection on motorcycle gear,” she says, “and the leather jacket I made won ‘best in show’ for my class.” That led to working for a “really cool punk label” in New York that made motorcycle jackets. “And that’s where I really fell in love with leather. I learned about how easily leather is manipulated. You can do so many things with it: hammer it, mold it, experiment with it in all kinds of ways. I found that I just had no patience with fabrics and clothing—they’re all so finicky.”
At some point during her decade in New York, she also launched an early iteration of Run and Hide, handcrafting clogs, bags, wallets and key holders. She also went back to school and snagged a two-year degree in footwear and shoemaking. “That was useful,” she says, “but it really just scratched the surface.” She was able to grab a good gig designing high-end handbags, but the glamour of sitting at a computer all day wore off pretty fast. “I wanted to do something with my hands. I wanted a hands-on situation. I wanted to make things, and to learn to make things you really need to apprentice with someone.”
Taking things to the next level, and noting her love of the creativity that goes into custom cowboy boots, she scouted the country for apprenticeship opportunities. She talked to the inestimable bootman Lee Miller in Austin, and he said he’d be glad to take her on as an apprentice. But, he was all booked up in that department for at least a couple of years. Then Murphy ran across the highly regarded two-week intensive boot camps offered by the master bootmaker Deana McGuffin in Albuquerque. “I knew the two weeks wouldn’t be enough,” says Thiel, “so I reached out to her and asked if I could apprentice with her for a longer period of time. And she was so funny and kind of a tough ass – I liked that about her immediately. She said she didn’t want to go into it by phone or email, but if I would fly out there we could talk about it. I thought that was so crazy and cool that it was right up my alley.”
The two must have hit it off okay as Murphy stayed in Albuquerque for two years, learning from and working with the veteran bootmaker. And perhaps Deana saw something of her own maverick spirit in the young artist with all the tattoos. A third-generation New Mexico bootmaker, McGuffin had been taught by her father, the late L. W. McGuffin, who resisted his daughter’s apprenticeship until she was in her thirties. (L. W.’s bootmaking pop, C. C. McGuffin, had set up shop in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1915.) Like a lot of crusty old leather hands of the West, L. W. didn’t think gals were strong enough to make boots.
“But she was such an amazing teacher,” adds Thiel. “She has a motherly nature and she’s so patient, but she’s also tough. She lets you know that your job is to pay attention and learn. But you need that. There’s so many things to learn and you can’t be scared of making mistakes. It takes making your third or fourth pair to feel like you’re even starting to get the hang of it.” But with Deana’s experience and bootmaking DNA, says Murphy, “A lot of things she did were just second nature.”
Moreover, added the apprentice, McGuffin’s bootology is so perceptive that she knows that no matter how long you’ve been making boots and how good you might be at it, you never stop learning. “Once I got the initial skills down, we would even learn from each other, bounce ideas off each other. One of us would ask the other, ‘Why are you folding that this way?’ ‘Why are you using this glue?’ ‘Why do you use this knife this way?’ At the same time that she was teaching me, she gave me space to learn on my own. And that’s when you begin to find out that in large part, you make your own technique. You can’t do everything exactly the same as anyone else and you develop your own style.”
Thiel recently got her first Pennsylvania order for a pair of custom cowboy boots, one that will be festooned with flowers. And she plans for bootmaking to fill a larger part of Run and Hide Leather’s business going forward. At the moment, she’s only making them for women. “I have a full set of women’s lasts,” she says. “Eventually I’ll probably get the men’s lasts and add men’s boots to my line.” She acquired the needed tools and other materials from Sorrell Notions and Findings, run by bootmaker Lisa Sorrell in Guthrie, Oklahoma.
Before re-adding cowboy boots to her maker’s repertoire, Murphy Thiel focused on—and continues to focus on—a unique form of footwear that she calls “cowboy booties” that she developed during her apprenticeship. “I wanted to fuse my love of western wear with a style that was more modern, fashionable and trendy. So, I started playing around with different silhouettes and came up with the cowboy bootie.” The photographs of cowboy booties on the Run and Hide website reveal a glamorous and distinctive style of footwear that could also go with everyday wear. In addition to offering custom booties, the shoemaker also has some ready-to-wear that people can order. In the leather department, the booties’ upper hide is sourced from Horween in Chicago, while the soles, shanks, lining and insole leather comes from Panhandle.
Launching a small business in the age of COVID, of course, comes with a whole new level of challenges. “I’d been supplementing my income during this time with restaurant work and since getting laid-off, I’ve been running on fumes. The past year has been really hard. Luxury items like bespoke shoes and boots have been a hard sell.”
Still, she’s resilient and optimistic and sees a silver lining in a time of struggle. “People say I’ve got a really good, unique product and I know that’s true. Orders have been trickling in and I’ve been getting really good feedback. People like it and I’m ready—soo ready—to take it to the next level, wherever that may be.”