Elsie Pinniger is a wee bit jet-lagged after flying back from Australia a couple of days ago. It’s a drizzly mid-March in Cornwall and although she didn’t manage to smuggle the sun back in her board bag, she’s already started spinning up summer in her beachside studio in Newquay.
Diamond-cut panels of candy-coloured neoprene are scattered across gluing tables next to Willy Wonka-style machines that do things like ‘blindstitch’, ‘flatlock’ and ‘bartack’. The high-waisted wetsuit pants and bodycon swimsuits she’s crafting for her company Neon Wetsuits will soon be shipped out to eager surfers around the world. But Elsie never really had ambitions beyond her homebreak. “I just designed a suit that I wanted to wear,” remembers the blonde-haired, blue-eyed longboarder, now thirty-two. “People saw them in the sea and kept asking me for them, so I started making the odd one.”
Under the guidance of Paul Chambers of Bodyline, a local custom-wetsuit company, Elsie spent a couple of years honing her skills and eventually founded Neon Wetsuits in 2007. “I’ve been really lucky that it’s developed really organically,” says Elsie, who makes suits for guys and girls all shapes and sizes. “Every time I’ve done something it’s been really well received and things have just been constantly moving. If I’d done this and no one was interested I would’ve definitely stopped and done something else. I don’t like flogging a dead horse.”
“Going back to doing things by hand, in the long run, is better. I think we’re all learning that technology isn’t the be all and end all.”
With her designs Elsie marries a sort of 1950s Gidget surf style with more contemporary colours, patterns and top-of-the-range double-lined neoprene for what she calls “that classic little black dress thing”. “Wetsuits in the industry have to try and be one step ahead of each other with technology but I’m less interested in that,” laughs Elsie. “I mean the materials are important but I just wanted to make things a bit simpler. I guess if you’ve got less function there’s less to go wrong.”
She sources her neoprene from Sheiko in Taiwan as there are currently no options to buy more locally in Europe, but every suit is handmade to measure in her studio and she takes pains to make sure the quality is always super-high. “I get annoyed when I can’t do something very well so maybe that makes me pick things up a bit quicker,” muses Elsie. “These days, every time we can’t do something or something takes too long we find a machine that can do it quicker. So going back to doing things by hand, in the long run, is better. I think we’re all learning that technology isn’t the be all and end all. It breaks and I think we all realise that we kind of screwed up in giving all our manufacturing to the East, but sometimes it’s just too late isn’t it? Once you’ve sold everything and no one knows how to make anything anymore… Having the choice just to make something yourself is amazing.”
Elsie has kept Neon small. She’s been the only employee up to now, although she hopes to hire someone else this year, and runs a made-to-order game so she’s never left with loads of stock to shift. “There’s always a market for everyone,” insists Elsie. “My percentage of the industry is miniscule, but I only want a miniscule percentage of the industry for me to survive and I think that makes me slightly more recession-proof… It’s really hard if you want to be big and make hundreds of thousands of product, especially in an industry that is quite fickle. You might be flavour of the month and you might invest a lot to meet a demand that’s suddenly created and then if it goes you’re a bit scuppered. So, keeping things a little bit real is important. Just doing what’s within your means… It’s much better just to keep your own vision and have fun with it and keep it fresh for you.”
Cornwall is no California but Elsie thinks that might be just the reason it has such a healthy maker culture. “There’s definitely a really strong just-get-on-and-do-it attitude,” says Elsie. “Your options are so limited with work here that if you’re creative and quite driven and you want to do more, you have to just get on and do it yourself and create a job. I mean just seeing other people doing it inspires you to get on and do it yourself, too.” Plus, when there’s surf on the unpredictable-but-sometimes-gnarly coast, everyone wants to drop pens and hit the beach. “People definitely just wanna be able to go surfing when they want and not work all day – so they make it happen!” laughs Elsie, who usually longboards a traditional single-fin. “I mean, I’d really struggle to go back to working for someone else now because when the surf’s good I can be really flexible work-wise. I do honestly think that people who love surfing might have more of a connection with creativity, too… Anyone who knows how to surf knows how hard it is. You have to have quite an addictive personality and that’s the same with creative stuff, too – whether it’s drawing or whatever. You sit down and the hours go by and you’re not really aware of it. With surfing, you can just be in the sea and not really thinking about anything else, you’re just in the moment, enjoying what you’re doing.”
Elsie’s love of surfing has always pushed her – from spending summers chasing waves and working as a lifeguard to running her own business despite long hours and her self-proclaimed bad organisational skills. But she’s inspired by individuals, too. “I get inspired by people who don’t limit themselves,” she says. “I think it’s really sad when people don’t have much confidence. People who are really fearless at having a go at things; that inspires me. Yeah, you can get a bit trapped in the whole having-to-do-well thing, and conforming to that, but I’m inspired by people who go out on a limb to do things which make them happy.”
The future looks pearly for Neon Wetsuits. Elsie’s launching a new website soon and just finishing her first orders for a select few stores in Australia, but she’s staying way away from the rat race and all the crap that comes with it. “I don’t want to be the next big thing,” says Elsie, pretty refreshingly. “I just want to be part of the industry that is consistent and constant and is just always there… I just want to enjoy my life and create opportunities to go and have fun and do cool stuff.”
Check out more of Elsie’s creations at Neon Wetsuits and watch Huck’s video from her Cornwall studio.
This article originally appeared in Huck 38 – The Dave Eggers issue.
The Working Artisan’s Club, is presented by Huck and O’Neill to celebrate the rad makers who shape their future with their own two hands.
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