My inspiration to design clothing evolved from my desire to honor and connect with my ancestry and is influenced by my handwork in the marine trades.
My ancestors emigrated from Norway to Ballard, the Scandinavian neighborhood of Seattle, where they started a blacksmith shop, which is still listed as the oldest family-run business in Ballard. The shop outfitted the SouthEast Alaska fishing fleet during the turn of the last century and my mother crewed on some of those same fishing boats many years later as a young woman. Visit the Nordic Museum in Ballard to learn more about Seattle’s Scandinavian emigrant heritage. My Scandinavian ancestry has given me a strong connection to the Nordic cultures. Strong women were born there and have descended from there. It is the land of my foremothers and their tradition of gender equality has given me strength in this modern era.
My mother, who is named after my great- great- grandmother, is a spinner and weaver and taught me to knit when I was 8 years old. “If you can knit socks, you can knit anything.” was her motto. I think this is where my understanding of three-dimensional shapes in fabric comes from, and I know this is how I inherited my love of fiber arts.
I was raised in the San Juan Islands, where my family had a small farm and spent summers gunkholing on an old wooden sailboat with a slushed hull and driftwood tiller. My favorite place was in the dory, where I (in a type 1 PFD) spent many happy hours being trailed aft. We often ventured up the sloughs, where the tide would go out. Our boat would gently careen itself over onto the mudflats, much the way the Bisquine’s of Brittany and Normandy do, sans sturdy stilts fidded to bulwarks.
At 17 I studied as an exchange student in Scandinavia. Languages come naturally to me and I quickly had a grasp of Swedish, Danish and Norwegian. My fascination with the connection between English and Old Norse developed over the next two years as I shipped out on two different Scandinavian tall ships and voyaged to Finland, Sweden, Norway, the Shetland and Orkney Islands, Ireland, France and all around Denmark.
While underway, I learned marlinspike seamanship under the tutelage of the bosun/sailmaker and hand stitched a square sail on deck (The mizzen crossjack.) Upcycling sails into ditty bags, sea duffels and smocks has a long history with sailors and that same bosun/ sailmaker had sewn himself a smock out of an old sail, which became the seed of inspiration for eventually creating the Pacific Norse Vest. See my blog post about the old Norse origins of the word duck, as in canvas. (coming soon!)
Three schooners later, on the West Coast of the U.S., I read Hervey Garrett Smith’s ‘The Marlinspike Sailor’ and sewed my own ditty bag.
At age 20, with my ditty bag as a portfolio, I arrived at a sail loft in Port Townsend, Washington, and asked for a job. I’ve lived here in this maritime community ever since, where I have worked with many craftspeople and mentors who have helped me to hone my craft, skills and style.
Since 2002 I’ve taught many others marlinspike and sailmaking skills at the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding.
My marlinspike skills took me to the movie industry for a stint, rigging and sailing ships for Pirates of the Caribbean II and III and The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons.
Eventually I shifted from sailmaking to marine canvas work (sail covers, dodgers, binnacle covers, etc.) because I foresaw that custom canvas work was a craft that would never go offshore, like so much of sailmaking has. I bend all the stainless steel frames myself. Prospective clients often ask me, “Who bends your frames?” I tell them, “That’s the easy part. You should try fitting canvas drum tight around the frame! That’s the hard part.” I’ve been doing marine canvas since 2002 and running my own canvas shop, Best Coast Canvas Inc., since 2007.
I have served as Vice President of the Port Townsend Marine Trades Association, a non-profit that works to preserve the presence and vibrance of traditional marine trades working on and near historic waterfronts.
I am also an active member of the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum’s boat guilds. I translate their newsletters and crew guides from Danish to English, and have sailed on two voyages onboard the reconstructed longship Sea Stallion from Glendalough.
In 2013, I decided that I needed to expand my maritime skill set and learn boatbuilding. I approached a master Norwegian-American boat builder about becoming his apprentice. I devote time to this craft by carving one day a week from my otherwise full schedule and spending it in the boat shop. We are currently working on our second Norwegian faering. This will be Best Coast Canvas’ company Yacht.
Inspired by the bosun/sailmaker who had made his own smock using materials at hand, and who taught me to hand stitch a sail on deck, I created my first garment also out of necessity to feel comfortable in these working and sailing environments. I needed something durable that would keep my core warm and arms free, as well as shed water, wind and sawdust. I couldn’t find what I needed, so I made it myself.
After making the first Pacific Norse Vest for myself, marine canvas customers started requesting vests and, after much encouragement, I have decided to now offer it to others. Hence the garment side of my business was born. Since creating the Pacific Norse Vest, I have expanded the product line to include Skjoldehamn hoods and sailor’s smocks.
I make clothing the same way I make sails and canvas for boats, because that’s what I know. My garments can withstand gale force winds. —Leah Kefgen