Craft of bootmaking spreads

• Handmade work still valued commodity by a few rare folks living a world apart

By Kathy Aney / (Pendleton) East Oregonian

Published Jan 10, 2014 at 12:06AM

PENDLETON — At first glance, they might not seem to have much in common.

One is a computer-savvy Brazilian college student, Matheus Simoes Pires, who lives in a city of one million. The other, 75-year-old Pendleton bootmaker George Ziermann, doesn’t even own a cellphone. They live in different hemispheres, separated by more than 6,500 miles.

The common denominator might be a shared love of old-school craftsmanship.

Pires found the Pendleton bootmaker after watching an Internet video that chronicles him working leather and lamenting the evolution of bootmaking from handmade to cheaper factory production.

Ziermann takes three months to produce plastic-free boots that last 15 to 20 years. In the video, he said he hoped to pass his know-how to someone who might carry on, but he was losing hope.

“It would be a sad deal for all this information to go by the wayside,” Ziermann said in the film as he deftly operated an ancient sewing machine.

Washington videographer Andrew Plotsky shot the video last year. He listened and filmed away as the bootmaker worked in his shop, George’s Handmade Boots. Plotsky posted the video to his blog, Farmrun. Ziermann, who doesn’t have a computer, or even a television or radio, promptly forgot about it.

Pires, 23, studies product design at Brazil’s Universidade Federal do Ro Grande Do Sul in Porto Alegre and owns a small shoe making business on the side. His cousin sent him the video.

“The video went quite viral,” Pires said.

After watching the five-minute production, he was jazzed.

“It’s hard to find this kind of knowledge,” Pires said. “There’s not many people who do it the way he does. I decided to go where I needed to go to make shoes the right way.”

He called Ziermann to ask if he could apprentice during his summer vacation in December and January.

“He called and wanted to find out how to put a shoe together,” Ziermann recalled. “I figured if someone wants to learn something, they ought to learn it.”

On Dec. 9, two weeks after the phone call, Pires arrived in Pendleton. These days, you will find him inside Ziermann’s aromatic shop, learning his mentor’s 72-step process for turning leather into boots. Pires soaks it all in with a smile.

It’s old-school, to be sure. Much of the equipment is older than he is. Case in point is a 1902 Landis stitching machine he uses to sew through thick leather. Sometimes, Ziermann, a former machinist, has to make his own parts for it.

Pires is reveling in the older bootmaker’s passion for quality.

“In Brazil, all we have are big factories and lines of production,” Pires said. “The whole industry is working towards disposable footwear that lasts only a year or so.”

Pires isn’t Ziermann’s only disciple. The video also inspired Anne Jaso, of Walla Walla, Wa., although Jaso had no shoe-making experience whatsoever.

“It was a compelling piece,” Jaso said. “All the old craftsman ways are falling by the wayside. It felt important to come here.”

On a whim, she drove to Pendleton to find Ziermann’s shop. He showed Jaso around the shop, which she describes as “a slice out of time.” A massive Sears Roebuck drill press, five or six different sewing machines with names such as Singer, Adler and Schmetz, drawers full of rivets and screws, grinding and polishing machines and an old Mr. Coffee.

Ziermann offered to teach her his craft.

“He’s been doing this 45 years,” Jaso said. “It’s ridiculous how simple he makes it look.”

Pires looks at home in the shop, comfortable with the process he is learning. When he leaves for Brazil in early February, he will carry precious knowledge, along with his luggage and a pair of handmade boots on his feet.

He will never forget Ziermann, who regales him and Jaso with stories at break-time and shares decades of bootmaking expertise the rest of the day.

“He’s pretty cool,” Pires said.

Pires and Jaso are happy they acted so quickly, jumping through a window of opportunity. Ziermann’s bootmaking days may be coming to an end. He recently received an offer to buy his business and is in the process of striking a deal.