When I was first learning to sew, I made backpacking equipment for my G.I. Joe. I was about ten years old at the time, and I had already moved on from “playing” with G.I. Joe: he got dragged out of early retirement as a model for my first attempts at making outdoor gear.
He was one of the “up-to-dated” versions of GI Joe, more or less as pictured with the flocked hair instead of plastic, and a matching flocked beard (see this article about the evolution of Joe).
I made a sleeping bag for Joe too. I don’t know what happened to that; I do recall it was a bit snug on Joe and its half-length side zipper barely closed.
Fast forward to 2015. As we embarked on the redesign our Seattle Factory Showroom, we decided to devote the only real wall in the showroom to our history: early designs, a down jacket I made, photos from over the years, and even the collection of letters of recommendation I received from various jobs that I had before starting my own business making bags. (Though you’re always welcome to come visit our factory, there is an online version of the History Wall just in case you can’t make it.)
Darcy asked me if I could remember the very first bag I ever made, and I shared the story of Joe’s pack. She asked if the original might be around somewhere and I said no. Seldom willing to take no for an answer, she then asked if I could make a replica, and I said sure.
When I set out to recreate Joe’s external frame backpack for the history wall in our Seattle Factory Showroom and headquarters, I had nothing but my memory to go on. On eBay I scored a G.I. Joe action figure of the same vintage of the one for which I had made the original. Having Joe back brought more memories of the pack itself, and I was able to re-create something thematically quite similar. I couldn’t help adding the tiny label, which of course the original lacked, and when I found some very small side release buckles, my internal 10-year-old couldn’t say no.
(And eBay yielded another tiny item which I’m pretty sure I never had: a GI Joe ice axe. It was too good to pass up, so it got incorporated into the new version as well. Interesting to note that I was only 13 – a few short years later – when I got my own ice axe for a backpacking trip on the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington: it’s an ice axe I still own and occasionally use.)
The 21st century version of the pack is yet an homage to that era as well: I made it from our 420 Parapack fabric, which back in 1970 was becoming a ubiquitous backpack fabric.
We published this guide to the Cafe Bag back in 2015, and we’re re-posting it now to reflect some changes to the Cafe Bag line.
The Cafe Bag is incredibly simple and versatile. Available in two sizes (Small and Medium) and an array of colors and fabrics, it’s great for hauling your everyday essentials. Classic and unobtrusive, it’s at home anywhere: the coffee shop, the office, the park, the movies, or on your next country stroll or bike ride to town. You can even use it as a minimalistic overnight bag (we admit that your mileage may vary with this one).
The Cafe Bag fits in any urban environment but is tough enough to take to the beach or on your next light hike. If you want to figure out which Cafe Bag will work for you, you can do what Forum member jujigatame did and fabricate a mock-up. No? Then maybe this guide will help.
Some design elements are common to both Cafe Bag sizes:
- A large open-top main compartment
- An asymmetrical flap that closes with a sturdy Duraflex buckle
- A front zip pocket beneath the flap
- A slanted, open-top pocket on the back of the bag
- Attachment points for a waist strap (not included)
Cafe Bags come in three fabric choices:
- a 525D HT Ballistic nylon exterior with a 210D HT Ballistic nylon interior
- a 1000D Cordura exterior with a 420 HT nylon Parapack lining
- a 400D Halcyon exterior with a 200D Halcyon lining
Every Cafe Bag also comes with one black 8” Key Strap.
Particulars and usage examples
- 350 cubic inches / 6 litres
- 1.5” nylon webbing shoulder strap with grippy shoulder pad (optional upgrade: Ultrasuede Shoulder Strap Wrap), adjustable to 54″
- 2 o-rings in the main compartment and 1 in the zip pocket
- 4 pockets in main compartment: 3 for pens, 1 for a phone or tools
TOM BIHN accessories: Freudian Slip (for Small Cafe Bag), Double Organizer Pouch (Small), Organizer Pouch (Mini, Small, Medium), Spiff Kit (Standard), Knitting Tool Pouches (all sizes), Q-Kit (all sizes), Side Effect (it does take up a lot of room though), Packing Cube (for Night Flight Travel Duffle), Clear Quarter Packing Cube, 3D Organizer Cube, Pocket Pouch, Stuff Sacks (Size 1, 2), Yarn Stuff Sacks (Size Small, Medium)
Stuff: Hard or softcover book, 12-16 oz bottle, hat and gloves, sunglasses, box of 6 granola bars, notebook up to size A5, point and shoot camera, folded newspaper (not the Sunday Times, obviously), micro 4/3 camera
jujigatame organizes his EDC essentials in the Small Cafe Bag.
- 475 cubic inches / 8 litres
- 1.5” nylon webbing shoulder strap with grippy shoulder pad (optional upgrade: Ultrasuede Shoulder Strap Wrap), adjustable to 54″
- 2 o-rings in the main compartment and 1 in the zip pocket
- 4 pockets in main compartment: 2 for pens, 2 for a phone or tools
TOM BIHN accessories, in addition to all that will fit in the Small Cafe Bag: Freudian Slip (for Medium Cafe Bag), Double Organizer Pouch (Medium), Packing Cubes (Tri-Star, Small; Western Flyer, Small; Aeronaut 30, Small or End Pocket; Pilot, Small), Stuff Sack (Size 3)
Stuff: Rolled-up T-shirt, 17-20 oz bottle, full-size magazine, notebook up to size A4, a change of socks and underwear, a compact umbrella, DSLR
DaMacGuy uses his Medium Cafe Bag as his work bag.
ncb4 squeezed a ton of DSLR equipment into her Medium Cafe Bag.
Toblerhaus packed her Medium Cafe Bag in tandem with her Brain Bag as carry-ons for a trip to Europe with her two kids.
Q: Does stuff fall out of the top compartment?
A: It’s possible if the flap is unlatched and the bag gets turned upside down. In general, items stay put when the bag is in normal use. We recommend that you secure valuables inside a pouch with a Key Strap—that way, even if the pouch falls out of the bag, it will stay attached.
Q: Do these bags count as a “personal item” on an airplane?
A: In general, yes! The total measurements of both bags fit within most airlines’ requirements for your secondary personal item. Please make sure by checking with your specific airline.
Q: What tablets/laptops fit in each bag?
A: While exact fit is determined by whatever protective case you might be using on your device, members of the Forum report the following:
Small Cafe Bag: iPad mini; 7” tablets; iPad/iPad Air (very snug fit)
Medium Cafe Bag: all Small Cafe Bag items; plus iPad Pro, MacBook Air (or other 11” slim laptop); Macbook (12”)
Q: I am a guy. Will a Cafe Bag make me look like I am carrying a purse?
A: This is highly subjective, of course, but we think the answer is no. Lots and lots of guys on our Forum carry Cafe Bags of all sizes and colors. The general consensus, though, is that dark colors (Navy, Grey, Black) in the larger Medium size tend to look more “manly.” If it helps, don’t think of it as a bag; think of it as a “satchel.”
Got a question we didn’t answer? Ask the helpful denizens of the Forum.
I can’t remember how exactly it started, but back in the 1970s, my mother took up the hobby of working with leather. Living near Santa Cruz, she had easy access to leather from the Salz Tannery.
The tannery had a small retail store on site, known as “The Dead Cow”, which also sold leather working tools and patterns for making bags and other items. I would often accompany her, and I can still recall the rather intense (and not altogeher pleasant) smell of leather being tanned.
As you can see by these photos, my mother took her hobby quite seriously. In fact, she regularly sold the leather handbags she made to her friends. Her favorite leather to work in was Salz “Latigo “ which was quite beautiful, and very thick.
Barbara (Bobbie) Bihn’s initials in one of the handbags she made. This particular handbag is on display in our conference room at our Seattle, Washington company headquarters and factory.
Though I was never particularly inspired to work much in leather, growing up in a home where somebody practiced a craft and made things clearly inspired me – creativity breeds creatively. So when I wanted outdoor gear, it seemed natural for me to teach myself how to make it.
Thanks Mom 🙂 And Happy Mother’s Day to all!
Traveling in China
Barbara Bihn ~ 1931 – 2014.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve grown very fond of square sketchbooks. I think that’s because they don’t confine me to a particular perspective. I love turning a sketch 90 or 180 degrees mid-process and discovering a new way of seeing things.
For years I’d buy my sketchbooks in Canada: they sold a very nice series of Made in Canada, square sketchbooks. Sadly they got harder to find, and I don’t go north of the 49th as much as used to.
Fortunately I found a manufacturer able to make me pretty much my dream sketchbook: square, small enough to be very portable and yet still very utilitarian. Only problem was that to get it just like I wanted it, we needed to have far more of these made than I’ll use in this lifetime. So, we figured we’d offer it to you guys: if you appreciate it half as much as I do, I’ll be happy.
The front is printed with a simple line graphic that makes the sketchbook look like one of our Organizer Pouches. That’s just for fun. The notebooks are recycled and Made in U.S.A.
Included is my favorite pen: it’s the mini version of the ubiquitous Bic blue and white writes-in-four-colors pen, printed with our logo. Use each color to delineate layers, processes, ordinal priority, whatever makes sense at the moment. The pen is Made in France.
Sketchbook & Pen, $10. If purchased separately, shipping via USPS First Class Mail is $5 (U.S.) and $8-$10 (Outside of the U.S.)
From 1990 until 1999, my business was my retail store/workshop in downtown Santa Cruz, California. For not quite ten years, I walked or rode my bike to work everyday (I only drove once!), along with my dog Faux Pas. Initially, I built every bag myself right there in my shop, though I eventually found a contract manufacturer in Minnesota (Battle Lake Outdoors) to do some of the heavy lifting. Those were some great days — did you ever hear the story about the margaritas and the cops? I digress…
At some point in the middle of all that, the artist Rachel Strickland approached me about her Portable Effects project. Her idea was to document what it was we all carried around with us everyday — what folks now call their EDC, or Every Day Carry. She was interviewing a wide variety of participants, as well as building an installation in the Exploratorium* in San Francisco. As someone who made bags, would I be willing offer my perspective on what people carried? Sure I said, though at the time thinking “Hey, I just make bags — what do I know?”
A decade later, at TOM BIHN headquarters, we were kicking around ideas for a new tagline for the labels that we sew onto our bags. I was reflecting upon Rachel’s project, thinking about what is it that we carry with us, and realizing that our stuff, our EDC, is arguably an embodiment of our personal culture. Then, Darcy came up with “Portable Culture” as our way of reflecting that the stuff we carry everyday, including the bag in which we carry it, can be a small window as to who we are.
A few years ago we let the tagline slip quietly off the label, but some folks said they missed it, and we realized we did too. So here it is again: “Portable Culture” is back on the label, and back in our hearts too.
We’re working with Rachel to see if we can recover footage of my Portable Effects interview. In the meantime, you can watch the other Portable Effects videos here (Rachel’s newer work is also on her Vimeo channel).
*The funny thing is, in the years since Rachel’s Exploratorium installation, I have become somewhat of a wonk about what people carry in their bags. I suppose back in the 90s I thought of myself as more of a bag artiste. But I’ve grown up a little bit, and now I see the broader importance of what I do. And part of what I do now is listening to what people ask for in their bags, and even more importantly observing how folks interact with their bags. So it’s evolved: I’m still a bag artiste, but also now a bag engineer and bag anthropologist. More curious still to me is a personal tangent: I’ve become somewhat obsessed with Frank Oppenheimer and his ideas about science, technological literacy and democracy. Just a couple of years ago, while reading American Prometheus, my father reminded me that Robert’s brother Frank was the one who started the Exploratorium. It’s almost as if it’s all related… 😉
You know us: we can’t leave good enough alone. Our Aeronaut 45 maximum carry-on travel bag has been updated with a couple of new features and a few materials updates.
All Aeronaut 45s available for order have these new features.
#10 YKK Aquaguard Coil Zippers with Lockable Sliders
We’ve changed the #10 zipper sliders on the main compartment and both end compartments of the Aeronauts to be the same #10 YKK Aquaguard Coil Zippers with lockable sliders found on the Hero’s Journey — you can now easily add a luggage lock to any or all of these compartments. You might want to do this to add some security when your Aeronaut is unattended or out of sight. For example: leaving it with a concierge, walking with it on your back in crowds, or checking it with the airline. We recommend any of the commonly available TSA certified luggage locks. Don’t ever lock your bag? Es bueno — simply don’t use this feature.
#8 YKK Aquaguard Coil Zippers
The diagonal end pocket zippers now feature #8 zippers, which are a bit easier to open and close than the #10 zippers. Nice when you’re trying to access those pockets when your Aeronaut is wedged into an overhead bin or under a seat. They’re still water repellant AquaGuard zippers, so we’ve got you covered.
Interior Grab Handles
We added two simple webbing loop handles that are accessible only when the main hatch is unzipped. Tom noticed he wanted grab handles when he needed to move his Aeronaut in the middle of packing/unpacking it, like from the bed to the bureau. They drop to the inside and are only there when you need them.
3/8″ / 10mm Thick Removable Back Panel Foam Padding
The back panel foam padding is now 3/8″ / 10mm thick (it was originally 1/4″ / 6mm): this will provide you a bit more comfort if you’ve any pokey items in your Aeronaut. The additional thickness also translates into a tad more vertical stability/rigidity — it’s not an internal frame, but will provide a more comfortable carry when carried as a backpack. The foam wraps around the bottom a bit more as well, which yet again adds a bit more comfort when it’s on your back. It also is removable/swappable (thanks to a zipper hidden inside the lining) so you can replace it if it ever gets creased or crushed (unlikely, but foam can age over time with lots of heavy use), and/or remove it entirely if you don’t find you need it and want to save the weight/bulk.
#5 YKK Vislon® Molded Tooth Zippers
Finally, the short zippers that create and define the interior compartments are now molded tooth Vislon rather than coil. You’ll find they are a bit easier to zip and unzip, in case you do that sort of thing much.
The new Aeronaut 45 is also the first bag to mark the return of our Portable Culture logo label; more on that here.
Tom has made several design updates to our Parental Unit diaper bag inspired by feedback posted on our Forums, shared with us by friends and family who use the P.U., and Tom’s observations of it in use.
All Parental Units available for order include these new features and updates.
We’ve also introduced a new accessory — Wheelchair or Stroller Straps — that allows one to hang the Parental Unit on the back of a stroller. As the name indicates, the Wheelchair or Stroller Straps can also be used to hang a bag on the back of a wheelchair. The straps work with any of our bags that have 1-1/2″ d-ring shoulder strap attachment points; see the Wheelchair or Stroller Straps page for a complete list of those bags. We’re working on photos and videos that demonstrate this new accessory in use with both strollers and wheelchairs: stay tuned!
The updated P.U. has two simple 1” / 25mm webbing handles, just inside the zipper of the main compartment. These two handles give you an easy way to grab and move or carry the P.U. while its main compartment is zipped open. This is mostly to use while loading/unloading the Parental Unit, moving it from kitchen to nursery for example. Because the handles are sewn inside, they politely disappear when you zip the bag shut; they give you a nice way to hang the P.U. up on a coat hook as well. (New Aeronauts have similar handle loops to facilitate moving while packing.)
Longer Main Compartment Zipper
Tom has extended the length of the main compartment zipper by over 4” / 100mm. This will not only make packing and unpacking your stuff easier, but allows a better view as you down into the depths of the bag. That main zipper now has two sliders as well.
Snap Divider Becomes Zipper Divider
The main compartment divider has changed from a snap closure to a zipper closure, much like the one in the front compartments of the Western Flyer and Tri-Star. This closure, as you may recall, joins the two interior pouches together to form a divider: if you choose to use it, the main compartment of the Parental Unit goes from one big expanse to four smaller divisions – depending on your packing style, it can be an nice option. It’s a #5 YKK Vislon® molded tooth zipper, in case you were taking notes.
A Little Wider, A bit More Volume
The bottom of the original P.U. was about ~7.1” / 180mm thick; we pushed that out to ~7.9” / 200mm. This of course gives you a tiny bit more room (13.5 liters / 825 cu.in. as opposed to 13 liters / 795 cu.in.), and depending on what you pack and how you pack your P.U., it will now tend to stand upright better on its own.
When I began making outdoor gear, in about 1972, I used the back side of a ping pong table on saw horses, out in the garage, as a cutting surface. At some point my parents wanted their garage back and I was therefore in need of a more modest sized cutting table. The year was 1974 and my mom’s father (“Pop”) was recently retired, and, as retired guys so often do, was dabbling in woodworking. A quiet and thoughtful man, Pop and I spent a weekend building a cutting table. The cutting surface was smooth Masonite which we glued down to a thick plywood base; it had a large shelf for rolls of fabric under that main cutting surface. It served me well for the next several years, as its 48″ x 60″ surface was adequate for vests, jackets and backpack (to cut out sleeping bags, I still had to use the ping pong table.)
When I was in my early 20s, I lived for while in a tent in the Santa Cruz Mountains. At some point I was in need of an outdoor kitchen and I hadn’t been using my grandfather’s table for cutting for a while, so we decided to use it as a kitchen table. We built a roof over the table so we could stand out of the rain while preparing food, and using thin plywood, we built a rough cabinet enclosure around the base of the table for food storage. It sat on some concrete pavement stones in the forest near my tent, and was once again quite useful. (See main photo.) Later, when I moved back to civilization and started making gear again, I retrieved the table. Its cutting surface had not faired so well out in the weather, but the basic structure of the table was still going strong. I fitted a new table top on it (I think it was particle board with a white Melamine top surface) and I was back up and cutting.
The table came with me when I moved my workshop to Dave Meeks’ bee barn in the late 80s. Some days, David and Alayne would invite me up to the house for a lunch of peanut butter and honey sandwiches, and just about every time afterwards, I would fall asleep on my cutting table. When I opened my store/workshop in downtown Santa Cruz in 1990, the table seemed to be on its last legs (hehe) and I was looking at replacing it. My good friend (and hero) Rob offered to help me build a new table — but when we were discussing its history, he said rather than build a new table, he’d cut some new supports and we would shore up my grandfather’s table. A few days later Rob returned with a bunch of carefully cut 2 x 4s and we screwed and glued them onto the old table, and it was as good as new. Better actually, because now Rob was part of it too. I added wheels, and in 1992 when I moved my Santa Cruz shop from 109 Locust Street to 103 Locust Street, my friends David Giannini and Perry Jones just piled stuff on the table and rolled it down the sidewalk.
All these 40+ years later, here in my design studio, the table lives on: I’ve sheered it up by attaching a piece of plywood between the bottom ends of the legs, and once again added giant casters so I can push it out of the way when necessary. The current top is a relic from the old Trager factory in Seattle: a section of modular table top on which were likely cut thousands and thousands of R.E.I. tents, L.L. Bean duffle bags and Eddie Bauer backpacks.
I always thought souvenirs were kinda silly, but you could say that this table is a souvenir: a reminder of the friends and family that got me here. It’s not so bad to be attached to stuff maybe after all.
The table in Tom’s design studio.
Pop holding Tom, 11 years before they made the table together.
We’re proud to introduce the first-ever 3000 cubic liter backpack — the Synapse 3000:
Estimated shipping date for the Synapse 3000 is mid-2030 (though from a non-linear, non-subjective view point — time is a Timey Wimey Wibbly Wobbly ball of stuff). We recommend putting the date on your calendar because don’t blink or they’ll be gone! Seriously though — don’t blink.
Exterior webbing loops for the optional Plunger attachment will be sold separately. Color combinations will be Police Box Blue/Wasabi, Exterminate Copper/Iberian, Upgraded Silver/Ultraviolet, and there’s one color we keep on looking at, but as soon as we look away we forget what it is.
Dimensions: 0.28 x 0.19 x 0.11 fathoms
Weight: 400d Halcyon®/420d nylon ripstop: .12 stones
1000 denier Cordura®: .13 stones
Volume: 170,000 imperial tablespoons
Total O-rings: 42
Lulu, Andrea, Candi and Edelmira model the Little Swift.
Though we officially retired the Little Swift in 2014, we’ve decided to bring it back for one more production run. The Little Swift is the smaller version of our Swift knitting bag—a shoulder bag specifically for knitters and crafty types, designed by Tom in collaboration with the readers of Knitty® magazine. Welcome back, Little Swift: it’s been a long few years without you!
The Little Swift will re-debut (in more than a few surprise colors) as part of our November 28th debut alongside the Aeronaut 30 Packing Cube Backpack (New Design), Side Kick, and a number of Surprise New Designs. To be notified the exact moment all of the new designs debut, you can sign up for the notification email lists on those “Coming Soon” pages (sign up here for the Little Swift), sign up for our general email mailing list, or simply keep an eye on the website, Forums, and Blog.
You might be wondering why we decided to bring back the Little Swift, and there’s no one answer:
• First of all, our crew here in Seattle are big fans of the Little Swift and many of us have them: we selfishly wanted to see more of them in the new colors that have been introduced since the Little Swift was retired.
• We feel graced by the kindness and generosity of the knitting community since we debuted The Swift way back in 2006. You guys know that neither I (Darcy) nor Tom knit and yet you’ve welcomed us outsiders with open arms and shared your feedback, encouragement, and expertise with us. We’ve heard your requests to bring back the Little Swift, and what better way to express our appreciation than a special holiday re-release of a well-loved and classic design.
• Tom still loves the size and proportions of the Little Swift—he smiles big-time when he sees them around. Having just had rotator cuff surgery, we figured he could use something more to smile about. 🙂
• Lastly, the new, top secret small backpack design (code name: Muse) that Tom has been working on for the past six months is pretty much done, but we’re still waiting on cutting dies and some specialized materials to make the first production run. Sadly, this means the Muse won’t be ready for the November 28th debut (more like February or March). We’re very excited about this new design here at the factory, and it was a bit of a let-down to realize we wouldn’t be able to offer it in 2016. So we wanted to cheer ourselves up (and hopefully you too) with some new colors of an old favorite.
We’ll end this post on a sobering note. We’re a small company that offers a lot of different designs, colors, and sizes. Add them all up, and suddenly you have thousands of unique options, all made by our expert crew in Seattle. Inevitably, we find our imaginations tempered somewhat by reality: we choose a certain amount of complexity because it’s representative of the chaos of creativity in which we indulge, but our finite size keeps us practical and pragmatic. We can’t keep adding without, at times, subtracting.
That’s all to say: expect more designs, colors and fabrics to be retired in 2017 as we make room for all the new and wondrous stuff that’s in the works.
We posted a very early heads-up on our March 1st, 2019 (roughly 6%) price increase in the Forums along with news of Shop Bags in 210d ballistic nylon.
Ben Brooks has published a review of Nik’s Minimalist Wallets and @everydaycommentary posted about his every day carry step up (hint: it includes a Minimalist Wallet!)
Our 2018 Holiday Schedule is up. Check it out for important shipping deadlines and our holiday hours. P.S. Our Seattle Factory Showroom will be open the rare Saturday on December 8th from 10:00am until 2:00pm Pacific Time.
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