Alice Saunders is a collector of history, infusing new life into a forgotten past. The beautifully crafted bags she makes under the moniker, Forestbound, are inspired by and collected from old textiles. Each design is built to last with an aesthetic that feels both unique and instantly familiar, much like Alice herself. If you sit and chat with the designer for even a few minutes her passion and excitement around the pieces she makes, and the story they tell is clear. From WWII-era Flea Market treasures to vintage Toyota Land Cruisers, Alice's world may be filled with things from the past, but she's built something to remember.
Nativen: Where are you from?
Alice: Hopkinton, New Hampshire.
Nativen: Do you think growing up in Hopkinton, or New Hampshire even in general, influenced the work that you're doing now at Forestbound?
Alice: Yeah, for sure. I think that my work and my aesthetic is very much rooted in New England and is definitely influenced by where I grew up and what I was surrounded by. I started going to flea markets at a young age. There was a really good one right up the street from my house and I'd always go with my neighbor on Sunday mornings to find old treasures. I've always surrounded myself with beautiful old objects and those pieces have been such an inspiration to me over the years.
Nativen: Awesome. Was there a moment when you realized that you wanted to pursue your own business… pursue bag making?
Alice: I had always made small pouches and bags starting around middle school, just using my mom's old Singer portable sewing machine. Then when I was in college, I would make zip pouches sell them at punk rock flea markets in Boston and realized that it was a way to make a bit of extra money.
During college I was doing farm and garden work and in New England you don't farm in the winter. I was tired of looking for winter only work, so decided to give Etsy a try (this was right around the time Etsy started up). I started a shop with pouches and pieces of jewelry and people responded super well (I’ve been overwhelmed ever since).
It was around this same time where I had a seriously ‘ah ha’ moment .. I was at an indoor flea market in Massachusetts and came across a WWII era duffle bag. I thought to myself .. "Oh, I can take this apart and use this canvas and make something new" In that moment, everything kind of clicked in my head. I bought the duffel bag, brought it home, took it apart, and made a shoulder bag out of it. I put that bag on Etsy and it sold in five minutes.
Nativen: ...People want this.
Alice: That was the start of me truly understanding how I can mix these passions in my life: history, specifically military history, flea markets and beautiful old canvas.
Nativen: That's a cool little journey through your creative process.
Alice: Yes, and this winter I’ll celebrate Forestbound’s 10 year anniversary.
Nativen: That's a big deal. It's awesome that you're in a new space for that transition, too.
Alice: Yeah I’m really proud of being in business for 10 years. And this new space definitely feels like it houses a grown up version of what I started all those years ago.
Nativen: Exciting. What do you love most about Somerville, and do you think it's integral to your work in any way?
Alice: When I first started Forestbound, I lived in a big house many roommates. We had an attic space upstairs that I used that as my studio. This space was part of the reason why I could start a business when I was 22-years-old - I had very little overhead. After a few years my business outgrew my home studio so I moved into a space outside of my home that I shared with another bag maker. A few years later I moved my studio again, but this time it was into a co-working space in Somerville called Fringe. That was really the first time that Forestbound was surrounded by many other small businesses.
Alice: There was a letterpress business, floral design studio, a couple of illustrators; so I was surrounded by all of this new creative energy. I feel like moving to Somerville, and becoming part of this community at Fringe, helped me take my business to the next level. I built Forestbound on my own having basically zero knowledge of what having a business really meant and having no one to bounce ideas off of, and now I was surrounded by so many inspiring business owners who were there to help and support. I was definitely able to grow Forestbound because of the community that I found in Somerville.
Nativen: That's great. Do you have a favorite restaurant here in Somerville?
Alice: I do. There's a place called Sarma that I really love. It's Mediterranean food, but it's small plates. It's incredible.
Nativen: Wow. Do you have a favorite home goods or clothing store?
Alice: My friends that just opened Queen of Swords.
I'm a little biased because they're good friends of mine, but it's truly a beautiful store.
Nativen: What about a favorite park or outdoor space around here?
Alice: I live in Jamaica Plain, about a quarter of a mile away from the ultimate outdoor space in the city - the Arnold Arboretum. I try to go there every day with my dog and I especially love going on walks in the evening during the summer.. you can be up on the hill and hear nothing but the sound of frogs in the ponds below.
Nativen: Oh, wow. Do you have a hidden gem around here?
Alice: There's a pub in Jamaica Plain called the Galway House. It’s one of my favorite places because the food is actually very good but it’s also super cheap, and you can still get $3 gin and tonics.
Nativen: Wow. What do you think is the greatest resource to your work here?
Alice: I think just community, for sure.
Alice: In a lot of ways Forestbound can be run from anywhere. But I have such a great community here of friends and other small business owners here in Somerville and that is an invaluable resource that you can’t find just anywhere.
Nativen: Right. You're isolated. This is the asking you to pick your favorite child question. Do you have a favorite bag or favorite thing that you've produced?
Alice: I did a project in this past fall where I was contacted by one of the producers of a WWII era movie.
She wanted to get some gifts for the cast and the crew, just as a thank you. She was familiar with my work and was interested in having me make bags out of materials that would correlate to the movie’s time period and location. It was basically my dream project since I got to really tap into my inner canvas nerd.
Alice: It was such a fun project and I know that the bags were going to people that really, truly appreciated the heart of what I do.
Nativen: That's awesome. What part of your process brings you the most joy?
Alice: I love finding old canvas, that's always the thing that will always bring me the most joy. It's like a blessing and a curse, in that I go to flea markets, and the only thing that I see is canvas. I'll go to the flea market with a list of many things but once I get there the only thing I come away with is old duffel bags. It's crazy; it's all I can see.
Another benefit of New England living is that there’s so many old treasures here.. there will always a new barn or basement filled with really beautiful old things.
I think what brings me the most joy for selling the ESCAPE Bag and these things that aren't made out of old canvas, is being able to interact with my customers and knowing that they really love the product. I put a lot of time and effort into my customer service and I love writing hand written notes with every bag. I think my customers really appreciate the little things like that.. I like to make the experience of buying Forestbound bags special.
Nativen: Right. What is the greatest struggle for you, in your work?
Alice: Doing it all myself is very hard, but that's a choice that I've made. I've had many people work with me over the years, but I'm in a place right now where I want to do it by myself. It’s also taken me ten years to understand that even when you own your own business, you can't work all the time. I'm in my mid-thirties now and I don't have as much energy as I did when I was 25. I can't work 70 hours a week and then expect to be present for my boyfriend and my friends. I’m doing my best to balance life and work, but that will forever be a struggle.
Nativen: What's one thing you've always wanted to do but haven't done yet?
Alice: I would love to hike the PCT; but that's something where you would need three to five months to do which isn’t really an option for me right now. I would absolutely love to do it some day though.. I love physically challenging myself and my body.
Nativen: Yep, I think it's an important part of a feeling of life accomplishment to push yourself and really see your physical limitations, because living in the technology driven world that we live in and a world of convenience. I mean, we live in that world, and we forget that we're animals still.
Nativen: If you weren't making bags and running your business, what do you think you would be doing?
Alice: I always thought that I would be working on farms. That's what I really, really actually love to do, is grow food and be outside and be around plants. I actually struggle a lot with finding myself in a job or in a business where I'm inside all day.
Nativen: What destination do you want to travel to next, if you could go anywhere?
Alice: That's a good question. I've been doing a lot of New England only travels the last couple of years. Part of that is because my boyfriend doesn't really like to fly, and we do so much camping and there's so much to see in New England. But I would really like to go to Mexico. I've never been there before. I think that being in a completely different environment that is very colorful, energetic, and the complete opposite of New England would help reset and reenergize me.
Nativen: You should do it. I don't know if you listen to music while you work… is there anyone that you've been listening to regularly?
Alice: I think I'm on kind of a Van Morrison kick lately. I've also been nostalgically listening to The Traveling Wilburys a lot.
They make me think of my childhood. My mom used to play The Traveling Wilburys all the time, so it's comforting music.
Nativen: What are three words that sum up your work for you?
Alice Saunders: I would say classic, durable, utilitarian.
Nativen: Yeah, absolutely. That's great. Is there anything you do with your work to specifically connect you back to your community currently?
Alice: I've done a lot of fundraising work in memory of my dad who passed away in 2014. Through Forestbound I've hosted raffles and sold a number products where all the profits go to charity. I try to use my platform to talk about not just the positive parts of my life but also the really hard times. And raising money and awareness for the AFTD, for the ACLU, and for the Disabilities Rights Center helped bring some positivity into a heartbreaking time period of my life.
Nativen: That's great. What's the most helpful advice you've received, or what's advice you might give to someone who's looking to pursue their creative goals?
Alice: I’d tell them that it's really, really hard. Even when it’s your dream job.. it's not going to be fun and easy all the time. People look at what I do and they say, "Oh wow, you must truly love what you do. It's your passion.” And yes, that’s true, but it doesn’t mean that it’s easy. It’s hard and you doubt yourself all the time. I think that a lot of times people go into starting their own business and expect that it's going to be easier than what they were doing before; but it tests you emotionally, mentally, on all these different levels that you don't anticipate.
Nativen: Right. Do you have a hero or someone who's maybe helped influence your work in a big way?
Alice Saunders: Yeah, my dad, for sure. He raised me and is the force behind my strong work ethic, but he also taught me compassion and thoughtfulness. His example was work really, really, really hard; but also love really, really hard. I try and do that with my personal life, but also in my business. I care so much about all of my customers, and I want them to know that.
My dad really taught me to value the people around you. I'm very appreciative and very humbled by the fact that I get to do what I do and that I couldn’t do it without the people who surround me.
Nativen: What are three things you can't live without?
Alice: My dog, for sure. She's brought a lot of joy into my life, so I definitely couldn't live without her.
Probably my truck. It's an '88 Toyota Land Cruiser. My parents actually bought a Land Cruiser in 1989, new. It was our family car, and I learned to drive on it. It became my car, and I drove it into the ground.
Alice: I have a little silver pendant that my dad's first wife gave to me, just a month or two ago. It just has AGS inscribed in it. That's my dad's initials.
Nativen: That's really touching.
Alice: Yeah, so it's a really, really special little thing. It's only been in my life for a couple of months, but it’s become my most prized possession.
Interview by: Lily Hetzler
Photography by: Ethan Covey
This interview has been condensed & edited
all images copyright of Nativen