Company

Some Thoughts for the Prospective Bag Designer

Tom Bihn in the Dave Meeks Bee Barn, Santa Cruz
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!)

Tom Bihn Custom Down Jackets
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.

Tom in Yosemite
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.

Tom's letter of recommendation
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.

TOM BIHN Crew
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.

Recognition for Our Crew from M.F.

Hello Tom Bihn Crew:

I want to recognize those on the production team that create these wonderful bags. I ordered and received a Tri-Star last week.

It is one thing to read and review a product online, but it is another to have it in hand. The materials that compose the bag are enough to differentiate it from competitors; yet, it’s the quality craftsmanship that truly sets it apart. Time and effort are exemplified in its build quality, and I am honored to carry this product with me everyday (and for years to come). You all should be very proud of your work!

In short, thank you!
Consider me a customer for life. (^.^)

Warm regards,
M.F.

The above was sent to factorycrew@tombihn.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: factorycrew@tombihn.com

We read emails sent to factorycrew@tombihn.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.

Farewell to the Field Journal Notebook

TOM BIHN | The Field Journal Notebook Returns

Back in 2015 we made the decision to retire a number of designs including the Field Journal Notebook. And then, in 2016, we announced its return. Now, in 2018, we are once again retiring the Field Journal Notebook. This decision was made partly because of two materials supply related reasons: first, the Field Journal Notebook’s three-ring binder mechanism is no longer available, and second, the cost of the specially-produced-just-for-us FJN paper inserts/refills have gone up by a substantial amount that we’d rather not pass on to you.

And so here we find ourselves once again: the Field Journal Notebook is retiring and this time it’s for good. The currently available Field Journal Notebooks, accessories, and paper refills are the last of their kind. No more final batches will be made. (Go here to see the Field Journal Notebook and its accoutrements all in one place.)

Those of you who already own or plan to purchase a Field Journal Notebook may be wondering where you can find paper refills from here on out. The Field Journal Notebook accepts paper that is 5.5 x 8.5” which isn’t a terribly common size but not too rare. Here’s some paper refill options that can be obtained through Amazon:

Avery Mini Filler Paper, 5.5 x 8.5 Inches
Bright White 24lb Bond 5 1/2″ x 8 1/2″ Sheets
Ampad Graph-Ruled Refill Sheets

In addition, unpunched Half Letter or A5 (different but fairly similar sizes) paper can be acquired and an industrious person could make their own custom pages (or find one that works for them on sites like Etsy) and use a Mini 3-hole punch such as this one by Staples or an adjustable punch such as this one by Swingline to print and punch their own replacement pages.

Finally, there have been some helpful discussions about this on the forums, such as the Where to Buy FJN Insides, Field Journal Notebook Hole Spacing, and Field Journal Notebook threads, all of which are worth a look if you’re interested in more information about planners and hole punching for the Field Journal Notebook.

Many thanks goes out to our volunteer Forum Moderators moriond and Ilkyway for the links / information / tips referenced in this blog post.

And, as always… if you have questions about any of this, emailus@tombihn.com or give us a call at 1-800-729-9607 or 1+206-652-4123.

The Hats Knitted for the TOM BIHN Crew

Hats knitted by the TOM BIHN Ravelry group for the TOM BIHN Crew

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.

Hand-knitted hats for the TOM BIHN crew made by the TOM BIHN Ravelry Group
(Yes, there’s a story behind this.)

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

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!

TOM BIHN Bags Holiday Party 2017
Happy Holidays to all of you from all of us!

Tom’s Simplified and (nearly) Painless 2017 Holiday Gift Guide

Tom Bihn Listening to Audibooks While Designing

Much has been said and written about giving gifts that are not things, and about how experiences ultimately mean more to us than stuff. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve observed that more than ever before, I cherish time spent with family and friends, travel to new and old places, fresh air, wildlife, and nature more than a garage full of objects. With that in mind, I’ve in years past given movie, concert or opera tickets as gifts, or even a gift certificate for a massage or kayak rental. So far, so good.

As we set out to create a 2017 version of our Bags and Beyond Gift Guide, we realized we couldn’t improve much on the list of things already in it, and that some of us were giving other types of gifts this year – food, drink, experiences, and…. books.

I am very fond of books and I’ve begun to give them as gifts. The thing of a book is often more the experience of reading it than the possession of it. Coffee table books of art, wildlife, and photography, as well as illustrated works like Eric Sloan’s A Reverence for Wood or Roger Jean Segalat’s How Things Work series, (and yes of course graphic novels, my dear friend Erin the librarian) are exceptions.

My advice this year is: if you feel compelled to give a gift that is a thing, find your way to your local bookstore and buy books. If you see nothing there that seems appropriate to the person on your list, or if you’re like me and everything looks wondrous and beguiling, gift certificates are there for you. Shopping remotely for an out-of-towner? Go to Indie Bookstore Finder and then call the bookstore closest to your friend and buy a gift certificate. Seriously consider the local bookstore rather than the easy way out of online shopping — remember, if you don’t support your local bookstore, it may not be there the next time you look.

Now, back to where I was headed with this…

These past few years I’ve become rather addicted to audio books. I listen when I drive, while I do housework, and even in my studio as I’m working on a new design. I listened to 57 hours of Sherlock Holmes while designing The Hero’s Journey (though I guess I really ought to have been listening to Joseph Campbell); Anna Karenina and The Boys in the Boat while designing the Luminary; News of the World and A Brief History of Time while designing the Pop Tote; Far from the Madding Crowd and The Heart of Everything That Is while working on The Moveable Feast. When a story has really grabbed me, I’ve even been known to listen, unbelievable as this may sound, as I hike. (One must exercise some reasonable caution: as I listened to Sissy Spacek read To Kill a Mockingbird, I had to pull the car over and wipe the tears from my eyes.) I’ve always a few books in queue loaded on to my smartphone, along with some language lessons to break things up (Cantonese and Swahili: I just want to be able to say “hello” and “thank you”.)

I love my audio books.

So with that in mind, and in the spirt of giving things that are not things, this year I am offering up what is perhaps the simplest gift guide ever: after you’ve pillaged the local book store, give Audible.com subscriptions. Yes, I know they are part of Amazon.com, and are therefore somehow cahooting with Darth Vader, but it’s an amazing service: there are not enough hours in the day to ever make a dent in their selection. [Editor’s note: when we sent this post out to our email newsletter list yesterday morning, reader H.C. wrote back to offer an independent bookstore equivalent of Audible — Libro.fm.]

Best wishes to all of you for a grand holiday weekend with friends, family, dogs, cats, and anyone else who is dear.

Cookbooks
Six Seasons: A New Way With Vegetables by Joshua McFadden
The How Not To Die Cookbook by Michael Greger
The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America’s Most Imaginative Chefs by Karen Page
Clean Cakes by Henrietta Inman

Coffee Table Books
Where The Animals Go: Tracking Wildlife with Technology in 50 Maps and Graphics by by James Cheshire, Oliver Uberti
Sohan Qadri: The Seer by by Various (Editor)

Books For Kids
Big Red Barn and Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
Matilda by Roald Dahl

Magazines (print or digital) 
Astronomy 
Nautilus 
The New Yorker

Seattle Factory Showroom Open 12/16

Hey Seattle folks!

Join us for a rare Saturday opening of our Factory Showroom on December 16th from 10:00am – 2:00pm. We’ll have hot coffee, homemade cookies, and, of course, bags…

4750A Ohio Ave S – Seattle – 98134

TOM BIHN Seattle Factory Showroom

The Not Very Successful Holiday Photo Shoot

We thought it’d be fun to get a photo of Ichiro and Fiona (two of the dogs on staff here at TOM BIHN) wearing festive holiday antlers while lounging on a Camp Mat, but they had a different idea…

Our Guide To Backpack Frames

Tom and Nik in the Seattle Factory

As with many things in life, deciding whether to use an internal frame—or if you even need one—is subjective: it’s based on how you plan to carry your backpack, what you plan to carry in it, and how carefully you’re willing to pack it. A lot of folks will find an internal frame useful, but not everyone will, and certainly not everyone needs one, especially those who carry smaller/lighter packs or less gear.

Our Hero’s Journey, Guide’s Pack, and Guide’s Edition Synapse 25 backpacks all come with internal frames included. Versions of the same internal frame are optional for our Synapse 19 and Synapse 25 backpacks. But just because we offer internal frames doesn’t mean they’re required; our goal with this guide is to give you the facts as we know them (experientially, theoretically, and historically) so you can make the decision as to what’s best for you and your carrying comfort.

2017 Holiday Shipping Guide

Save the dates! Here’s our guide to ordering to ensure your bags arrive by or on December 24th.

News Briefs

The Travel Cubelet is back in-stock in all colors.

The Synapse 19 is back in-stock and ready to ship in all colors. Yeoman Duffels and Tri-Stars, too.

We’ve retired Canyon 210d ballistic nylon and Carbon Aether. See a list of bags still available in these two colors and fabrics here.

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