In an age where we are all trying to purge our homes of manmade plastics and constantly obsessing over natural products and their provenance, not many people realise that the humble Wellington boot offers consumers yet another chance for mindful purchasing.
Not all rubber used to make boots is the same. Cheaper-priced boots use a cocktail of artificial toxic chemicals to create a synthetic rubber polymer, whereas premium brands actually harvest natural rubber from trees. The iconic long green boots are manufactured using ancient recipes and methods to create some of the UK’s most-popular waterproof footwear.
Like any natural product, the quality of rubber is determined by how it is produced. In Le Chameau’s case, the rubber is sourced from Vietnam, the world’s third largest producer. As David Robinson, CEO of Le Chameau, explains, they have been working with the same plantation since 2005. “High quality rubber can only be produced by good farming. Climatic purity makes a huge difference. The trees have around a 30-year lifespan, and the plantations are surrounded by other crops to prevent wind damage to the trees.”
Spring In Your Step
“The other thing that can make a difference is the season – so spring rubber is much better than winter rubber – the colour and properties vary quite a bit,” adds David.
Each tree is ‘tapped’, much like maple trees to produce maple syrup. In the Pará rubber tree this produces raw latex, a milky white substance. Properly harvested the sapping can be done without harming the trees. The liquid latex is allowed to coagulate and can then be collected and processed into its dry form to be shipped to Le Chameau’s workshop.
The raw rubber forms into loaves, which are around 6ft3 in size and form the base material of their boots. Each loaf is graded from A through to D, the grading determined by colour, purity and stickiness – much like gold is subject to colour, cut and clarity ratings. Le Chameau uses only Grade A rubber, which is light coloured and has low ash and dirt content.
The first task, when they arrive at the factory, is to produce a more malleable sheet with which the maître bottier (master bootmakers) can start work, and to add some ‘improvers’ that will give the rubber different properties. “We add a few special ingredients,” David says, “but I can’t tell you what – that is a trade secret!”
Claude Chamot, who founded Le Chameau in 1927, pioneered a recipe for what he considered to be the perfect rubber to make boots, and today’s mixture still has its origins in his recipe. However, over the last nine decades, Le Chameau, true to Chamot’s principles, has continued to refine its products, including the rubber processing done at its workshops.
“We have never filed a patent for the recipe – if we did that, anyone could use it after the patent expired,” says David. “The mixture is made to produce Chamolux, the soft, supple and durable rubber which forms the basis of all our boots.”
Durability is a key factor when it comes to this part of the boot making – for not only must the rubber not crack or melt and be waterproof, it must also stand up to some pretty abrasive natural chemicals, “particularly when it comes to boots for the equine or farming world,” David says. “Just think of urea – our rubber must have a very strong constitution, without compromising on the comfort and soft feel of the material.”
Secret ingredients at the ready, the raw rubber is masticated, rendering the rubber into a strong, stable and supple material. “It’s not unlike baking – there is an exact recipe, but you still need to be a good baker to make the ingredients into something special.
“Luckily, we have some pretty spectacular bakers at the workshop,” adds David.
Roll With It
The next step in the boot-making process is to roll the rubber into the correct thickness. Like a giant pasta machine, the rollers turn, producing an initial slab, which is then cut and fed into the next roller, until the specific thickness required emerges from the final rollers – thick enough to have an integral strength, but thin enough for each maître bottier to manipulate it.
With the rubber in a soft, thin and malleable state, it can be used by a maître bottier to cover an aluminium boot-shaped mould known as a last. Layer upon layer is sandwiched together with liquid latex, producing an ever stronger and more stable construction. It is at this stage that the different models of boots can be adapted, says David.
“There are some models that have a Kevlar layer, for example. Or the ridge on the toe which offers more protection. This is built up at the layering stage.” “We use our own recycled rubber for the layering parts that we add Kevlar too – we do that by adding fibres, so the Kevlar isn’t a separate layer, it becomes part of the rubber.”
The sole of the boot also uses a considered design. David explains: “We use a very durable rubber for the outsoles to work in combination with our special tread pattern. Together these different elements achieve grip while also providing a natural release of mud when the foot flexes. This combination ensures you get the best possible traction and stability in muddy conditions.” It is at this stage, once the boot assembly is complete, that the vulcanisation process comes into play.
The final product must of course be tested before it can be worn, and this is done one at a time. Each boot is placed into a water bath and air is pushed into the boot to ensure every boot leaves the factory leak-free.
“Finally,” David says, “any boots that use a leather and metal logo have this applied. It’s the final stamp of approval, and it deserves to be done by hand.” It’s an extraordinary journey from a tree in Vietnam to the British countryside. And Le Chameau have confidence in this journey – evidenced by the fact that all their boots come with a two-year warranty against manufacturing defects. David concludes: “We want all our customers to buy their handmade boots with confidence, so they can go an enjoy great times in them.”