Carry me home

Words by Hannah Tapping

In conversation with Ashleigh Smith, designer and maker of bags and carry equipment for coastal wanderers and urban nomads.

Ashleigh’s gentle Irish lilt sets the tone for what I know will be one of those interviews that will stay with me forever. Not really an interview even; more a chat across a scrubbed pine table over a cup of tea and a biscuit. But sadly that’s only an image conjured in my head. The pandemic has put a stop to face to face interviews for now and so I have to be content with letting Ashleigh’s tale fill my headphones with a story of adventure, endeavour and passion.

Ashleigh grew up in Sligo, in the north west of Ireland. Part of a surfing family, which was considered back then as something quite weird and unusual. Her childhood environment was one spent in and around the water. When not in the water, Ashleigh loved to design, make and create, building huts and hideaways with her siblings, and acting as chief engineer to her Dad’s and Grandad’s projects. It was inevitable that design of some description was the direction her life would take: “Round about 16, I heard through my art teacher of a course called Industrial Design, which was my first awareness of such a field. I knew then that that’s what I wanted to do. I studied for a degree in product design at The University of Limerick and after graduation went to work in an Irish design shop. At the time I considered it to be a job that just allowed me to surf a lot! But it was actually a really good education in how the design industry worked and how customers value a product more when they’re buying something that is made by hand. I also spent a lot of time there dealing with the makers themselves. They had these great stories to tell and I realised that there was an importance in communicating these tales alongside the products themselves.”

Ashleigh at work

Ashleigh’s desire to make led to her studying an MSc in Industrial Design at The Technical University of Delft: “If you’re going to study design then you should definitely go to the Netherlands to do it. It’s a really old industry there. They know innately what’s important and what’s good design when making a product. It was my Master’s thesis that was the blueprint for my initial products. Most people write their thesis working under the guise of a large company. That wasn’t for me. There were lots of cool, small companies out there that I would have liked to work for but most were too small to hire, so I decided I would start my own.”

Returning to her beloved west coast of Ireland in 2014, it was the perfect time to start a creative business, with lots of appreciation for locally-made products and people wanting to try new things. Ashleigh engaged in an enterprise that had big ambitions for manufacturing really high quality product, and so The Atlantic Equipment Project (AE) was born, creating hard wearing backpacks and carry equipment. “I had taught myself to sew during my thesis as I needed to make prototypes of the bags I had designed. Sewing was a skill that wasn’t really that prevalent in Ireland at the time so there weren’t that many people to learn from – I just made and made and made until I got good at it.”

It was always the intention for the business that the bags would be made in-house: “So, that’s how we started and there was immediately an appetite for the product. I just made backpacks and satchels as simply as I could, using good quality materials. It’s not a fashion brand and I don’t follow trends. I make quality product that lasts a long time, that people really want to use. And that’s the thing about a backpack, you take it on all of your adventures and that experience stays with you forever.”

The Red Field Satchel

I was intrigued as to how Ashleigh sourced her materials: “Just a lot of trial and error! I try to source cloth from as close as possible. I did a lot of work during my studies around the sustainability of small supply chains and the adverse impact of really long supply chains. So my cloth, webbing and canvas come from a company in London and my waxed cotton from Scotland – a gorgeous old factory that’s been making the cloth for centuries.”

And her inspiration for design, patterns and colours? “It’s nothing as contrived as that. I just have a kernel of an idea in my mind of the type of bag I want to make. That flitters away in my brain for a while until I eventually get to the point that I need to draw it and then once I’ve drawn it, I immediately need to make it. Because as soon as you make something you start to understand it. You can see that that strap can’t go there or that pocket only makes sense if you put that seam there.”

Her drawings are all done by hand: “I was trained to use CAD and create 3D models but for AE I do flat drawings. They are almost like engineering drawings. There’s a lot of straight lines to enable me to sew something that’s really repeatable. Once I have a design, then I think about the colours and that’s basically informed by what my suppliers have available. Choice can be limited as they don’t produce huge batches, but I‘m lucky that they have such lovely colours.

The Tote All, new for 2020

The Waxed Rolltop

Some are really natural and they work for guys and then there’s the brights which I love – I’m able to colour match pretty well, and I do what I feel’s right for AE. I don’t look at trends or the Pantone colour of the year, I choose from what’s available and add pieces that make sense to what we do. I don’t want to have massive a collection, I want to have bags that people like.”

Ashleigh’s key to success has been to keep ambitions big but practical ways of doing things small: “I have found myself with a business that I love. I want to grow and evolve it, and pass it on to my kids. That’s something that doesn’t get written into a business plan or a spreadsheet – it’s a passion that’s hard to quantify. I like that AE is small, but viable and sustainable.”

The Red Canvas Rolltop

While writing her thesis, Ashleigh took inspiration from her Professor who was an interaction designer and looked at design from a very different perspective. She would question, who is your community, what is it that’s important to them? “Thinking about where I grew up, my community were explorers, crazy people who drove around Ireland at dawn searching for waves. That was the energy and character that was important to me and I knew I needed to follow those kind of principles. I always wanted to be honest and, using one of perhaps the most over-used words ever, authentic! AE’s brand values are shared exploration, honest design and Atlantic coastal heritage – these values are so robust and ingrained in what I do and when I moved to Cornwall they still made sense.”

After four years of running the business in Ireland, Ashleigh explains that ‘‘life changed, as it does sometimes” and as a consequence decided that she needed to express herself differently. “I had gotten really busy. There was great demand, I was employing a couple of people and had international stockists, but it meant that I stopped making new things. So I moved to Devon to make yurts, for a gorgeous company called Yurts For Life. I worked as part of a bigger team, in a bigger workshop environment, doing a lot of sewing. And fell in love with an amazing man!”

Now living on Cornwall’s north coast, Ashleigh has a new relationship with AE: “It’s just me, it’s all me. It’s back to a small thing. I design and I make. Having learned from my mistakes from the last time, now I get to do things in a more viable, more sustainable, more calm way. And I also like that it’s a new challenge to build a brand here. In Ireland people new AE, but here in Cornwall there is the excitement and challenge of building it anew.”