The story of our Turtleback bag
If you swim outdoors you will know there are practicalities around getting changed – especially in winter. All too often we found ourselves balancing on a plastic bag while trying not to stand on the freezing cold ground, attempting to pull a stubborn swim sock off with slightly numb hands!
This got Jamima thinking…
The idea for an outdoor swim bag and changing mat started forming in my head after my first year of winter swimming. It was 2018 and I had agreed to do the January Daily Dip with my good friend Sonya. We found ourselves swimming in some incredibly testing conditions – the swimming part was ok but the changing part was really challenging. It quickly became apparent that a bag for life and some carrier bags to stand on just wasn't going to cut it.
My regular swim spot is a 20 minute trek up a very steep hill. It’s exposed, remote, bleak and unforgiving whilst being incredibly beautiful and humbling. I needed a bag that was comfortable to carry and big enough to fit all my gear in. I assumed I’d be able to buy a bag or mat that I could stand on and fit my stuff in so I was really surprised when all I could find were surf mats. I tried a variety of them but they just didn't do what I wanted them to do.
Before I created Swim Feral, I had an arts company called Spacecadets Air Design (I still have it but it’s currently sleeping due to the pandemic). I’ve spent a good part of the last 20 years designing inflatable sculptures and art installations for galleries, arts events and festivals. Problem solving, testing out and experimenting with new ideas is what I do, so when I couldn't find the right bag for my swimming needs I set about designing one.
To get started, I made a list of the problems I needed to solve:
- something to stand on which would keep the cold ground from penetrating my already cold feet
- everything easily accessible so I could order my clothes ready for a fast change
- big enough to stand in and fit all my stuff
- no zips or anything fiddly or challenging for cold hands
- comfy to wear
- protect me from the wind and rain
- somewhere safe for my phone and keys
- waterproof – need to keep the rain out while I swim
I had an inkling that it could be a marketable product but it needed a lot of work so for a long time I kept it as an inkling and carried on experimenting. I spent over a year tinkering with it in my spare time, trying out a variety of fabrics, some versions had flaps to stand on, some had pockets on the outside. The idea for the insulated pad came when I remembered my mum always carried a small piece of packing insulation in her bag (so she wouldn't get a cold bum from sitting on a wall). The idea for the drawstring came when my friend told me about a make-up bag she wanted which opened up in a way that meant you could see everything easily.
By this point my swim friends were interested in my endeavours so I made them some bags to test out. Then strangers started asking about it. I realised if I didn't do it now someone else would. So many times I’ve had a good idea and not realised how good it was until someone else did something similar later on – I didn’t want that to happen again. I knew I had to get on with it.
I got professional prototypes made up, a logo designed, an e-commerce website built, bought the company name and started to research ways of manufacturing.
It was a long process to find a factory in the UK that had the right set of skills and offered the right price for it to be a financially viable product. I wanted the bag to be an accessible price and equally wanted it to be really high quality. At one point a friend of mine who works with a factory in China said he could get a sample made up so I did out of interest. I received a sample bag which looked ok, not the most high quality material or craftsmanship but definitely sellable. It cost just £12 to make – including materials! That just felt so wrong - a really clear confirmation that I didn't want to add to cheap consumer culture. I made the decision that everything had to be as local as possible and more importantly it had to sit right with my soul even if that meant high production costs.
The search for a factory continued. One day someone in my yoga class suggested Carradice just over the border in Lancashire. Carradice have been making high-end bike bags since 1932 and also have another company – UPSO – which makes recycled bags from reclaimed lorry tarpaulin. Full of optimism I made a call to the founder and owner David Chadwick and arranged a meeting. I knew as soon as I walked in I had found my factory. David suggested using the lorry tarpaulin for the mats inside the bag. We made a few samples, made a few changes and within a month we had a finished product.
The plan was to launch in the autumn of 2019 but life got in the way. I had a feeling deep down that I needed to get on with it as soon as possible. Looking back I couldn’t have been more right. I didn’t want to do it completely on my own so I asked my long time swim buddy Sonya Moorhead if she wanted in and to my delight she did. Sonya is a force of nature, she has a bright contagious energy and is brilliant at getting things going and getting through a task list, she is also one of the most reliable people I know. We made a plan to launch in February 2020 via Kickstarter. We worked our socks off, did a promo film, got photos done, sorted budgets, press etc. and on the 25th February we launched. It reached its target on the first day – we couldn't believe it! We went on to sell over 250 bags then two days before the Kickstarter ended lockdown happened…
The following months were the strangest time, the momentum of the Kickstarter stopped but we kept selling bags and getting great feedback. It was odd having to navigate the excitement of a new business and at the same time trying to process the trauma the world was going through with the pandemic. Sonya officially left Swim Feral in the summer to pursue her own creative projects but her energy will always run in the veins of Swim Feral, I couldn’t have had a better co-founder and friend.
I had a feeling that when the season changed and the cold crept in that the Turtleback would really come into its own – I was right. I would never have predicted how popular outdoor swimming would become. Swim Feral – and the Turtleback – was in the right place at the right time. The swimming community is fantastic and it’s been such a pleasure and an honour getting to know people and sharing swim stories. And even better to know that they love their Turtleback.
From my inkling to our Kickstarter and everything since, it’s been an amazing journey. And although there are only three of us on the Swim Feral team, it feels much bigger than us.
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