Mollie Discovers the Lost Art of Shoemaking

One of the best perks of working at Big Cartel is our Employee Art Grant. We've already heard from Andy and Anthony about their current projects, but those aren't the only ones we're excited about.

For the past few months Mollie Silva has been plugging away on her shoemaking project and I caught up with her to learn about what drew her to the craft, how she found her mentor, and the importance of patience in her process.

Mollie Photo

From my personal experience, it can be really tough to nail down just one idea to pursue for your Employee Art Grant - was that the case for you, too? Did you initially have a lot of ideas in mind? If so, how did you decide to move forward with learning to make handmade shoes?

Nailing down one idea for an art grant is definitely tough. I tossed around everything from painting a custom motorcycle tank to creating a series of handmade apparel items. I had to step back and really reflect on what would make my art grant successful, and for me that was finding a mentor who could help facilitate what I wanted to learn. So keeping in mind the things I was interested in, I sought out mentorship opportunities first.

Learning to make shoes was, in my mind, the the thing I was least likely to find learning opportunities for. Making shoes by hand is a bit of a lost art and there are only a handful of people left who know how to do it. There were more formal options for learning - like fashion schools and expensive workshops that would also require traveling to cities like Los Angeles or New York - but a craft like this takes years to learn and I didn’t think that was the best route for me.

I didn’t think I would find a mentorship opportunity in the middle of the desert in Tucson, Arizona, but since it was the project I was most excited about I decided to give it one last shot. I thought I'd find a local cobbler that could maybe give me enough information to get me started. I typed “shoe repair” into Yelp and up came Stewart Boot Co. I started Googling and was shocked to learn that Stewart Boot was still making fully bespoke boots locally, by hand, under the same ownership for 40 years. I went to Stewart’s the next day, met Victor Borg, and very excitedly told him that I wanted to learn to make shoes. Victor gracefully agreed to take me on as his student. After a few weeks of working with him, I was confident I could make this a successful art grant and ran with it. I’ve been going there every Monday ever since.

Starting can be the hardest part of any project. How did you come up with a plan for this project? Have you been able to stick to it?

The tough thing about learning something new is you don’t always know enough to foresee the obstacles you might run into and when you do encounter those it can be discouraging. It's so important to create some accountability for yourself however you can. For me, that was showing my first shoes in a local fashion show here in April. It just so happened that Victor’s wife Linda was putting together a local fashion show and invited me to make a couple pairs of shoes to showcase.

There was so much to do and I was definitely a bit overwhelmed. This is where having (or not having) a mentor like Victor can make or break you. With his guidance I was able to draft my first custom shoe pattern, cut my leathers, stitch them, last them, and then came soles and heels. That was my first pair of fully custom sky blue leather oxfords. Following that same process I made a second color-blocked pair and those were the two that went to the fashion show with me.

That show created a concrete deadline for me and was something I could get excited about working towards. After that I had enough momentum to stick to my plan - now I'm seeking out similar opportunities to set the next goal for myself. Tucson has a really neat community of makers and artists that I am excited to continue to meet, work with, and learn from in the future.

Mollie Photo 2

What challenges, if any, have you faced throughout this process?

Having grown up on the internet I was of the mindset that you could Google your way through anything you wanted to learn. Turns out that's not the case with shoemaking. Even finding the supplies you need can be really challenging and time consuming. It's been an incredibly humbling learning process. Everything I’ve learned so far I was taught by Victor or one of the other craftsmen at the shop. It takes years of practice, patience, and humility to learn a craft like this. When you’re used to having answers instantly that can be an adjustment. I’ve learned to love having the time to slow down, disconnect, and create something. It has brought a really healthy balance to my life that I didn’t know was even missing and couldn’t live without now.

Mollie Photo 3

On your website, The Handmade Lookbook, you wrote a post about finding a mentor and how difficult it was for you to finally find someone to teach you the trade. What advice would you offer to anyone out there trying to do the same?

Don’t give up! When you have something you're really excited about it will always be worth the effort. This was years in the making for me. I was certainly lucky to find Victor, but it didn’t happen overnight. It didn’t even happen in the first year of me looking. Be persistent, change your approach, show up and ask, be passionate and willing to contribute something to the relationship. You’ll be amazed what people are willing to teach you.

I now know how to make shoes. Victor's learning how to use the new Gmail email address I helped set up for his business, and how to shop for antique car parts online. “Can we look that up on your phone?” is something he now regularly asks me. We’re friends. And I consider him a mentor in more than just shoemaking now. There’s so much you can learn from people a bit ahead of you in life and I am beyond grateful to have Victor and Linda in mine.

Mollie Photo 4

What has this project taught you about yourself and your relationship with creativity so far?

So much patience. It is really difficult to not be hard on yourself for not progressing quicker or get discouraged when your work doesn’t turn out the way you had envisioned it. Life is such a practice in patience and self-forgiveness - creativity even more so. I’ve really come to have a humility and self-awareness that I’ve never had before. I know that I’m progressing however slowly it may seem. At the end of the day, I’m just making these things because they bring me joy and it makes me happy to have something that feels like me. Maybe someday they’ll make someone else happy too. That would be great, but that’s not what drives me to make it in the first place. It’s because I find happiness in the process. That’s all that matters.

Do you plan to continue making shoes after you complete this art grant? Do you already have another project in mind for the future?

I will definitely continue making shoes after I complete my art grant. I’m not sure what exactly future projects might consist of just yet, but the wheels are turning already. I want to help preserve the craft of shoemaking in whatever way I can and that is what my ideas for future projects are focused around right now.

Mollie Photo 5

Curious to see what she makes next? Follow Mollie's blog for more updates on her journey with shoemaking.