Though Amber Jensen's bags travel the world—from Russia to Hawaii, Norway to New York—each one starts as a pile of leather and scraps in her studio in the tiny North Carolina town of Marshall (population about 900). Jensen moved her nine-year-old company, Sketchbook Crafts, there from Oregon last year, settling on the bucolic Appalachian hamlet as the ideal place to design her rustic backpacks, which have a vintage alpine aesthetic. "I was looking for an outdoorsy, creative community," says the 32-year-old, "and there are so many craftspeople in this area—welders, potters, weavers. So I took a leap of faith."

Jensen originally studied drawing, graduating from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 2004, but she longed to create work that was both beautiful and functional: "I wanted to make art that could be used in everyday life instead of hanging on a wall." While experimenting with American folk-inspired techniques, she turned to textiles, which she'd loved since childhood ("My mom's an interior designer—I grew up surrounded by swatches"). First, she learned to sew simple handbags, and then by chance she found her project. "I was making commuter bags for my partner, Brad, that matched his early-1900s style," says Jensen, "and I realized that a backpack is a perfect canvas. It brings together art and utility."

Today the craftswoman spends months perfecting every detail of her creations: a plain satchel in tanned leather, a classic roll-top pack with felt patchwork in cherry red. For her prototypes, Jensen carefully measures and cuts leather, assembles pattern pieces of wool felt and waxed canvas, punches rivets and stitches seams almost entirely by hand. Then, after thorough testing ("We load up the bags for hiking and cycling to see how they wear") and final tweaks, they're ready for production. The process is meticulous, and Jensen enjoys every step: "I want people to see my pieces as heirlooms—something to be taken care of and passed down."


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