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North St: The Art of The Bag

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Here’s the scenario: you’re traveling through Europe for three months, you’re on and off planes and trains, you’re in and out of little European rental cars and you’re constantly tugging and stuffing your bags into spaces they shouldn’t fit into.

Interview: Tim Schamber/Images by Dylan van Weelden

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You—the genius—decided that the $59.99 duffel bag in lime green would be the ideal companion. Turns out, you’re a tightwad and the paper-thin seams and cheap zipper failed you early on. In the end, the trip was fun but your bag choice was a failure. It became the bane of your existence and the punch line to cruel travel-related jokes. Don’t do this. Spend the extra money and buy some good luggage. North St. Bags in Portland, Oregon, makes great products. We like them. They make duffels, backpacks, panniers and a host of other accessories for the active person. We chatted with the company’s founder and operator Curtis Williams about what it takes to make something most of us knuckleheads take for granted: the bag.

“ We Won’t build in extra parts or features unless they have a function that Will be used all the time.” —Curtis Williams, North St founder & operator

Peloton: Why produce bags? Seems like such a huge market to say “Let’s do this!” What spurred you on to dig in and go for it?

Williams: My introduction to bags was based purely on need. I was commuting by bike in Berkeley, California, at the time, using a messenger bag. Sick of the back pains, I wanted to switch to a two-strap bag but also have one that I could mount to my bike as a pannier. I didn’t see one in the market that I liked, as I wanted one that didn’t look like a bike bag, so I set out to design and make my own. Yes, there are a lot of bag makers in the United States like us, but what we bring is a classic aesthetic in a super functional, and even dual functional, format that works as well on and off the bike.

Peloton: What’s your background?

Williams: My background is actually in theater production. I studied set design and lighting design at New York University, where I learned how to get things done on tight budgets and schedules. I made the move to Berkeley after finishing my degree and found myself volunteering at a non-prof it bike shop called Waterside Workshops. They also had a sewing studio and a wooden-boat-building shop, which is where I started playing with bag design and teaching myself to sew on industrial machines. After building a few bags for myself, my friends started asking for them. Then, in 2009, I made the move to Portland and started making bags to sell.

Peloton: Sustainability and simplicity seems to be at the heart of your design and production. How hard is it to maintain this philosophy given the influence from overseas in terms of things like cheaper supplies?

Williams: Building bags in the U.S. presents some challenges for sure, but putting “Made in USA” on our bags actually made a lot of decisions for us. For example, we are limited to using fabrics that are manufactured in the U.S. There are only a handful of nylon fabric makers in the U.S., but they are very high quality; we can stock yardage in smaller quantities, and our supply chain is less complex as a result of this choice. You won’t find four different kinds of ripstop in our bags like you might with an imported brand, and it’s because we insist  on using only U.S.-made fabric. The majority of our trims, hardware, zippers, et cetera are also made in the U.S. Bags—whether duffel, pannier or backpack—are abused more than we care to think about.

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Peloton: In your experience, what are the most important areas of the bag that need special attention?

Williams: Key points for our bags are what you might expect for a backpack or pannier—any strap-mount point or hardware mount needs to be super durable in order to last. We’ve tested each product to make sure it holds up to some wear, and we even build in a little extra support here and there to strengthen key points. How would you characterize your design philosophy? Classic, functional and clean. We won’t build in extra parts or features unless they have a function that will be used all the time. What are the one or two bags your can’t live without? For travel, I love my Scout 21 (brown canvas with tan strap) and Buckman Gear Bag. For commuting, I’m generally riding a prototype bag for testing purposes— forever in search of the perfect bag design.

Peloton: You guys stand behind your products with a no-hassle policy. Curious if you have an instance where you got a bag back and said, “What the f*** happened to that thing?”

We saw one bag come back that had been run over by a dump truck. Bag was totally fine—just needed a new bungee!

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