Walking a mile in self-made shoes

EDITOR’S NOTE: Back in June, I posted a link to an interview on the Big Cartel blog with a staffer, Mollie Silva, who was using her art grant to learn shoemaking. It’s a subject many, many slow fashion advocates and Slow Fashion October participants have expressed interest in, so I asked Mollie if she would write a bit for us about her experience learning the craft. I hope to score a pair of Mollie’s turquoise oxfords one of these days, and to someday follow in her footsteps. (Sorry, couldn’t resist!) Meanwhile, here’s Mollie—

Walking a mile in self-made shoes

Ten months ago I walked in to a handmade boot shop in my hometown of Tucson, Arizona, and asked a seventy-seven-year-old bootmaker if he’d be willing to take an apprentice under his wings. Ten months and one cross-country flight later, I walked in to Brooklyn Shoe Space in New York for a shoe patternmaking class with some of the most talented young handmade shoemakers in the country. But this time I walked in wearing my own handmade shoes.

By day I work for a scrappy independent ecommerce company called Big Cartel. And for almost a year now my nights and weekends have been spent learning the craft of handmade shoes. A year ago, I could have told you I loved shoes and that I’d always had an interest in learning to design and make them. I couldn’t have told you that I’d now have made ten pairs for myself and am on my way to making them for others too. Growing up on a farm, I learned at an early age the importance of knowing where and how the things you consume in your life are made. I’ve always had a respect and awareness around that, and as a result, a love for handmade and as often as possible locally sourced goods. It’s what fuels my passion for my work at Big Cartel, supporting artists and independent makers, and what led to my seeking out a better way to shop for shoes.

For years I had looked for a way to learn the craft of shoemaking. There are traditional routes like fashion-focused design schools and footwear schools. But they’re expensive, a huge time commitment, and just never felt like quite the right fit for me. I learn best by doing. So when I started thinking about what I wanted to do with my employee art grant, a perk all employees at Big Cartel get, I started to rethink about my path to shoemaking. I searched for a local cobbler on Yelp that might be able to get me started and found Stewart Boot, a handmade western boot shop just a couple miles from me in South Tucson. Victor Borg, the owner, and all the other talented craftsmen at Stewart know boots. It’s what they’ve spent the majority of their lives doing, as it takes a lifetime to do the work they’re able to do. They are truly artisans.

I felt way in over my head on day one. And honestly, I still feel that way often. But along the way I’ve learned an enormous respect for having a craft, the patience it takes to learn it, and the humbling experience of undertaking learning a trade that takes a lifetime. I have questions every day and I expect to for as long as I continue to make shoes. And from the people I’ve met along the way I’ve learned that everyone else always has those questions too. The important part is to start, and once you start, to keep going.

The challenges to learning shoemaking are many. First, there is no easy way to learn. The information you need to know isn’t widely available online or even in traditional learning environments. The old way of apprenticeship has slowly died off and along with it people that are able to teach. It’s why I’m in Brooklyn this week learning patternmaking. It won’t be the last time I have to seek out resources beyond my hometown either. Second, components are hard to find. Manufacturing is still shrouded in a cloud of mystery and secrecy that makes it tough for a newcomer to know where to go to get the materials they need. Luckily, there are people working to change that. More and more resources are becoming available almost every day and veteran shoemakers and young shoemakers passionate about the craft are working to share knowledge, make it accessible, and ultimately share the love of handmade shoes with as many people as possible.

There’s a new garnered interest in shoppers as well around knowing where their things come from and an even greater appreciation for knowing the maker. It’s a personal connection that makes having or wearing that item that much more special. And that’s what keeps us, as makers, not only in business but passionate about what we do. The feeling of wearing my own handmade shoes and being asked where I got them never gets old. Nor does the feeling of making something that is so treasured for someone else. There’s a personal story in every pair — even if that story was having to pick stitching out by hand and start over because you forgot to rethread your machine with the right color before starting.

Despite the challenges, I can tell you it’s worth it. I am just as passionate about making shoes today as I was on day one. More passionate. If you really love something, you will find people willing to help you along the way. Just start somewhere, anywhere. In ten months you might find yourself flying across the country with wonderful people, sharing, learning, and being just as excited as you are about what started as your weekend handmade hobby.
Mollie Silva

Shoes and Craft — a shoemaker’s blog about shoemaking
Shoemaking Tutorials — video channel
Brooklyn Shoe Space — in-person classes and co-working space + blog
Bespoke Shoemaking — a comprehensive guidebook


PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion October: Why I make my own clothes

23 thoughts on “Walking a mile in self-made shoes

  1. Wow, I love that you are making your own shoes. I would love to learn more about shoe making in the future and I am lucky enough to live not far from London where a few courses have run recently. Good luck with your next course! Mel

  2. My grandfather was a boot maker for Justin Boots back in the early 1900s. This post makes me want to see if I can follow in his path.

  3. How wonderful and inspiring that Mollie found a way to do this. I really admire her dedication to doing what she wants to do.

  4. I really want to take a boot class at the chicago school of shoe making. (they call it boot camp lol) they do all kinds of leather crafting!

  5. side question: is there a ravelry for sewing? a place to keep patterns you want to look at/purchase/compare later?

      • Man, I really want a legit “Ravelry for sewing” to exist and succeed (the closest analog has been the venerable patternreview.com, which can be a great resource but also has a different focus and functionality).

        I’m supporting Textillia, but I’m concerned about their business model. Having been there for the early-days debates about Ravelry’s model, I think the particular mix they eventually developed has been critical to the site’s success and its embrace by the community (no cost to members, everything public-to-other-members, but only selected things public-to-the-internet, profitable via tasteful, self-served ads from small fiber-y businesses and pattern sales by designers).

        I understand and admire Textillia’s reluctance to be an “ad-supported free site” in the modern (exploitative) sense, but I am concerned that their determination to eventually be subscription-based will not allow for the inclusivity that I think is required to become a community hub in the way Ravelry has. Casey and Jess had a bunch of different ideas about how Ravelry might work in the early days, and a good deal of where they’ve wound up grew organically from listening to the community and trying different things. So I’m hoping that Ariane and Bruno of Textillia will be open to the same learning process, and that their site will similarly thrive!

        • Hey Julia (and everyone!) I just got a heads up about this post and wanted to say thanks so much for the support, and also that we’ve had a lot of great feedback about the business model ideas we began with, which we’ve continued to discuss and re-evaluate over the past (almost) year since launching.

          All I can say “officially” right now is that we’ve taken the feedback to heart, and we’ll be updating everyone on our plans with a lot more detail soon. We really want to make this work for both us (taking into account our experience in tech world), and the sewing community (taking into account what’s been learned through Ravelry), and we are definitely listening to all the feedback with an open mind. More soon!

  6. Shoe making is the last frontier for me in my slow-fashion/self-made wardrobe journey, and I have such admiration for people who have taken it on! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on your journey.

  7. Thanks so so much all for the kind and encouraging words! Love the interest in shoemaking! I’m happy to field any questions that might come up on your journey as well. Feel free to message me on instagram @mollieelle

  8. That is something I’ve always wanted to do – really inspirational. I just read the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante, which also involve a lot of shoemaking. First up, though, I must improve my sewing. I can knit what I like, but sewing is still daunting.

  9. This is a very timely and fitting post. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Mollie’s and other readers experiences.

    After having our Nation’s Industries given away to third world countries that are solely interested in the Almighty Dollar at the expense of worker ‘rights’ and quality… we, as individuals are given an opportunity to resurrect American Business… as best we can.

    It is time for Americans to do what we have always done best… build/make quality goods that withstand time… unlike the garbage our failing economic might has left us with.

    Maybe if there are enough of us producing quality goods, and enough of us supporting those businesses… we may affect the importers bottom line. I think it would be awesome if we were able to put them out of business, unlikely as it well may be. Well worth the effort, non-the-less.

    I am sorry now that I am a full-timer without my work rooms and large spaces to do all the things I used to do… and be a part of the New American Industry’s success.

    To those of us who go forward, I applaud your tenacity and pray for your hard earned success. Please let us all know what you do. I for one would like to be a supporter… as I am sure most of us do.

    To Karen; thank you so much for this post and for being a Slow Fashion enthusiast. To me you are like a nouveau Statue of Liberty in a wasteful land of greed and ignorance.

  10. As a result of an auto accident, my right foot is now misshapen, making it difficult to find shoes that fit. A custom made pair of shoes from the perfect pattern would be a dream come true for me.

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