Before it got co-opted by big business, artisan-made used to stand for something. But after years of misdirection, its value, at least to the average consumer, is dimmed, if not extinguished. Within the bike industry though, thanks to brands like Portland’s Makeshifter Canvas Works (and our very own Sheffield-produced Fixed England shoe, of course), the definition of a product created by the hands of a skilled worker still means as much today as it ever did.
Even the most gracious bicycle tourer might venture that the traditional colour options for panniers, bar and saddle bags are a bit, well, staid. For Becky Newman, owner and, for now, sole operator of the sewing machine at Makeshifter Canvas Works, the established colour palette was a chance to create something new. “Almost all of the bags I saw had a similar aesthetic,” she told The Pedaler over coffee at her home studio in North East Portland. “Where they were incorporating leather and brass hardware. I wanted to modernise and make it a little more soft and urban so that it would cross over into everyday life a little bit better.”
Offering a range of bicycle bags positioned towards the touring cyclist, Becky’s designs evoke classic silhouettes like the Carradice Super C and Rivendell’s SaddleSack range, but in place of leather hardware and traditional palettes, natural fabrics and distinctive pops of geometric colour. Unsurprisingly given her location, design inspiration came from another Oregon company, Pendleton Woolen Mills. “Their patterns are gorgeous,” she exclaimed, as her slumbering rescue dog Emmett lifted his head from the sewing pedal to see what the fuss was all about.
“Pendleton has been around a long time, but there was this tremendous resurgence a couple of years ago where their patterns were on everything. They are gorgeous, but I found it a little overdone.” Deconstructing their complex Native American designs back to their basic elements though, revealed something new. “I have a couple of Pendleton blankets, and I was just looking at those patterns in there - that's also part of where the wool inspiration came from - and instead of purchasing the patterns myself, I began cutting out pieces of wool and trying to make a pattern with them. It was complex at some points, but then as I started streamlining it, I realised one wool triangle or shape could be visually as powerful as this whole pattern.”
Pared-down and reimagined, Becky’s strident use of colour has breathed new life into a decades-old pursuit. And it’s popular with her heavy mileage customers too. “Some of the cyclists who've been touring for most of their lives, yeah, they're so excited to see my work. They say, ‘Oh, that's like everything I ever loved, but different.’”
Very much like the cottage industry of old, where makers would congregate in front of house and hearth to share tips and trades, it was another bike bag maker, Scott Felter from Porcelain Rocket, who provided Becky with early encouragement and inspiration. “He's just such a friendly, wonderful, totally transparent person. He contacted me years ago, just through Instagram. He would throw me a message: ‘That looks amazing, no one's doing anything like that.’ It was just so encouraging; he would always say, ‘Let me know if you need anything; if you have questions.’ And then we had a little bit of an email back and forth - he even offered to sell me a machine!” she said animatedly, evidently bowled over by Scott’s early support. Emmett, now used to the conversation, barely raised his head at that.
As an inspiration for a home-bound maker (although Scott has a pretty fancy shed where he makes his bags, even by British standards), the visit to Porcelain Rocket provided an overview of how growth does not have to come at the cost of stress or selling out. “Scott’s an interesting, happy person, and that speaks to his stress level,” she explained. “He's just really comfortable with where he's at, and that gave me a nice vision of like, ‘Okay, where can this go?’ Because we're constantly told, ‘You need an exit strategy. You need to be able to scale up.’ You’re constantly bombarded with advice on how to run your business, and the way he's running things is pretty contrary to that, and it works.”
Taught by her grandmother to sew as a child, teenage years saw Becky modifying clothes and learning how garments were made. A skill that came in good stead when she moved to Portland in 2010 and took her first tentative steps into cycle touring. “Looking at what there was in the bike world I said to myself, ‘Okay, I'm going to go on my first bike trip. I'm not going to walk out and spend 800 dollars on a complete setup.’”
But thankfully for this Michigan native, the bike bug caught, and she soon turned her hand from clothes to bags. “Early on I made some elementary stuff, like a barrel-shaped handlebar bag - which is a lot harder than you’d think,” she said, happily recalling her early endeavours. “I knew that whatever I made, I wanted it to look cool and reflect my taste. I also knew that I wanted to use natural fibres, like wool, and waxed canvas.”
Jump forward a few years, and a Makeshifter bag slung artfully across the handlebars, secured behind the seat, or casually placed in a cargo rack, has become a proud badge of authenticity for design-aware touring, city and gravel riders alike.
At a time when the bicycle community more widely recognises her bags, Becky is taking her friend Scott’s advice, and growing with demand. “This year I had a lot of success doing pop up shops inside bike shops”, she recounted. “About the same time, I realised that I couldn't do everything myself; it just doesn't make sense. Like, if I'm sitting behind a sewing machine 40 hours a week when am I gonna work on my website, you know?” she explained, expressing a well-worn refrain amongst owner-operators the world over.
It's a natural frustration, and one Becky hopes to meet with her plans to open a store shortly. If the passion she so clearly imbues into her bags is anything to go by, it will be a well-deserved success.