The SmithFly Story
Hello and thanks for stopping by. I’m Ethan Smith founder and principal of SmithFly Designs. In 2010 after years of frustration I finally became fed up with the vests packs and bags available to fly fisherman and I set out to design a completely new set of gear that allows fisherman to compile their own gear based on their own needs.
On the Au Sable River, I had my vest stowed in the drift boat and became frustrated at the fact that when I went to get something out of it, I felt like I was wrestling an octopus. What a PAIN! I realized in that moment that being able to take the pockets off of a vest, fully loaded with all my stuff, and attach those pockets to a bag would save me a bunch of headaches.
The next weekend I was fishing a smallmouth stream and getting skunked pretty badly when we decided to save the afternoon by heading to a farm pond at a friend’s house. It was hot and I didn’t want to wear my vest anymore. I happened to have a waist pack in the car and I took all my gear out of my vest and stuck it in the pack. When I got to the pond, a short hike over the hill and down the way a bit, I realized I left a few things in my vest. Damn, if I could have taken the pockets from my vest, fully loaded with gear and put them on a waist belt, I wouldn’t have been missing a thing! Lucky for me, at sunset, in August, on a small farm pond filled with eager largemouth, it didn’t matter what I had.
Later that week I sat down and sketched up some ideas. It didn’t take much drawing to figure out that what I had come up with was a sewing project. Ouch, I hadn’t done much sewing. But it’s never too late to learn. Armed with my wife’s sewing machine and absolutely no skills, I set out figure out how to make this stuff. My first few attempts were laughable but hey you gotta start somewhere right? All the while I was teaching myself the fine art of sewing I was working on drawing up the details of my products and beginning to talk to sewing contractors about having these things made by some folks who know how to sew commercially.
Initially the idea was that the pockets for my new gear would use hook and loop (Velcro) but that was just stupid. It looked stupid and functionally just wasn’t working. As it turns out, most of the sewing contractors left in the US are sewing for the Military. The US has a rule that all the gear the Military wears and uses must be made in the US. The law that established this rule is called the Berry Amendment. So all the contractors I was talking to about making my stuff said the same thing, Velcro sucks, you should use the military’s Molle system, a system of webbing ladders that weaves together to create a strong and durable attachment for the pouch.
After looking into it a little more I became convinced that the US Department of Defense knew what they were talking about on this one and the Molle system was exactly what I was looking for. Infantry, pilots, medics, mechanics, they can all configure their own gear based on their own specific task. Not only that, but the gear they use is bulletproof, literally!
In talking with the contractors it became apparent that drawings alone were not going to provide them enough information for them to actually make my products, they needed actual sewn samples. I had to improve my skills on the sewing machine and make some stuff that looked like the real deal. I spent quite a few late nights putting together samples and sending them out to the contractors but ultimately I found a great bunch US-based sewing contractors who really nailed the products and are my supplier today.
In the midst of all this work on developing a line of products I was also fortunate enough to have a piece of writing selected for publication in Gray’s Sporting Journal. I originally wrote it as a manifesto for my blog the Fiddle and Creel but thought it was too good waste putting it up there where nobody would see it. The piece, called The Fiddle and The Creel – Connecting the dots between one artistic anachronism and another, ran in the Spring 2011 Fly Fishing edition. When I got the check, yes they do actually pay for things like that, I knew just what to do with it. I took that money and started the SmithFly business, officially. I registered it with the state of Ohio, and the Feds, purchased the domain name and website, and I was off to the races. I really like that kind of symbolism. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things but to me it means a lot. It’s all about passion for fishing, and it all ties together in the end.
Why Made in the USA?
There are many factors that went into my decision to manufacture my products in the United States. The main factor that weighed most heavily is accountability. I need my suppliers to be accountable for their work, for their materials, for their environmental impact, for their labor costs, for their process, for my intellectual property and for the timely delivery of quality goods. The international market puts the accountability of all those items on shaky if not unsteady footing if you lack the ability to have a direct and reliable representative on the ground doing the accounting for you. As a start-up I can’t afford to pay someone to be on the ground in a developing nation doing all that accounting work nor can I travel there to do it myself.
Second to accountability was the ability to do smaller runs throughout the year. Because we don’t need to wait on a boat to arrive and we don’t need to ship our goods in HUGE quantities we can do smaller orders than the big buys. Consequently the likely hood of long waits on backorders is greatly diminished. By making stuff in the USA the turn around time for a an entire production of goods is weeks instead of months. If one of our dealers runs out of a product then they don’t need to wait until next season to get more, we can have it to them in a matter of weeks, even if we too have run out of it.
(For the environmental aspects of international trade see below – the Environment)
At SmithFly sustainability and the environment are at the top of our priority list. The current way things are being done in the business world is not sustainable. Like Yvon says, no human activity is TRULY sustainable.
But I would argue with this point on one primary issue, longevity. The butler’s desk I tie flies at is a 150 years old. It was made no more than 90 miles from my house and was purchased brand new by my great grandmother on my Dad’s side. It’s solid cherry. It still functions exactly the way it did when it was brand new and has a beautiful patina and a warmth that it didn’t have when brand new. This fine piece of furniture has actually gotten better with age. I will never need other fly tying desk, and when I’m gone it will be passed down to one of my sons, and then hopefully on to one of theirs. The same can be said for any great piece of functional art like fine musical instruments, firearms, fly rods, and even sewn products. In fact, my Grandfather on my Dad’s side just gave my son, his first great-grandson, his old hunting coat to use. It’s a fine piece of gear albeit well loved and broken and with solid pheasant blood stains in the pouch, but it will serve my son well when he grows into it as it’s too small for me.
SmithFly is focused on making products that can, like my Great Grandma’s Butler’s desk and my Grandfather’s hunting coat, be multi-generational. The things we make may even improve with age gathering a patina of fair and careful use. Making things is an investment of resources and like any investment we want to get the maximum return out of that investment. So while other companies like Yvonne’s are studying how to engineer life cycle costs and funding ways to take them back when they get old and broken, we hope that you only buy one of our vests and that it lasts long enough that your great grand kids can use it. This model might be sustainable, it’s certainly has worked for the past 150 years.
I want to be very clear, SmithFly is committed to environmental stewardship, which played a big part of why I decided to manufacture items here in the USA. We, in the industrialized West, have regulations about what we can do to the environment around a manufacturing facility and to workers. These regulations are a big part of why things cost more to manufacture here. For instance if we manufacture a fly reel in the United States we cannot dump the cutting fluid from the CNC machine into the creek. They can and do dump things like cutting fluid into creeks in developing countries, everyday, its cheaper. In the USA, we can’t burn the cuttings from Nylon sewn goods either. We have to dispoes of the cuttings properly, and carefully. Proper disposal of waste costs more, but this environmental ruination in developing nations can’t and won’t last forever.
Eventually as the populations in developing countries becomes more middle class and they demand better environmental and labor labor protections, the cost of goods there will go up there as well. SmithFly is just jumping ahead of that cycle and offering fly fishers the opportunity to purchase goods made in factories held to a higher standard with more accountability and regulatory certainty. Because we should be stewards of the environment, right down to the gear we buy and make.