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Leather Goods Part Two: The Unsuccessful Salesman?

Take chances. Mistakes are never a failure – they can be turned into wisdom. – Cat Cora

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My mother says my favorite book as a child was The Little Engine That Could. Most of you are familiar with this story, where the little engine takes over for a broken-down engine and starts to pull the train over the mountain.  As the going gets tough up the mountain, the little engine keeps repeating “I think I can, I think I can.” In the end -spoiler alert – the little engine successfully pulls the train over the mountain. It’s a great little story for a kid’s first reader, but another spoiler alert – turns out life is not quite that simple…or is it?

Often we remember where we were on fateful days. For example, I remember where I was when I heard that Elvis died, and I remember where I was when the Challenger exploded and when the planes hit the twin towers. And I distinctly remember where I was when I muttered that fateful mantra from childhood: “I think I can” and added, “make one of these.”

As a professional pack mule, I’d spent a fair share of my life accompanying my wife, the professional shopper, on excursions to shopping malls throughout the southeast and carrying the purchases. On this particular fateful day, we were in the Nordstrom department store in South Park Mall in Charlotte, NC. We don’t have a Nordstrom in our town, so stopping here was a must when visiting South Park.  We had moved on from the shoe department, (with a purchase in hand) and I found myself following my wife around the handbag section.

This wasn’t my first venture into this corner of the store, and I was already very much aware of what the bags by Coach, Michael Kors, and Kate Spade could cost. On this particular day in 2013, though, as I examined the pricey leather handbag I held in my hand, I had that crazy thought: I think I can make one of these, too.

It’s hard to explain. Not sure if it’s a blessing or a curse. My wife would say it’s a curse – to her. But most of the time, when I make up my mind to pursue something, it usually ends up being a little on the obsessive side. This time would be no different.

Rabbit Hole Number One

The first question in my mind was where to start? The only leather crafting experience I had in my life was making key rings for my parents at summer camp when I was ten years old. And I don’t think I had sewn anything since middle school home ec class.

Google, of course. I soon typed in “How to make a leather handbag.” This rabbit hole eventually lead me to a leather shop not far from the house that I had no idea even existed. Once there, I was overwhelmed about where to start. Fortunately, they had a kit that included all the pieces needed to complete a bag. Sold.

I completed the bag and it looked like, well, something an amateur had put together from a kit. Which is, of course, exactly what it was. Maybe an amateur eight-year-old. This particular kit was sewn by hand, and I quickly learned that if I was going to make more than one bag, then hand sewing just wouldn’t cut it. Back to Google.

Kit Bag

Kit Bag

Rabbit Hole Number Two

The next research phase determined I needed a sewing machine and the lightweight 1970’s model that Grammy had in the garage didn’t work. So, I determined that some old workhorse Singer machines would work on leather.  eBay to the rescue for a 1951 model Singer. The machine itself was a piece of artwork:

The Old Singer Machine

The Old Singer Machine

More Googling and trips to the library to figure out how to sew eventually lead to bags like these, a combination cloth and softer leather that the machine could handle:

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Not bad, but still not there.

Rabbit Hole Number Three

The old Singer had some limitations or maybe it was the operator’s limitations. Either way, while I was making progress on quality, I needed an equipment upgrade. I hoped this would help with speed and eliminate cursing. It was time to go for an industrial walking foot machine.  As Tim the Toolman Taylor used to say: “More Power!”

I began my shopping for an industrial machine by looking for used models on Craigslist and eBay. The few that I found were well-used, and I decided since I wasn’t buying an old Jeep that I could fix myself, I’d go the new model route. I managed to find a reasonably priced machine a few hours away in Spartanburg, SC:

The Industrial Machine

The Industrial Machine

The new machine proved to be worth the upgrade. I had fewer mistakes due to tools. I was only to blame with my lack of experience. My time to make a bag improved slightly as well.  I kept experimenting and settled on a design I felt I could replicate.

I called it The Edisto:

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While that was good, and I had finally fulfilled my original goal of making a leather bag, my frustrations with leather continued.  To keep my expenses lower, I was dealing in small quantities of leather from a couple of different suppliers and availability and quality varied. So, I started experimenting with canvas and started liking the results. With canvas, I had a reliable supplier and the material was consistent and less expensive. I applied my leather design to canvas and this was the result.

I called it The Seabrook:

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The Decision

After many months, I had done it. I had gone from having a crazy idea in a department store to creating a business from the ground up, teaching myself how to design (or reverse engineer) and craft bags of leather and canvas. I had also developed more of an appreciation for the expensive designer bags that influenced my pursuit.

Along the way, I had sold a few to friends and family and even sold a couple to strangers on Etsy. But it was time to decide what to do with this investment – all in our all out?

I considered all in, but there were a couple of problems. First, despite equipment upgrades and improving my processes, I was still slow. The average bag took me over five hours to make. This was way too long to scale for a one-person operation who had another full-time job and liked to run marathons.

My family was also growing tired of the time I was putting into this experiment. I contemplated outsourcing the making of the bags to my mother-in-law who lived with us at the time or creating a “factory” in my workshop garage and hiring an employee. Both of those options were fraught with peril, though.

The second problem I had was that my kids hated me making handbags.  I believe they thought I secretly wanted to carry the handbags for myself. I assured them this wasn’t the case. But I did create a prototype men’s bifold wallet that never made production…

In the end, I decided the bag side hustle wasn’t for me. I didn’t want to deal with adding employees, and I concluded I didn’t want to spend that much time crafting bags. Micheal Kors, Kate Spade, and Louis Vuitton breathed a collective sigh of relief.

I thought I could… and I did. And that was good enough for me on this venture. Was I an unsuccessful salesman? Maybe. Maybe not.

However, I’m coming out of bag salesman retirement for an encore – but no new creating.  I’m cleaning out the old inventory, and the items below are available for purchase again. If you are interested in these collector’s items (Ha!), please click on the image/link to go to my Etsy store. There are a few more designs there as well.

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https://www.etsy.com/listing/237171742/custom-handmade-in-usa-the-seabrook?ref=shop_home_feat_1

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https://www.etsy.com/listing/234758366/handmade-in-usa-all-leather-tote-the-mg?ref=shop_home_feat_2

Full listings on Etsy: https://www.etsy.com/shop/MGOutfitters

Thanks for reading (and shopping),

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PS. The industrial sewing machine is also for sale. Very low miles.  If you are interested or know someone who is, let me know. I’ll be putting it out on Facebook Marketplace soon.

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