We've tried getting rid of our beds, and suspending hammocks in our room—just to make more space for the studio. Our entire living room has been taken over by sewing machines, tools, everything… James Duke is earnest. He's thoughtful, he's exploding with love for his wife's craft. We sat down with him at Spyhouse to discuss their joint business venture, Viska. After just a few minutes of chatting, it became quite clear that the couples’ ideas about backpacks coincide with their worldview, their thoughts on living.
“When Ashley started sewing, she really just wanted to make a backpack that could survive more than one Michigan winter.” An avid biker, Ashley was unhappy with the name-brand packs she’d tried. She made it a goal to create something sturdy, and straightforward. After researching different patterns and materials, she eventually opened an Etsy shop with some of her experimental designs. No two bags looked the same.
Despite her clear talent and passion for the craft, she mostly sewed on the side. It wasn't until she and James moved to Minnesota after college that she considered dedicating more time to her work. "Her dad is super handy—he can fix anything; he's a real craftsman. I think Ashley has kind of aspired to that." Ashley’s bags evolved as the pair learned more about textiles, and started to notice where their packs seemed to endure the most stress.
“When you take your bag everywhere, you start to do your own research. Where is it most likely to tear? Which areas really need to be supported? Today, Fairfield waxed canvas and leather combine with beautifully practical copper rivets to create something strong, simple, and eventually, personal.
“The more you wear a Viska pack, the more it becomes a part of you.” James notes how the leather straps begin to soften around your shoulders, how books, water bottles, wallets, leave subtle imprints on the canvas. These marks make the backpack yours, and also help encourage a certain kind of user investment.
“I really get a kick out of taking care of my bag. It’s kind of relaxing to sit down, put a record on, and wax it.” James compares the backpack making process to expertly roasted and brewed coffee. The idea is to find simple, quality ingredients, and figure out how to let them shine. In the spirit of James Duke, let’s simplify. A Viska bag is a nicely packed shot of Dogwood espresso. You hold onto it.
Eventually, James and Ashley Duke hope to rent out a place to work and set up shop—for now, their home studio in Whittier suits their minimalistic lifestyle. If you're looking to make a purchase, you can visit them online, or drop by Forage Modern Workshop to see select packs.