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South Philly resident makes shoes from recycled material

South Philly resident Anne Cecil shows a pair of slippers she created from a recycled wool sweater in her shoe-making workshop in her basement near the Italian Market. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

Anne Cecil had always loved working with her hands.

Whether it was taking things apart or putting them back together, the longtime South Philadelphia resident always had a knack for learning how things tick.

“I love to take things apart and rebuild them,” Cecil said. “I miss having a car where I could actually see the engine. My first car was a ’66 Mustang. I knew where the spark plugs were.”

A lifetime of teaching pulled her away from many crafting projects, but Cecil is reinventing herself with a shoemaking initiative that uses recycled materials.

She’s now working with her hands to benefit feet.

“I always loved shoes,” Cecil said. “I fell in love with them when I was about 8 years old. I thought before I got too old and it got past me, I’d try to make shoes.”

Cecil, who was the Design and Merchandising Program Director at Drexel University, still teaches part time at the school. She also recently developed a newly-launched fashion, merchandising and marketing program at Community College of Philadelphia.

Somehow, she managed to set aside some time to learn about the process of making shoes, and then follow up by mastering the craft. She said it took about five years.

“I took courses in London,” she said. “My mother was from England, and I learned to knit when I was 3 years old and I’ve always been pretty good with my hands. It doesn’t take me long to learn how to do something. But it does take me a long time to perfect the craft.”

South Philly resident Anne Cecil makes shoes out of recycled materials in her workshop in her basement near the Italian Market. Contributed photo

From England to Ashland, Oregon, Cecil next took a seven-day pump-making workshop, where she learned to make almost the entire shoe by hand. She made contacts with suppliers for small quantities of material at a shoe symposium, and her business was born.

Now she designs and creates made-to-order shoes by hand, right out of the basement in her South Philly row home near the Italian Market. She also offers shoe-making workshops, private consultations and bridal and special occasion appointments. She sells some of her merchandise online at www.roxannelava.com and sends out a newsletter to interested readers. Her next shoe-making workshop is on March 28 at the MakeN Studios North at 3525 “I” Street in Kensington. Each ticket includes instruction and materials to make one pair of shoes, light bites and complimentary champagne or beverage. Interested participants need to buy tickets on her website.

Cecil’s company remains small, and that’s just how she likes it.

“It’s hard to make it into a huge business without going to an outside manufacturer,” Cecil said. “And it’s not intended to be. It is a hand-crafted, made-to-order business.”

Many of her beautiful products are made from recycled materials. Slippers might come from a wool sweater purchased at a local thrift shop. Leather boots could be born from off-cuts of a furniture manufacturer. Each pair of shoes is unique.

A Japanese-inspired pair of shoes with vintage buckles was created by South Philly resident Anne Cecil, who has a shoe-making workshop in her basement near the Italian Market. Contributed photo

“I really enjoy doing it because I love problem-solving and I like working with new materials,” she said. ”I’ve always been a very tactile person so I always love doing things with my hands. It’s great to see something come to life.”

Cecil said those traits were inherited from her parents who lived through World War II and had a rationing mentality. She also wanted to buck the trend of the fashion industry, which typically wastes materials.

“I kind of grew up with the Depression-era thinking about rationing so it was built into my ethos that we don’t waste stuff unless we have to,” Cecil said. “It made me who I am.”

Making shoes by hand is time-consuming but Cecil enjoys the challenge and has been in business for three years. And she plans on making time for even more projects that require working with her hands.

“Those are my grandparents’ dining chairs from England,” Cecil said, pointing to her dining room. “I’m hoping to get the chance soon to sand them down and refinish them. I’m in the middle of a lot of projects.”

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