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.Read more...
Tom sews one of the new Luminary prototypes in his design studio.
Tom has made a couple of design updates to the original Luminary. Most notably, he’s made the right side pocket large enough to fit phablets such as the iPhone Plus and the HTC U Ultra; the left side pocket is a bit bigger too (wider actually) than the first iteration of the Luminary. The asymmetrical height of the pockets makes the main compartment zipper extend further down one side than the other, which we think looks kinda cool. Yet Tom was able to nudge things around so that the new Luminary’s main compartment zipper still opens just as wide as the older version – about 44 cm or 17.4”.
Concurrent with the redesign of the Luminary was the development of a new, larger Luminary—the Luminary 14. Its shoulder straps and over-all height are intended to better fit taller and/or broader folks, and its padded back compartment can fit up to a 13” laptop. The Luminary 14 can hold noticeably more than the original Luminary (henceforth to be known as the Luminary 10), yet is still quite a modest sized pack. (For those paying close attention: we re-measured the volume of the original Luminary when we were measuring this new size, and the original came in at a perfect 10 liters. Both were measured using our new volume measurement protocol, so we feel very confident abut these numbers — more on that some other time….).
Both the Luminary 10 and Luminary 14 are in the final stages of their creation: pattern adjustments are being made and Tom is working with Lisa, Fong, and Nik to ensure both bags are efficiently manufacturable. We expect the new Luminaries will be available for order sometime between July and September 2018.
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Various Luminary prototypes on Tom’s drafting table.
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.
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