When Erin McRoberts graduated with her Fine Arts degree in Painting, she asked the question many of us have often echoed, "What the hell am I going to do next?" It wasn't until she found herself sitting with a pile of leather scraps that all of the pieces started coming together. Of course, things don't just happen overnight. However, that hasn't stopped Erin from rapidly expanding from part-time crafter to a leader and collaborator among Richmond's art and entrepreneur scene.
The Belle Isle team stopped by Awl Snap's workshop to chat with Erin and her team on their success thus far, where they're headed next, and, most importantly, what they like to drink. Then we did what we do best - we had ourselves a Happy Hour together.
Tell us a bit about your company.
Awl Snap is a leather goods crafter that has been around for about 3 years now. We're based in Richmond, VA and have a wide array of different products, ranging from custom backpacks and bags to wallets and eyeglass cases. We also do a number of custom projects and collaborations for folks both local and abroad.
How did you get started up?
It all sort of began in 2009 as a part-time moonlighting thing I was doing while working at a marketing company. I had very little creative outlet through my full-time job, and I needed to have projects that kept me busy and engaged. One day a friend of mine gave me a bunch of scrap leather, so I decided to make a bag out them. I had never worked with leather before; in fact, I have a Fine Arts degree in Painting, so that was really my forte. It took a lot of trial by error, but I was pretty proud of the bag I ended up making. And a lot of people really liked it, too! I had tons of friends saying they would definitely buy one.
I started making just a handful of bags with the leather I could get my hands on. After all my friends got theirs, I decided to throw them up on Etsy. All of my bags sold out in a week. It just lighted a fire in me and I kept going and going. I really lucked out in that sense, just by getting such a positive reception and support from the get-go. I kept making leather good part-time for another four or five years, until I came to a point where I had to decide: do I keep doing this part-time or make the big jump and do this full-time? I had just recently got a promotion at my other job and bought a house, so it was a nerve-racking decision to make. But I made it, and that’s what set me on the path to where I am now.
How did you get your name?
I used to be called the Mean Tambourine, which was a reference to a night of karaoke where it was made very apparent that I can’t sing, so instead I played the tambourine and the joke stuck around with my friends.
I decided to change the name to make it less about myself and more about the products; also, no one could spell tambourine! So I spent a while trying to think of a new name, and one day I had all my tools out on my kitchen table. I walked away and when I came back, I realized I had an awl next to a pile of snaps, and that’s where it clicked - Awl Snap! I love a good pun. My roommate thought it was catchy funny, so with at least one approval I settled on it.
What are the products that Awl Snap offers?
Originally, I just started with a couple leather goods I had designed, mostly bags made for women. As I started expanding and adding more designs, especially ones that were considered to be more unisex, I became a little more versatile with what I could offer. I got a few inquiries from local companies and from people internationally saying they liked this one product I had, but wanted to know if I could customize it, brand it, etc. I love taking on new, challenging projects and that’s really where we are at now: a mix of creating our staple designs and tackling custom projects.
As for the materials we use, most of my leather comes from Northern California and upstate New York. Almost all of the materials we use are byproducts of the food industry, so that makes us and customers happier. I try to be as responsible and ethical as I can, which boils down to doing research into the distributors and companies I work with. A majority of the leather I use is sourced from the United States, which is great to help fuel that local business piece. I also try to keep all of my hardware American-made as well.
What's something you're working on now?
One of my favorite projects right now is an order of custom glasses cases for an optical shop in Belgium. Getting to also do projects with local companies will always be a passion of mine; being a part of the community here has always been the best piece of what I do. Those personal relationships that I’ve developed are invaluable to me, and that’s not something I could have done from behind a desk.
What is your mission or dream for your company?
It’s so funny, because it changes continuously just through the nature of what I do. Every time we take on a new custom project, it makes me rethink the operation of how I do things. Three years ago, I never thought I would be doing what I am now. So that makes me a little hesitant to make some grand plan for myself or Awl Snap, because I know that things could easily change and probably will. That being said, I’d love to grow and add more people to the team but still keep it a somewhat small and local operation. I’d love to stay grounded in Richmond and in the community that I started with. As far as products go, who knows! I’ll probably keep my staple designs but I love the flexibility of being able to do different pieces, so I don’t know if I’ll ever forgo that part of who we are.
At the end of the day, I want this company to be an extension of who I am. By that, I really just want it to be approachable and not something stuffy or on a pedestal that you can’t relate to. We don’t have a motto per se, but if we did it would center around keeping ourselves and our company fun, down to earth, and genuine.
Tell us about your space.
When we found this space, we fell in love with it for a couple of reasons. All of the tables in the main workroom were built in already, because it used to be an elevator repair workshop. Because they were making and repairing elevator parts, there are tons of electrical outlets installed throughout the whole place. That made this place a gold mine for anyone working with electrical equipment. On top of that, the space had all of these smaller pocket rooms running off of the front entrance.
Initially, it was just me and another jewelry artist who occupied the space and we knew we wanted to bring in other artists. These other rooms were the perfect opportunity to bring others in and expand our network of creators and crafters, and that really made it feel like home. Another cool feature about this space is that everyone here is a woman artist, so there’s this sort of inclusivity and support that’s fostered by being around people with the same experiences and interests as you. It was awesome to be able to buy this space, and kind of turn it into something more than just a workshop. Sometimes I think about having my own space, but the support and inspiration that these other artists give me is invaluable and I don’t know if I could ever leave that.
What does your company do “off the clock?”
Even when we’re not “off the clock”, we double as a doggy daycare. Well not officially, of course. We always have at least one dog running around here, which is awesome. We occasionally hold community events here, just some laid-back opportunities to hang out with our friends. Outside of this space, we all love to spend time outdoors and go down to the river.
We’re big fans of a good happy hour, and that can be a downfall when working with six other artists who all run their own schedules. We’re so easily tempted to just wrap up early and all head out for a drink, especially during the summer when we can relax and unwind somewhere around town! Richmond has an amazing food and bar scene, and we have a bunch of friends that work at or own places all around. We can easily stay busy just trying out whatever new places are popping up next.
You’ve been in Richmond for about a decade now. What are your favorite ways of connecting to this community?
As much as this is a cliché or buzz phrase, I love just networking with people around Richmond, not so much so I can push a product on them but just to ignite those little flames of collaboration, which sometimes grow into really awesome projects. I’m part of Boss Babes, which is a local collective of other women who are all entrepreneurs or creatives in Richmond, so that has been an awesome way of connecting with people doing cool things in the community.
What’s on your bar or what do you typically drink as a team?
To be honest, I’m a such a wino. But our friend Pete Konrad at Southbound, who you guys featured not too long ago, makes some damn good cocktails. So anything he puts in front of me, I’ll drink. We like spicy and boozy drinks, flavors that excite and energize you! That’s actually pretty descriptive of us as a whole.
That leads us into our final question! If your company was a cocktail, what would its ingredients be?
With a few years under our belts working together, we've figured out the just how to keep things rolling smooth. We take our work serious, but at the same time know it's vital to stir things up once in a while. We're equal parts straightshooters and go-getters, but like to keep things fun and fresh. We're full of bad jokes over here - I told you I like puns! I think that means our signature drink would be something bold, just slightly sweet, and maybe with a surprise kick of heat at the end!
How about something like this?
- 1 oz. Belle Isle Honey Habanero
- 1/2 oz. Belle Isle Ruby Red Grapefruit
- 1/2 oz. Aperol
- Lime wedge
- Club soda
Combine first three ingredients into a glass. Add ice, and top with club soda. Squeeze the fresh lime wedge over top, then optionally add to the glass for more citrus flavor.
Recipe by Gregg Brooks, created for and named by Awl Snap