Developing new products is always both fun and terrifying at the same time. Sometimes I have an inspiration for a piece and need to struggle through figuring out how to make it and all the details about the design (because for me, they need to be both aesthetically pleasing and practical). Other times I get so excited about working with a particular material that I try to figure out what I can do with it that will make sense.
As any maker will tell you, often you come up with ideas that don’t work, but if you stick at it long enough you usually will have a few winners. It’s such an amazing feeling when you’ve been struggling through trying to figure out how it will all work, and suddenly it just falls into place! And then, of course, you need to figure out all the manufacturing details to make sure you can make it consistently and profitably over and over… but I actually really enjoy that part. Throw in a little left brain, a little right brain, sprinkle with a heavy dose of wool…
This summer I’ve been extremely focused on getting my wholesale line ready for release, and a big part of that was figuring out a few new products, exploring some variations on existing products, and making sure the whole thing came into a coherent whole. (“Wholesale” simply means I’m selling to stores to sell to their customers, in addition to “Retail” – selling directly to individual customers.) It’s amazing how when I put everything on the table (I’m being completely literal here), it became clear very quickly what didn’t fit and what was missing. This generated a whole list of things to do… make this one available in more variations, add one of these (meaning design, make prototypes, etc.) which was both terrifying and exhilarating, especially since I was trying to roll it out in advance of the big gift buying show in late August where lots of shops order their holiday products from makers.
The big new piece I designed as part of this rollout is a tote bag made from a combination of upcycled sweaters and belts. I love that I was able to find a way to work with this material and create a very durable and attractive bag that looks like nothing else I’ve seen.
The beauty is that each bag is unique, because I use both sides of two sweaters and typically a full belt in the process of making them. I also created a version that uses the belt buckle itself for an adjustable strap:
I wanted to create an unusual shape for these bags, and work with the idiosyncrasies of the recycled materials rather than trying to force them to behave like materials that were manufactured in large volumes. One consideration with the sweaters is that the width of the sweaters determines how much material I can get from them, and since I’m prewashing the sweaters to felt them a little, there is always some shrinking involved. (Yes, I get to shrink sweaters in the washing machine for my job. My mom would be so proud!) Different materials shrink at different rates, so I had to segregate the materials that are pretty stable from the ones that move more dramatically (like merino wool) and try to control the latter’s shrinkage rate so I got a good, workable material that was wide enough for the lining.
Another challenge with the sweaters is the height of the material. A sweater that is wide enough in the body may not be wide enough once you get to the arm holes if they’re deeply set in. And honestly, how helpful is it to have a super-tall bag whose bottom you can’t reach? That one kind of worked out beautifully… the bag hangs from your armhole along your body, almost in line with where the sweater would fall! I intentionally included the ribbing in the bottom of the sweater at the bottom of the bag, both because it gives a border from the patterned area and neatly defines the shape of the bag and because it is a nod to the origin of the fabric.
For the body of the bag, I “kill” the ribbing so it no longer has elasticity, but for the inside pocket, the ribbing came in handy as a functional element: with ribbing at the top of the pocket, it cinches in a bit to hold your phone (or whatever is in the pocket) more securely, and resists being stretched out with repeated use like the plain fabric would.
For the straps, I’m using only (recycled) genuine leather belts, because they are reliably durable and I feel strongly that the animal has already given its life so I should respect it and not let that beautiful material languish unused in a thrift store. I select belts that are in good shape, and specially select a subset of those that have good-looking buckles and tails that are in good shape for the buckle version, which allows about 2″ adjustment in either direction. It’s so interesting to see the variety of belts available and choose which one goes best with which sweater material.
I’ve been again amazed at how well my 1904 Singer treadle sewing machine works for EVERYTHING. With the right needle, it does a beautiful job sewing on the leather straps:
I hope you enjoy reading about this as much as I enjoy writing about it! Select bags pictured here (and a few others) are available now in my Etsy shop, approved Etsy wholesale buyer can see my linesheet with these bags and my other items by looking for bostonwoolworks in the Etsy Wholesale platform, and others interested in wholesale can contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.