The Green Room is a series of interviews that I conduct with fellow saltwater fanatics, including up-and-coming brands, surf world personalities and industry leaders. This particular interview is with Tom Robinson. He’s the UK-born, Oz-based founder of Seasick Threads and the man behind some of the wackiest, coolest and most creative surfboard and bodyboard covers you ever did see.
Hey Tom, how goes it? Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Alright cobba… a bit about myself. Erm, well my name is Tom Robinson. I’m 41 (I thought I was 42 till my wife pointed out I was born in 81 not 80).
I’m kind of from a few different places on this planet we call home. I’m originally from the North East in the UK, a place called Whitby, but I spent some time in York which isn’t too far away from Whitby.
Then due to some life circumstances when I was younger I ended up living in Portugal, which I have to say was just amazing and I will always have a piece of Portugal in my heart. The people, the surf, the beer, everything! I loved it (possibly a bit too much at times haha).
Then I ended up living in Liverpool for a bit. I now live down in southwest Victoria in a small fishing village called Port Fairy which is just a beautiful little place.
Yeah, right. So you’ve bounced around a bit. What brought you to Australia?
Well, my two younger brothers came out here in the early 2000s then one went back to the UK and the other stayed.
So me and the missus decided we would come out here and do the “backpacker” stuff and catch up with my brother who we hadn’t seen for about 8 years. We fell in love with the place, went back to Blighty and then after a beer or three we said “Nah, let’s go back”!
So we emigrated here in 2012 and lived in Melbourne close to my brother for a while then moved out to where we are now.
Good call IMO! Where’s your fav place in Oz then? Also, what’s one thing the English do better than Aussies?
Man, there are so many places that I love!
Port Fairy really is a top place and when we were backpacking we always said we would live here one day. So I will go with that as my favourite place: great fishing, great people, beautiful surroundings. I could go on for years about it haha.
The one thing the English do better? If I answered that I’d get in trouble with a few people (*cough* football… not soccer *cough*). Ok, in all seriousness, tea! We make far better cups of tea. Aussie tea couldn’t fight its way out of a wet paper bag!
Geez, you didn’t hold back there haha! Nah, I’m not much of a tea drinker anyway, so I’ll take your word for it! Can you tell me a bit about how Seasick Threads started?
Well, put your feet up and pour a cup of English tea!
Basically, it all kind of happened out of having an accident on a work site. I’m a plasterer by trade and I was working on a site over in Melbourne and I had a 4-metre steel beam land on top of me. When people don’t properly chain them when using a crane, they tend to fall, and unfortunately I was in the vicinity when it dropped.
It made a bit of a mess of my left side to the point that I couldn’t really be a plasterer again. So my lovely wife was making yoga mat bags at the time and said I should jump on with her. At this point, I struggled to thread my shoe laces let alone a machine so I thought she was messing about. But after getting some lessons from her, Youtube and Dr Google, I thought “Hey, I can do something here”!
As I said I lived in Portugal and that’s where the surfing addiction came from, but one thing that has always bugged me ever since the 90s in Portugal was that when you go into a surf shop it’s always the same stuff just with different logos smacked on them. So it’s always been a passion of mine to do something different and I owe it to my wife for bringing it out of me.
If she hadn’t taken the time to show me and then plant the seed about board bags, I’d just be a middle-aged man still moaning about the same shit in surf shops.
We’ve got enough of them already! Kudos to your missus though. Behind every good man is an even better woman (is what my wife always says). Can you tell me what it was like starting a new business in another country? Prob helped that you speak the same language, but were there any challenges?
Ah, it’s challenging no matter where you are and who you are in this world. Really, taking the leap and setting up on your own is always challenging.
I would put it this way… it’s like growing something. You plant the seed and from that point, you have to water it, feed it and even talk to it if you need to. Whatever it needs to grow, you give it.
There are always challenges, and I don’t really know about other industries but the surfing industry is very saturated and there are lots of people doing the same thing. So the biggest challenge is making what you do different from what everyone else is doing and trying to stand out from a very big crowd.
It doesn’t help that a lot of shops are just in it for money and go with the norm of stocking “big” brands, never giving us “little people” the time or space.
It’s def harder getting your foot in the door as a boutique brand, but I’m seeing a trend beginning to form whereby more and more shops are opting for smaller, more sustainable and more nimble brands over the big guys. What about your inspiration; where does that come from?
Oh, jeez… good question!
Literally anywhere and everywhere. Bunnings paint colour cards are one. You can put colours together straight away and get a good idea of what they will look like. You just get some funny looks when you’re standing there with some funky colours and people think you’re going to paint your house in those colours.
Even just going for a walk you might see something and think to yourself “I can make something from that”, then go home and come up with a pattern and make a board bag with that pattern design.
And social media… would you say it’s been vital in spreading awareness about Seasick Threads?
It’s a powerful tool to have for any business even though I’m pretty slack at posting on them, but I’m always so busy it’s hard to constantly be online. And to be honest, I have a theory that if you constantly post, people will just get bored of it and switch off. So I try to put something up every week or so and when I do, I like it to be different.
I would rather people be engaged with what I do than bored with it.
Amen to that. What about your photoshoots on Instagram? I always have a wee chuckle to myself when I see them. Are you taking the photos yourself or does your partner help out?
My lovely lady helps me out with them, but there’s no studio kinda stuff going on.
I’ll have an idea for a board bag and social media post and say “Right, I’m going to do this. Here’s my phone… can you do the picture please”? She will help out and give suggestions like “Stand like this or put the board bag here”, kinda thing. Sometimes she just says that won’t work at all if an idea I have is a bit shit.
Sounds like it. How did you guys meet?
Many moons ago in a pub. And 23 years later she still puts up with me!
What a saint haha! Back to Seasick Threads… have you ever had any super memorable requests?
Mate, I’ve had a fair share of them.
One or two were a little bit out there and political, which I’m not into, so I politely said I was unable to make them. But every board bag that people design is awesome. Most of the time they leave it up to me which I love but sometimes people have a design ready to go straight onto fabric and there really are a lot of amazing artists out there… like, a lot.
Have you got a favourite cover design? Or is that like asking which child is your favourite?
Haha, good one!
Erm, I’ve made so many that it’s hard to pick. There was one from a while back that I did love but it was before I got into printing fabric and I had to rely on suppliers. Which is great and cheaper but you can only use the fabric they stock. And this board bag I really liked was like a pastel pink, pastel blue palm trees kinda design but unfortunately, they stopped producing the fabric so I couldn’t make it anymore.
I loved that one and so did a lot of customers.
Ever thought about expanding Seasick Threads?
I tend to be a one-man band. In the run-up to Christmas, I do get a hand to deal with demand as it can get pretty hectic and busy with orders. I always thought about a physical store, but then I think “Why”?
I’m lucky that when we moved out here to Port Fairy we bought a house that already had a bungalow with it (I say bungalow but the last owners converted it into a carport). After doing a bit of work myself, I set up the sweatshop. It’s plenty big enough and we have five machines and a cutting table and all we need.
With a physical store, it would add just pressure and stress, so I think I’ll stay with the sweatshop.
People pop in and pick up board bags if they are close by and I prefer them to see the sweatshop as it shows that each bag is handcrafted and not mass-produced in some far-away factory.
What’s the hardest part of the entire process? Is it finding all the dress-up gear?
Hahaha, that part is pretty easy!
I will find or print a fabric and then head to the op shops looking for certain coloured outfits that go with the board. And that all started with someone dropping me a message to say you need to take pics of people with the board bags, but I felt everyone does that so how can I do it differently?
Hence… the dress-up!
I will say that the hardest bit is the fabric design stage. You can sit down and start but sometimes you get a block and no matter what you try to design you can’t get it right. But I’ve learnt now that when that happens, go away, make a cuppa (English tea) and give yourself 20 minutes then come back and try again.
That tends to fix it.
Alright, all good. Now for a few quick-fire questions. Favourite music artist right now?
Man, I listen to so many in the sweatshop that it’s hard to pick. Fatboy Slim is always on in the mornings to get going. Then, at the end of the day, I tend to finish with some chilled stuff like Nightmares on Wax or Mint Royale.
Favourite surf break?
Sentimentally, it has to be one in Portugal. Praia Da Poça in Estoril. I don’t know what it’s like now as they have built that massive harbour wall over at Cascais but in the 90s, man, that place was unreal.
I had so many cuts and bruises from the reef there that it looked like I had fought with a giant cheese grater. Just an absolute beast of a thing when the right swell came through. Damn, I miss it.
Best live act you’ve ever seen?
Ben Howard. I reckon it was about 15 years ago when he was just starting out. He was a warm-up for Xaver Rudd who was also brilliant but the venue was tiny and only about 100 people got tickets. Was just a great gig and great music.
Book/streaming recommendation for the masses?
I don’t reckon I’ve read a book since school!
My wife tells me I should but I don’t have the patience to sit still long enough so I’ll recommend a podcast. There is a really really nice guy in South Africa that interviews lots of people in the surfing industry called Steve and his podcast is called Shredding the Gnar. It’s/he’s an entertaining listen, so check him out!
A quote that keeps you going?
“Don’t do that Tom”… My wife says it all the time