BRUNSWICK — Beth Toothaker worked seasonally at L.L. Bean for several years before she accepted a full-time job in the company’s Industrial Parkway boot manufacturing facility last April.
There, she learned the step-by-step process of how the iconic leather-and-rubber duck boots are made: cut, sewn, and assembled by hand in a process that takes about 45 minutes.
But the thing that surprised her most about her new job wasn’t the nitty-gritty; it was the big picture.
“The volume that goes out of this building is mind-boggling,” she said Tuesday morning while standing on the 7,000-square-foot production floor. Nearby, hundreds of other employees chatted and stretched during a 9 a.m. break.
Though Bean Boots – or Maine Hunting Shoes – have been around since 1912, the popularity of the classic footwear has skyrocketed in recent years.
The company announced last week that it would add about 100 news jobs in the coming years to its Brunswick and Lewiston factories to keep up with demand.
But spokesperson Mac McKeever said the company has “pretty much been perpetually hiring in Brunswick,” including around 100 people last year. The pay range is $12-$17 per hour for a manufacturing employee.
In 2016, the company sold 600,000 pairs of Bean Boots, and expects to grow the number to 700,000 pairs for 2017, McKeever said.
The Brunswick and Lewiston plants are the only production buildings owned and operated by L.L. Bean. In Brunswick, the company also assembles bicycles, stitches tote bags, and makes dog bed liners.
More than 400 Bean employees work in Brunswick, where the facility operates six days a week, 24 hours a day.
Each day, 3,000 pairs of Bean Boots are made, in a process that Toothaker explained involves several steps.
First, a cutting machine and a metal stencil are used to carve a large swatch of leather – sourced from Maine and Minnesota – into the component pieces that make up the top half of the boot.
Next, the pieces are are shaved to a thinner width along the seams to make the joints easier for sewing. Meanwhile, miscellaneous tasks are completed: insoles are sewn and tested for holes; rubber stamps with the company’s name are cut and affixed to the rubber soles.
After the leather “uppers” are sewn together, they are affixed and sewn to the rubber soles, which are made on an injection molding machine. McKeever said the Lewiston facility just received an additional piece of this equipment to help ramp up production.
It takes six months of training to work at L.L. Bean and learn the kind of handiwork and craftsmanship that goes into making each part of the boot. Employees are hired as a part of a specific production team: pre-fitting, cutting, miscellaneous, core assembly, shearling, and “finish end.”
New employees – or “Beanie babies,” as they’re called – start by working a few shifts a week, which are gradually increased to a full-time schedule. Toothaker said the phased hours reflect a company culture that ensures the employees are taking care of their bodies, given the physical demands of the job.
“I went down a ring size,” she said, after months of working with her hands. Since being hired in the miscellaneous department – which handles features like insoles – she has started to train new employees.
She recently accepted a new position in shearling, which she called “a fuzzy” job that often leaves employees looking “like you’ve been tarred and feathered.”
“The value of what we do is something we have to buy into,” she said. “We’re each other’s customers,” and workmanship and quality matter as much to the next person in the assembly line as they do to the final costumer.
Toothaker said that whenever she sees someone wearing a pair of Bean Boots on the street, she proudly wonders if her hands had touched those boots.
Beth Toothaker, an employee at L.L. Bean’s boot manufacturing facility in Brunswick, with insoles she crafted. “The volume that goes out of this building is mind-boggling,” she said.
An L.L. Bean assembly worker in Brunswick shaves a piece of boot leather down to create a seam, where it will be hand-sewn to a rubber sole.
More than 400 employees work at the L.L. Bean production facility in Brunswick.
Edited 1/11 to correct daily output.