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Feature Shop: Forest Bags

Feb 13, 2017

by Laura Quattrocelli

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

When Samantha says she “Share’s her home and work space with her husband, son, Spoodle dog, 4 chickens and gets to watch the kangaroos, cockatoos, kookaburras, wedge-tailed eagles and the occasional echidna while she works”… it’s not a lie.

The team at Etsy Australia took a road trip out to visit Samantha from Forest Bags who is living the dream out in Woodend, Victoria. Samantha showed us where she makes her world famous bags and the time, attention and detail that goes into each piece was astounding. If you have ever been on the hunt for the perfect bag and are yet to find it, look no further – Forest Bags has nailed it.

Read on to learn a bit more about Samantha and her the bags she makes by hand:

Can you tell me a little about yourself? Eg: When and why did you move here and where were you before that?

I was born and raised in Australia but left home at the age of 18 in search of adventure in New Zealand, where I lived for 4 years, followed by the UK.  I planned to travel around the UK and Europe for a couple of years and then return to Australia but fate played its hand and I met my husband in Wales within the first few months of being there.  I ended up staying for 15 years.

We were living in London when we had our son and that prompted a major life change and re-positioning of our priorities, resulting in the creation of Forest Bags and ultimately, a move back to Australia in 2014.

I now run Forest Bags full time, making waxed canvas and leather bags from my purpose-built garden studio at the foot of Mount Macedon in the country town of Woodend in Victoria, Australia.  I share my home and work space with my husband, son, Spoodle dog and 4 chickens and get to watch the kangaroos, cockatoos, kookaburras, wedge-tailed eagles and the occasional echidna while I work.

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A shot of Samantha’s country-side studio

How long have you been making and creating and where did it all start?

I spent 10 years working in the Banking industry in London.  This was pre-‘credit crunch’ days and it was very competitive and exciting.  I was a Corporate Analyst and was responsible for analysing the viability of big commercial property deals in the City.  The hours were long, it was a very male-oriented industry and when our son was born I just couldn’t envisage going back to that lifestyle and putting my child into day-care every day.  I wanted to enjoy being a mother and wanted to be there for my son as much as possible.  I decided that the only way to achieve that was to find a way to earn money for the first 5 years of his life until he went to school, at which point I could then go and get a ‘real’ job again.

I borrowed my mother-in-law’s old sewing machine and learnt to sew.  I sewed cushion covers until my husband begged me to stop, then I switched to soft toys which I gave to my son and to friends’ children as gifts.  Then one day I picked up a magazine about bag-making and decided to give it a go.  It was totally bamboozling, I followed the instructions but couldn’t get my head around the inside-out and back to front nature of bag construction.  When I finished the last stitches and turned the bag the right side out, it was a revelation.  I had somehow created a 3D object out of pieces of fabric.  I was hooked.

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Best sellers – the diaper tote.

When did Forest Bags itself start?

I practised bag-making using other people’s patterns and learning from books and You Tube.  Then I stumbled across Etsy during my many hours of online searching and started looking at what others were selling.  There were so many established bag-makers out there I never thought I had any chance of competing with them or finding my own niche but I had made so many bags by this point, I thought ‘Why not give it a go?’ and I opened a shop and started listing items in November 2012.  I had my first sale 2 weeks later and more quickly followed.  I think a combination of being one of very few UK bag-makers on Etsy at that time, the lead up to Christmas and simple pure luck were responsible for my initial success but I have never been so excited in my life as I was when I made that first sale!

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You were a banker for years before working for yourself, was there always a desire to be creative outside of your regular job?

I honestly never thought that I was a ‘creative’ person.  I had no real hobbies to speak of, I liked travelling and reading and eating out at restaurants but that was it.  It never occurred to me that I could be creative and that I had abilities and talents as yet un-tapped.  I’ve come to believe that everybody has a creative side to them, I think we get trapped into thinking about ourselves in a certain way and really nothing is stopping you trying something new or learning a new skill other than your own mind set and mental barriers.  It took me nearly 40 years to discover my creative side so it’s really never too late!  Now, as well as sewing bags for my business, I have learnt about leather-working, natural dyeing, screen-printing, dressmaking and knitting and would love to eventually incorporate some of these other crafts and skills into my bag-making.

What’s your creative process like?

Growing Forest Bags has been an organic, intuitive process.  I think the strongest guide in my product design and development has been my customers.  I learnt very quickly to listen to what they were asking for.  In the early days, I would have lots of requests to customise my existing designs in one way or another and after a while I started to notice a pattern in the changes people were requesting, so I made these changes to my original design which resulted in a better product and more satisfied customers. My bags have been through many such improvements, additions and alterations over time, most recently the option to add a backpack conversion to my diaper tote bag, the option to choose between two different sizes and the addition of a matching baby change mat, all the result of repeated customer requests.

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Tidy tools of the trade

What are your favourite things about Forest Bags?

I love being my own boss and that my commute to work involves walking down the garden path to my studio with a cup of coffee in hand.  Also, having the flexibility to work around my family’s needs is great, although that flexibility often swings the other way and I can end up working most evenings and weekends if I’m not careful. Ironically, I work harder and much longer hours now than I ever did in my previous banking life but the rewards are so much more gratifying.

What do you wish someone had told you about running a small business before you started?

My business is very hands-on, I literally do every single thing myself  from responding to customer convos, to creating and testing new designs, photographing products, posting online media, ordering supplies, cutting and ironing fabric, preparing leather, sewing each individual bag, arranging shipping, packing parcels and all the associated accounting, tax and financial stuff.  Each one of these things takes time and effort and it is important to factor that into the pricing of a final product.  I think too often people undersell their work either due to lack of confidence in their abilities or because they fail to take into account all the additional factors that go into the final creation.

As a business owner, I love being able to make all the decisions myself but with that comes a great deal of responsibility and if I get it wrong, the buck stops with me.  I guess I knew that before I started Forest Bags but the reality of running a business alone can be daunting and I’m guilty of not asking for help or seeking support when I need it.  When you are so involved in the minutiae of your business it can be very hard to let go and trust that another person can carry out a task to the same standard as you but this is something I need to learn to do this year as the business has grown beyond what is possible for me to sustain on my own.

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Leather strap bags

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Gorgeous and simple leather tote

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A shot of the studio

What has your best seller been?

Without a doubt, my biggest seller is my Waxed Canvas and Leather Diaper tote Bag.  My customers tell me that they love the minimalist, unisex design which their husbands and partners also feel happy to carry on their arm (or back).  There are a lot of women out there who don’t want to carry a diaper bag with florals, flounces or kiddy motifs but want a bag that is grown up, stylish and doesn’t look like a diaper bag.  My bags are made to last and they make ideal work tote bags after a diaper bag is no longer required.

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The famous diaper tote!

What is your proudest accomplishment?

I feel proud that I am able to support myself and contribute to our family through my own endeavours and I hope that my son sees me working hard and running a small business and that it inspires him to think about the shape of his own future. Things aren’t so black and white in terms of career choices for kids anymore.  There is a massive resurgence back towards the handmade, the home-grown, traditional skills, quality craftsmanship and ethically produced goods and towards an understanding of the origin of the products we buy.  I think many more people are aware of the ‘fast fashion’ of cheap and unethically mass-produced goods and are moving away from that, seeking out products that have a story, that are well made, that contribute to the financial wellbeing of individuals rather than corporations and that don’t have an in-built ‘use by’ date, so you are forced to go and buy another in a short time. This opens up a huge opportunity for us and our children to seek out professions in fields that would not have been considered viable choices in recent generations.  If our son wants to be a shoe-maker, a potter or an artist, he has that opportunity and it is marketplaces like Etsy who are leading the way in helping to make that possible by bringing makers and buyers together right across the globe.

In terms of my proudest accomplishment?  My son is 7 now and I never did have to go find a ‘real’ job when he started school.  What began as dabbling with my new-found sewing skills has now become a full-time, profitable business and one that looks set to continue to grow well into the future.

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Samantha in her home studio in Woodend, Victoria

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