The limited edition Birds & Beans Cafe Bag out in the wild.
I grew up on the central coast of California, and remember being particularly excited to see any birds of prey. Mostly I’d see red-tail hawks and sparrow hawks—now called American Kestrels. At the time I didn’t realize that all was not as it should be in the world of raptors; I didn’t know that these were the days when farmers still used DDT, and the paucity of birds of prey was the sad effect of DDT’s biomagnification. Happily DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972, and now these many years later when I return to my old stomping grounds, I see not only my old friends the red-tailed hawks and American Kestrels, but peregrine falcons, ospreys, and bald eagles. Their return is really quite amazing, a testimony that when it comes to wildlife conservation, there is reason for hope.
However, DDT is still used outside the U.S., and habitat loss, light pollution, wind turbines, and feral cats are having devastating impacts on bird populations. With so many challenges, where do we begin? My personal recommendation is to begin as one would with any difficult task: with a strong cup of coffee.
Our friends over at Birds & Beans coffee roasters partner with organic and shade-grown coffee growers in Central America, helping their coffee plantations to not only produce great coffee, but be great bird habitats as well.
Tropical forests in Latin America have been disappearing at an alarming rate for decades. Without these forests as winter refuges, many bird species that migrate to and from North America for the nesting season, like Veeries and night hawks, are suffering dramatic population declines. Traditional shade coffee farming offers a buffer for the loss of these important forests, and scientific studies prove that these types of coffee farms are nearly as good as full forest for the biodiversity that provides both migratory and local birds with the habitats they need to thrive. Organic, shade grown family coffee farms that are Smithsonian-certified as Bird Friendly® are amazing habitats for the birds we love. Indeed, not just birds, but the family farming that supports viable local rural communities in Latin America are under ongoing threat of giving way to large-scale “sun” farms. Sun farms require clear cutting trees and use heavy chemicals to grow coffee, resulting in less work for farming communities. Buying and drinking Bird Friendly coffee such as Birds & Beans helps save birds, family farms, local rural communities and the Earth we all share.
Every bean in every bag of Birds & Beans coffee is certified shade grown, Bird Friendly, USDA Organic and Fair Trade.
To help support the Bird Friendly coffee mission, we made a special edition Small Café bag, available only from Birds & Beans.
TOM BIHN supplies Birds & Beans coffee to our production and fulfillment crew here in Seattle. Stop by and we’ll pour you a cup to try.
In my garage, Santa Cruz, circa 1983.
The other day, someone stopped by the factory just as I was leaving – they are learning to design and make bags, and were hoping to look around. I was glad to give them a brief tour and answer some questions. Surprisingly, this request is not that uncommon: we’ve recently had more and more inquiries from people who’d like to start their own bag businesses or become bag designers, and are hoping I might give them some advice or wisdom to help them down their path. Of course, the thing about any map is that, while it can show you where someone else has been, it cannot show you where you’re going to go.
I’ve been very fortunate myself to have had some great mentors along the way, folks who were willing to share their time and their opinions – not so much about the specifics of design or running a bag business, but about business in general, and even more broadly, this bigger thing we call life. Dave Meeks was a big influence, as were many friends, family members and early customers (such as my math teachers Gary Rominger and Randy Smith!)
The business card from my days as a student at Aptos Junior High, circa 1972.
Doing my best to be helpful, I first try to dissuade those who want to “follow in my footsteps”: there’s nothing easy about what we do here, and there’s got to be about ten million easier ways to earn a living than by making bags. All that said, if you’re still interested, what follows are a few words of advice, such as they are . . .
Ernest Hemingway said, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” Similarly, the best way to find out how to make bags is to make bags.
I’ve been making outdoor equipment since about 1972. I was 11 or 12 years old and I just wanted to spend more time outdoors. I thought all that fancy gear coming out of Berkeley, Boulder, and Seattle was pretty neat, but I was just a kid and all that stuff was a bit expensive. Somewhere in there my parents suggested I try making my own gear. My mom taught me the basics of using a sewing machine, and after that I was just winging it. I started off more or less just copying traditional styles, over time adding my own touches until ultimately I was truly “designing” my own products. I never went to design school; engineering was a bit inherited from my dad and otherwise self-taught, and the aesthetics largely my own.
Read this book: Light Weight Camping Equipment and How to Make it by Gerry Cunningham
It now seems quaint and somewhat out of date, but it’s a great way to get some basic information about, as the title suggests, how to make your own gear. Gerry Cunningham was the “Gerry” behind the company of that same name, and he had figured out a bunch of stuff already.
Solo backpacking trip in the back country of Yosemite, 1977. I built the pack hiding behind me; it’s mounted on a classic Kelty external frame.
Learn To Sew
Take a class or just get a machine and start tinkering around. Nik (COO / Designer here at TOM BIHN) more or less taught himself to sew over the course of a few months, mentored a bit by Lisa, Fong and myself. It’ll make a world of difference in your designs if you can actually sew them yourself: the cycle of sketch/prototype/test, sketch/prototype/test is so much faster and easier than if you need someone else to make your ideas real. Plus, you might invent a whole new way of making a bag if you do it yourself.
What type of machine, you may ask? I made everything on a walking foot Consew 206RB for years. If you can get one with a servo motor instead of the old clutch drive, you’ll be ahead of the curve as you learn (it’s sort of the difference between an automatic and a stick shift in a car: especially in the learning phase, you’ve got enough other things to distract you).
My Consew 206RB is still in use in our Seattle factory.
Start Small. Don’t quit your day job. Not yet, anyway.
Times have changed and this advice may not be as relevant, but here goes: I attribute part of the success of this business to the fact that I had modest expectations and never planned to make a lot of money making bags. For years I held down other jobs and made bags on the side, renting a loft above my friend’s garage for almost a decade while I developed my designs and learned to run my own business.
A letter of recommendation from the Frick winery. I had over 30 jobs before I officially started my own business.
Listen to everyone’s advice, but take little of it.
Everyone will give you their opinion about what you make. It’s important to pay attention to this feedback: after all, the idea is not to just make bags for yourself. But it’s also good to develop a filter that helps you sort through all the opinions before they confuse and sidetrack your own vision.
Remember as well that your designs and skills will evolve: there’s always more to learn from yourself, your critics, your supporters, and often by just watching people use their bags.
I (most of the time) welcomed the feedback of friends and family who used my packs on their hikes and travels. Here, Brooke wears the Sack of Spuds backpack.
And Perhaps Most Importantly…
Though it might just remain an avocation rather than a full-time career, if you love making things, don’t give up. Had Etsy been around when I was starting off, you can bet I would have had an Etsy store. What cooler way to to see what people like and don’t like than to offer your ideas for sale to the whole world?
While living in a loft above a friend’s garage is perhaps a bit glamorous at age 20 or 30 (as opposed to age 50), there were plenty of times I thought about getting a “real job”. I’m glad I didn’t. And frankly, I’d rather still be living in that loft than doing something for work I didn’t really enjoy.
Look at us now: we’re a company of 47 people all working together under one roof here in Seattle. We made it. And you might, too.
Thank you to all the hands and hearts that went into repairing my bag for me. I love this bag so much. I wear it everyday no matter where I go. Without it my entire body rhythm was off.
I am proud to know that hard working people make and repair bags that they take pride in. So everyone – mail handlers, admins, folks that sew, wash, fold, package, add handles, sweep the factory floor, clean the break room, pay the light bill, show kindness to co-workers, to all of you I salute you.
The above was sent to email@example.com
As one might expect, we include a receipt with each bag that we ship from our Seattle factory. On the back of the receipt is the usual useful info plus the following invitation:
Appreciating the fine workmanship of your new bag? Feeling inspired to recognize the talented folks responsible? Here’s your direct line to our production team: firstname.lastname@example.org
We read emails sent to email@example.com to everyone at our monthly company meetings. It means a lot to us to be recognized for our efforts: thank you. Know too that it’s something we pay forward in our own day-to-day lives.
It’s true: these days many questions can be answered through an internet search. In spite of this, libraries endure. Not only do they have a transformative effect on individuals and society, libraries themselves have evolved over the years to keep pace with changes in how people seek and use information. What remains constant: the library makes access to…
We’ve increased the size of our original Passport Pouch so that it fits passports in protective plastic sleeves, thick passports with many pages, or as many as four passports—without making it too big to comfortably wear cross-body or around one’s waist. (The Passport Pouch can also simply be stowed inside of a bag.)
The previous dimensions of the Passport Pouch were 5.0″ (w) x 6.3″ (h) / 125 mm (w) x 160 (h).
The dimensions of the new Passport Pouch are 5.5″ (w) x 7.1″ (h) / 140 (w) x 180 (h) mm.
We also now offer our Passport Pouch in two versions:
Passport Pouch, Standard
A simple, straight-forward and well-made passport pouch, it gets the job done well. $22. Ships by April 13th.
Passport Pouch, RFID Blocking
Underneath its interior lining of Aether fabric, this version features a layer of a special metalized fabric that will effectively block detection or reading of RFID chips. $25. Ships by around late April.
You can sign up on the Passport Pouch page to be notified via email the moment either version of the Pouch is ready to ship.
Our Portable Culture Portrait blog series features TOM BIHN Forum members, the bags they carry, and the items they carry in their bags. It’s inspired by our Portable Culture tagline. This edition features Forum member Mausermama. The previous editions featured Forum members platisc, ceepee, sea_otter3, NWHikerGal, widepipe, Rocks, JonC, cdh, Badger, haraya, imahawki, Amy, Perseffect, jujigatame and bchaplin.
What’s the most useful item that you carry?
That’s a very challenging question for me! I guess if I had to distill it down to one item, it would be the key strap as paired with the magical o-ring. As a child, I frequently heard my parents tell me, “You’d lose your head if it wasn’t attached.” They were right. It seems until I found TOM BIHN, I was always misplacing one item or another, usually my keys.
I’m a longtime knitter, and I first read about TOM BIHN and the Swift through the Knitty online knitting magazine. It sounded like a great bag, reliably sturdy and intelligently designed, and it had these things called o-rings. I especially liked that it’s a domestic company that pays its workers a living wage. I was intrigued, but the price tag made me hesitate for a couple of years (I can be slow sometimes). Eventually I pulled the trigger, but it was on a different bag, the Imago. I ordered it along with an extra key strap. When it arrived, I loaded my knitting and EDC items into it and discovered something wonderful. I no longer left my keys or wallet behind because they were now tethered. What I gained by buying that bag was not just a fabulous bag, but extra time in my day and peace in my life. From that point, I became a TOM BIHN convert.
I eventually did buy a Swift (and a lot of other TB bags and accessories), but the Imago and those awesome key straps and o-rings paved the way. I really love how modular they make the entire TOM BIHN system. I don’t have to be married to any one particular bag. It only takes a few seconds to slide my basics out of one bag and into another. Case in point, my Maker’s Bag Freudian Slip. It travels from my Swift to my Maker’s Bag to my Pop Tote effortlessly.
What’s your most treasured item?
I’ll break it down into non-TOM BIHN and TOM BIHN categories. For non-TOM BIHN, I think I would have to say my wedding ring. This upcoming spring my husband and I will have been married for twenty-five years. We married young and have been married for more than half of our lives. To me my ring is a tangible symbol of our love and commitment to each other. A close second would be my mother’s wedding ring. I lost her a few years ago, and my father gave me her wedding ring. They were married for forty-six years. When I look at her ring, I’m reminded of the love they shared in their time together.
My most treasured TOM BIHN item would have to be my Imago. It’s a lovely Navy/Cork/Wasabi combination, and every time I carry it, it makes me smile. Sadly, I don’t carry it as often as I used to because cross body bags are physically a little harder on me these days. Instead I tend to favor either my Luminary, Synapse 19, or the new Pop Tote (my new favorite bag, by the way!). I love the Pop tote because it is reminiscent of the Swift, but it’s lighter and zips closed.
Which item do you use more often than you thought you would?
Oh, that’s an easy question! Definitely my Travel Trays. It started with one and has quickly blossomed into several, each in a different color. I bought it because so many people on the forums raved about them, but I didn’t really see the appeal. Then I got it and plopped in my yarn and tools. Voila! It was another way to keep me organized and from losing knitting tools like stitch markers, cable needles, etc. My “obsession” with Travel Trays has grown. I now have at least one in most of the rooms of my house. My office boasts two: one to catch loose change and other pocket detritus, and the other to keep track of my stapler, binder clips, lip balm, tape, paper clips, and what-have-you.
I have three in my bedroom. One holds my essential oils, another keeps my watch, rings, fitness tracker, and phone in one spot for the next day. The other, alas, catches junk that I should put away but don’t. Once a week or so I take it around the house and put everything back where it belongs.
Travel Trays have become my go-to gift for birthdays and Christmas. I love their price point, and people who receive them always tell me how much they love and use them. They’re cheery and colorful organizers. I doubt I’m done collecting them, either. There’s always something else I can corral.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I am finishing up educating my three children, who I homeschooled from the beginning. My oldest is in college double majoring in English and Philosophy. My middle kiddo is graduating this spring. He wants to major in computer science. My youngest is starting dual enrollment this January. She’s currently in her sophomore year. Eventually she hopes to work either in veterinary medicine or as a park ranger in our national parks system.
Now that I don’t have to spend quite as much time with my children teaching, I spend my time teaching other students. I tutor students with dyslexia using a special Orton-Gillingham program called Barton Reading and Spelling. Additionally, I work virtually for the Institute for Excellence in Writing in a number of rolls. I am the content editor of their blog, one of their homeschool educational consultants, and a moderator on their forums. When I’m not doing those things, I teach high school composition and literature to a small group of homeschooled students.
Our Portable Culture Portrait blog series features TOM BIHN Forum members, the bags they carry, and the items they carry in their bags. It’s inspired by our Portable Culture tagline. This edition features Forum member platisc. The previous editions featured Forum members ceepee, sea_otter3, NWHikerGal, widepipe, Rocks, JonC, cdh, Badger, haraya, imahawki, Amy, Perseffect, jujigatame and bchaplin.
What’s the most useful item that you carry?
Bellroy’s Phone Pocket is something that continuously satisfies me. It’s a combo phone case and wallet that often houses quick-grab documents like receipts or tickets. It’s a beautiful accessory that I enjoy holding in hand as much as tossing into the sling-accessible side pocket of my S19 or into the bottle pocket of my shop bag. I operate a small inn, so my work follows me onto sandy beaches and dusty trails long after I depart the office. I’m constantly in and out of this thing for my phone, responding to guest needs or inquiries, so I’d be hard-pressed to find something more useful outside of the phone itself. Carrying the device that keeps me connected, along with all my cash, coin and documents for the day has to qualify this piece as my most useful. Plus, it’s just always nice when the repetitive motions of everyday duties can be pleasant interactions.
What’s your most treasured item?
Over the past few years, I’ve developed a strange relationship with all of my material possessions. As minimalism and the art of de-cluttering have gained traction, my own goods have continuously been pared down in a quality-over-quantity ideal. As a result, I feel that mostly everything that I do own and use brings me great joy each time I reach for it – and if it doesn’t, I’ll start debating an upgrade! This leaves me in a space where I feel grateful for everything that I have, but don’t necessarily favor or treasure one thing over another. There is no pocket-watch that’s been handed down from generations, or secret diary that makes its way onto every trip (though I do journal quite often). My old Smart Alec kickstarted this philosophy (like any great backpack can), as the great thing that carried my things. It was my best friend, and accompanied me through many countries and great adventures, as I strived to fill it with contents that could match its subtle beauty and durability. Now, for the sake of picking a single item (outside of my Aeronaut 30 which is another best-friend type bag), I’d say my Outlier Slim Dungarees. I’ve always valued comfort and function in my clothing, even as a kid who complained that my jeans were restricting. I’ve worn my Slim Dungaree pants and felt comfortable and confident on airplanes, to formal meetings, at work, in the ocean, on the basketball court and beyond. Like my bags and gear, I don’t have much clothing, but the garments I do have definitely don’t restrict me anymore, and all follow the “Be Prepared” motto that I try to still live by.
Which item do you use more often than you thought you would?
My Small Shop Bag. I wrote a bit of a love-letter post when I received it because it instantly exceeded my expectations. For over a year, my Small Shop Bag functioned as my EDC bag, and it rested perfectly in my bicycle’s trunk to and from work. Now, its days are a bit more varied. I use it to transport large items like my tongue drum or a basketball. It’s always with me on trips to make ends meet if I overpack, purchase anything additional, or just want quick-access items under my airplane seat. Fearless, durable, and easily cleaned, it never ceases to surprise me – like when it happily smuggles in pizza slices to my local outdoor cinema. It’s now most often (and gloriously so) a beach bag, carrying with ease my phone, wallet, goggles, blanket, snacks + water, nook and more. It seems to hold whatever I need with a minimal footprint, and if/when not in use, it packs into a large Q-Kit perfectly. It’s just a bag that I love looking at and have used in so many different ways on all sorts of unexpected occasions. Love it.
Tech and Accessories
- 11” Macbook Air (in vertical cache, stowed in A30 backpack strap pocket)
- Nook GlowLight (in pouch)
- Medium Double Organizer Pouch (used for travel documents, receipts, etc.)
- USA /EU USB adapters, micro usb plug, lightning charger, Anker portable battery (inside a small Q-Kit)
- Assorted toiletries – thumbs up for Schmidt’s Deodorant and essential oils (inside a size 6 stuff sack)
- Bellroy Phone Pocket (phone, wallet, quick-documents), Bellroy Key Cover, Apple headphones, Moleskine notebook, Person sunglasses (inside Navy parapack Side Effect)
- Assorted toolset (often a multi-tool like a leatherman, this trip happened to have this set)
*NOTE* – Not pictured but typically packed is a stacked First Aid Kit inside TOM BIHN’s First Aid Pouch)
- Mission Workshop Orion jacket (inside a Pocket Travel Pillow)
- 2x Outlier Mojave Pivot short-sleeve shirt
- Outlier Air Forged Oxford
- 2x Outlier Runweight Merino Tee
- Outlier Ultralight Track Jacket
- Outlier Futureworks
- Outlier Slim Dungarees
- Outlier New Way Shorts
- Outlier Ultrafine Merino Magnetic Bandana
*NOTE*: pictured is a Medium eBags packing cube. I’ve since upgraded to TOM BIHN’s Aeronaut 30 Packing Cube Backpack, which I love.
- Darn Tough merino socks, assorted underwear and undershirts (inside an A30 Travel Laundry Stuff Sack)
Everything In Its Case
Home is where the bags go. I’m a Brooklyn born self-employed traveler at heart who currently operates a small inn on the island of Santorini, Greece. I make a point to love where I live, wherever I may be, and I find this easier to do so by bringing along only the gear and bags that I deem necessary to pick up and go. Everything (material) that I love and need fits into my bags, and so the philosophy of being able to pack and move at any notice keeps an adventurous fire underneath my feet, even though I adhere to the daily responsibilities of running a business. Winter months you’ll find me back in the birthplace of New York City and far beyond – taking my bags to new lands, seeing how they react to different environments and unexpected scenarios (my favorite). I have many friends, family, and a loving partner, and they all tease me about my relationship with my bags. I just hope I never lose the love I have for such reliable companions. A special thanks to Brooklyn-based Outlier for building unfailing clothing of radical quality, and of course to the TOM BIHN crew and community for creating such thoughtful and dependable designs for everyday living and beyond.
Every year, the TOM BIHN Ravelry group knits wearable gifts for our crew. Some years the wearables have been scarves or gloves, and this year it was hats. We know a thing or two about materials and quality craftsmanship, and we’re in awe of what the group makes for us.
From all of us here at TOM BIHN to the TB Ravelry Group: thank you! The wearables you make for us are a big part of our annual holiday party, and everyone looks forward to choosing an item. Special thanks goes to Annie, a knitter and Ravelry member local to Seattle who coordinates the whole effort and delivers the knitted items. (Annie is also the person who knitted G.I. Joe’s hat — see below.)
Below are just a few of the photos; click through to read the whole post and see all 40-or-so (we lost count) photos of the hats and our crew.
We polled the crew here at TB about their favorite cocktails and mixed drinks and shared that with
@icarusrex for inspiration. Here’s the cocktails he came up with (of course, we had to test the recipes, and yes they’re very good) plus a couple of amateur creations of our own, just in time for New Year’s.
TB Cocktail (Sweet & Spicy)
1 1/2 oz. bourbon whiskey (@icarusrex used Elijah Craig 12 Year; we used Woodinville Whiskey Company)
1/2 oz. Zirpenz Stone Pine Liqueur (see note below)
1/2 oz. real maple syrup
3 oz. ginger beer (@icarusrex used Goslings; we used Trader Joe’s)
Shake bourbon, pine liqueur and maple syrup with ice and pour in a glass with ice. Top with ginger beer. Substitute honey syrup for maple syrup for a different flavor.
Note: We had difficulty finding the Zirpenz Stone Pine Liqeur, so we got a little creative; we brewed Douglas Fir tea, made ice cubes out of it, and added that to the drink, replacing the liquid with…. more whiskey.
Northwest Sky AKA Seattle Seagull* or “tastes like you’d expect”) (our own amateur cocktail creation)
1 1/2 oz. Tito’s Vodka
Sparkling water to fill the glass
Salt the rim of a small mason jar, camping mug, or whatever you happen to have around. Add ice cubes, packed snow, or icicles. Pour in vodka and sparkling water.
*Years ago when Tom managed the AYH hostel in Santa Cruz, he met a laconic young man from Denmark who claimed to have been raised in Greenland.
“Wow… tell me something about life in Greenland. What do you recall from living there?”
After some moments of thought, the young man replied “I remember we ate seagulls.”
“So… what do seagulls taste like?” Tom had to ask.
After some further long moments of reflection, the young man shrugged and said “pretty much like you’d expect.”
Seagulls, it turns out, taste like you’re expect them to.
Ever since then Tom has used this story to illustrate a situation when something is more or less self explanatory.
TB Non-Alcoholic Cocktail
2 oz. apple juice or apple cider
1/2 oz. real maple syrup or honey syrup
3 oz. ginger beer
Mix in a glass of your choice. Garnish with curled lemon or orange peel.
Cucumber and Fir Non-Alcoholic Cocktail
3 Cucumber slices
Douglas Fir for garnish
Optional: Douglas Fir Ice Cubes*
Combine sparkling water with two cucumber slices and ice in a glass. Cut the third cucumber slice as a garnish and add it to the rim of the glass along with a piece of Douglas Fir. This very simple drink is quite refreshing, especially for those who prefer a less sweet taste.
*Douglas Fir Ice Cubes
To make: brew Douglas Fir tea. Either collect your own Douglas Fir spring tips (the very bright green, new growth of the tree; take care not to collect all of the tips from the same tree, or same section of the tree) in the spring and dry them for use year ’round or purchase this ready-to-go tea from Juniper Ridge. Let the tea cool and pour it in an ice cube tray. Freeze.
Many thanks again to @icarusrex. See also: his article on Mile High Bartending.
From all of us at TOM BIHN: Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
Here’s a few photos from last week’s holiday party at the factory. You may be asking: what’s up with all of the beautiful knitted hats? Each year the TOM BIHN Ravelry group knits hats for our entire crew. We’ll post more hat photos next week — stay tuned!
Happy Holidays to all of you from all of us!
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