This is my first guest post, and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to tour production facilities of Portland-based companies who make and manufacture. Full disclosure about me: I own and operate my own clothing company and boutique, Mag-Big. Due to this, I am deeply interested in our city's abundance of makers with viable, serious businesses.
I am starting my tour with North St Bags, which has a brick and mortar showroom and production facility on 23rd/SE Clinton. North St is a bag company with a focus on convertible products for all weather use. Bicycle panniers that convert to back packs, for example, showcase owner/designer Curtis Williams' proprietary designs and aesthetic elements. These bags are distinguishably North St, and can be seen all over Portland. They are also manufactured across the country with an extremely impressive outreach and growing customer base. I was able to ask proprietor, Curtis Williams, some questions about the growth of his company.

North St Bags Convertible Backpack
  • George Barberis Photography
  • North St Bags Convertible Backpack

How did this all start?

Williams: I was always fascinated by how things work and how they’re made. My background is in theater and event design, but I was always drawn to smaller, DIY projects. After school I moved around a bit and wound up in Berkeley, CA, working as a volunteer at a non-profit bike/sewing/wood shop.

I was dissatisfied with cycling packs on the market at the time, as well as the back pains caused by my messenger bag. I wanted a more stylish backpack that I could clip to my bike as a pannier. After making many bad bags, I came up with the precursor design to our current convertible model.

Before I knew it, friends were asking me to make bags for them, and I became hooked. Then in late 2009, I made the move to Portland and began making bags full time. I found an Industrial Juki sewing machine on Craigslist for $200, and worked from the basement of my first home on Woodward Ave.

Owner/Designer North St Bags, Curtis Williams
  • George Barberis Photography
  • Owner/Designer North St Bags, Curtis Williams

What makes your company unique?

We are a tight-knit team of makers creating innovative, dual function bags and accessories for simpler commuting. We cut and sew all of our products from scratch in our studio in SE Portland, and source most of our materials from US manufacturers.

How many stores are carrying your products right now? Do you have stockists across the country?

I have about 16 bike shops that stock our line regularly, and a growing list of new accounts as well. Most of these are in Portland, but also New York, Philadelphia, Austin, Los Angeles and Minneapolis. I’ve also just signed on our first international shop in Mexico City.

Our best (and oldest) account is with Community Cycling Center on Alberta St. They’ve stocked our bags since June of 2010.

How many sewing machines do you use to create your products? How did you train yourself and your staff to use them? Do you frequently add new machines or new skill sets?

We have nine industrial sewing machines in regular use (including the $200 Juki I started on). We also have an automatic kick-press, pneumatic hot knife, and an array of cutting tools, enabling us to cut stacks (multiple layers) of fabric for better efficiency.

We utilize a method called Lean Manufacturing, which aims at reducing waste such as unnecessary movement, rework, extra inventory and overproduction. We’re constantly shifting our processes based on the workload. We’ll look at adding a machine or process only if there’s no other way to achieve the same level of efficiency—usually in order to launch a new product.

North St Wallets
  • George Barberis Photography
  • North St Wallets

How many staff members currently comprise your company?

I have four people on staff (part time). Their hard work makes North St. what it is, and I cannot thank them enough. I also have one outside sales rep and a small army of mentors, advisors, colleagues, and friends who have helped me tremendously along the way. I’ve been working on North St. full-time for over four years, and it has grown more than I ever imagined when I started.

What typical challenges do you face as a company out of Portland?

Portland has always been a leader in the Outdoor & Athletic industry, bringing in lots of designers and ideas, but the resurgence of soft goods manufacturing is still pretty new. It’s not like in New York or Los Angeles, which have well established fashion districts. Finding good equipment, affordable materials, or production talent can be a challenge.

What about Portland makes you want to have your company here? Is "Portland" part of your brand?

I chose to relocate to Portland for its thriving and forward thinking bike culture, but I also found an amazing community of small-batch manufacturers. Making products at any scale in the US can be tricky business, but this a great town to be doing it in. “Handmade in Portland” is a popular label all over the country, especially in the bike industry. Our products are Portland made and Portland tested.

North St Bags Convertible Backpack
  • George Barberis Photography
  • North St Bags Convertible Backpack

Do you have any new products coming out that you're excited about?

We do have a new backpack/pannier bag, currently in the prototype phase. It’s a totally new concept, and we’re pretty excited about it. It’s based on our very solid Route Seven Pannier design, but with a padded strap, enabling you to wear it like a messenger bag. We’re actually looking for some bad-ass bike commuters to help us test it out. Details and a sign-up link can be found on our blog. I hope to launch the new bag in March 2014.