Refine My Line Reject: 48North

In sifting through the applicants for the Refine My Line series, I had to reject some volunteers because their products seemed so well put together there wasn’t much -if anything- to be made in the way of suggested improvements. Then, just before falling asleep one night, it occurred to me that it could be educational were I to point out the kinds of details that made these products great.

48north_messengerFor the inaugural entry Paul Jacobson agreed to become our first volunteer RML Reject. His label is 48North a line of natural fabric messenger bags, backpacks and bags for travel. He’s also developing a line of diaper bags that men won’t be embarrassed to carry. He said he was flattered to be an RML Reject and agreed that it would be helpful to hear what he got right “as there may be some things that I do and maybe don’t know why I am getting the good result”. He is still finessing the product line with testing and the like but you can look over the product portfolio as time permits.

I’m at a loss to know where to start with 48North. It is much easier to pick out flaws particularly if they are scant. I suppose the things that stand out are engineering (design), construction, quality hardware, crisp finishing and the appropriateness of materials. Let’s take a look at his messenger bag (shown at top).

48north_side_pocketThe utility of design can be difficult to gauge unless you’ve used an item for awhile but obvious care has gone into these. Double buckle closure considering the size of fold over flap size is a must. I like that the application is not overdone; box stitching the buckles would be overkill since duty is not likely to require it. It serves no purpose to inflate your customer’s cost for something they do not need; it is not congruous with this product line to do what amounts to being overdone.

Under the flap, the bag’s front has a utility zip close large pocket. There’s also a zip close side entry pocket (right). Note that the existence of the pocket isn’t evident when closed, it is concealed by a nicely top stitched placket. One very nice feature is the contrasting lining. First it is functional; the lining lets you see that the pocket hasn’t been secured. Second, the contrasting lining is a nice splash of color; it’s obvious some thought went into this. If serviceability -the need of a lining- had been the only consideration, Paul could have used the light grey used elsewhere. Using a bright color splash ups the ante to a safety feature.

48north_sleeve_grabhandle All of the features are well thought. Consider the grab handle available on many of his styles. Sure, a lot of utility bag lines have those but his grab handles are encased in a sleeve making them more comfortable to carry. A sleeve is also functional from a structural standpoint in distributing weight more evenly over the strap. It isn’t evident from this photo but other photos show the sleeve ends are also finished with trim as opposed to being turned under and stitched flat. And not that it would be bad if someone didn’t use trim. My point is that these products have a lot of integrity.

48north_trim Paul is a mechanical engineer and has been sewing since 1970 although he hadn’t been sewing for about 7 years before he starting making these bags. The finishing is immaculate. Here’s one thing he did that impressed me. The same trim used to finish the top of the inside bag and flap is one and the same. That’s no big deal. What is a big deal is that the lining and seam finishing with the same trim is sewn contiguous with finishing the flap. That’s not such a hard thing once you try it but it can be intimidating so a lot of people never try it. Through out, all stitching is clean and even and obviously sewn with appropriate equipment.

In spite of being a RML Reject, Paul says he isn’t happy with the bag linings and wants to explore better options. Judging from the results I would say he’s more competent than I am to enumerate improvements but at least in his case, these short falls can’t be determined without a hands on inspection. He says he’ll send me one. I’ll let you know what I come up with then.

In the meantime, feel free to share what you think -Paul says any style suggestions are warmly welcomed- and of course, anything you see that I missed. And also, do you think featuring “rejects” is fun? I do and hope you agree. Further discussion of Paul’s line is here in the forum. I’m sure he’d be happy to speak with you there one on one, especially if you think the answers to some of your questions may be proprietary.

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  1. kay says:

    Nice designs! Something I’d be willing to carry, and I’m pretty picky. Only thing that immediately jumps out to me is the binding seems cupped or tight in places, but that may be the photography more than the sewing. And yes, I love the contrasting, light lining — nicely thought through!

    Personally, I like the contour neoprene bag straps better than the straight webbing I suspect this bag has… but I’m old and crochety, and my shoulders are even older and more crochety. If the bag has D rings instead of sewn on webbing, it moves up my “strongly consider buying” list because I can snap a contour neoprene strap on. But yes, it does increase complexity.

  2. Donna says:

    Double closures yes. But my arthritic hands reject the buckle type. Not everyone has arthritis but that is how I have to look at products now days.

  3. Rose Mildenhall says:

    Thanks Kathleen and Paul. I would like to see more Refine My Line rejects, so I hope you will continue with this theme from time to time, Kathleen. It’s interesting to read analysis of construction, and hear from designers about their decisions and challenges. Actually this is just as true of the Refine My Line theme. One showing how a design has been successfully resolved, and the other still in the process of being, well, refined – it’s great stuff. I appreciate what you are doing.

  4. oriole says:

    hi Paul,
    I have always loved the messenger style bag.
    I think you may be able to save some money and labor by rethinking the interior pockets. I find those little pockets for cell phones, cards, pencils, pens,etc. useless and would rather have another zippered pocket or none at all.
    What I usually look for in larger bags is divided space that is not open at the bottom. This seems like a great bag for work or travel. Does the bottom have feet or protectors so the canvas doesn’t wear and get dirty?

  5. Heather says:

    It looks like these are not for sale yet? I liked so much I want to buy one for my daughter, for her laptop. Google search turned up the company website… but no product info other than the Flickr photostream.

  6. Paul says:

    Thanks for everyone’s comments. Here are some of my observations:

    General: Lots of issues come down to material sourcing. I have visions of materials and hardware that: exists but I cannot find; I find but cannot buy due to unresponsive suppliers or prohibitive minimums; exists in my imagination only, someday to magically show up on my doorstep. I am also working with limited equipment and funds, so I am hoping to make some advances when I engage some professional services soon. So far, all my design, patterns, etc. have been developed by me with the help of my brother Tom and a few others making suggestions. I do have a local bike shop who is very interested in selling my bags at their two locations.

    Cupped Binding: Yes. I have experimented with several binding tapes, this one is a nylon twill tape and seems to lay the flattest and is very good quality, with the exception of making my own bias tape using a lighter weight material, but that is more labor intensive. I have looked at some commercial bags of similar design, and seen the same thing. It’s one of those material sourcing issues that small potatoes like me have. My source for this binding tape (The Rain Shed in Corvallis OR, highly recommended for retail purchases) has just told me their mill said ‘5000 yard minimum’ and they don’t have any more! So I am off to find an alternative.

    Strap Pad: I do not have one on this bag, but have made them, and this bag needs on in my opinion. This is a detail I’m still working out. This particular strap is designed to be used by bicycle commuters, and is sewn in on one end and can be pulled free on the other to slip on a pad, or it could be a clamshell design. I am not using a sewn-in-place pad on the bike commuter bag because it needs to move when worn on the back vs. hip. This strap is very stiff, but has some advantages this way also (material sourcing issue). I also make these with traditional clip-on straps using softer nylon strap, and also in 1-1/2″.

    Rejects: I heart rejects.

    Closure: Material sourcing. Among bike commuter bags the ‘standard’ is side release buckles (belt), plus velcro (suspenders). Most of the people I talk with hate the suspenders. I am looking for a simpler closure for a more casual bag, but for bike commuter bags I need secure closure.

    Interior Pockets: You’re right oriole. All of these little pockets are inside a large zippered pocket, but I agree on the useless pocket issue, it’s one of my pet peeves. One of the details to work out, so I am experimenting. None of this is open at the bottom. This is a personal preference issue as well.

    Bottom: No feet protectors on this one, but that is a function of the particular design and target market. I am sensitive to the wear issue, and am trying to balance natural materials/cost/weight. Leather is a good natural option, but expensive. All the bags I make now have a double bottom, so if it wears through it won’t be a hole all the way through. This material is surprisingly durable.

    The fabric is Martexin Original Wax, formerly sold as WaxWear. The black and grey are heavy cotton twill with wax waterproofing, the brown is canvas with same finish. Manufacturer’s cleaning instructions: Hose it Off. Do not Wash or Dry Clean. The wax waterproofing can be restored with an inexpensive treatment which I can provide. Depending on the fabric, it can look a lot like leather.

    Heather: I can sell you a bag, will be a little wait, we can discuss – email me. I am working on getting design/manufacturing lined up.

    I will have more pictures of a bag with similar design but very different look later this week. Check the Flickr stream Friday.

  7. vespabelle says:

    I think for bicycle commuters, you may want to offer a cross strap to keep the bag from sliding off the back while biking. My husband bikes to work and that’s a feature on his bag that he really appreciates.

    I think the fabric is a nice sophisticated choice that distinguishes your bags from the others.

  8. Paul says:

    vespabelle: That strap is part of this bag but not included in the photos. It is removable. There are two d-rings at the lower back side seam shown in the photos for clipping in this strap. You picked out the look that I am going for that is not available from most others.

  9. Marie-Christine says:

    Just a little peep here in favor of fiddly little pockets :-).. They don’t seem useful at first glance, but once you give a bag a good run and your stuff slowly finds the appropriate pocket, they become essential. I’d just caution you to not make them too small, or too hard to access, not really fiddly in short, which would negate the benefits.

    And I routinely carry 30lb of library books or groceries in a bag that size, so side-release buckles are a very good thing. I haven’t found anything else that can really take the load. Not that I don’t encourage Paul to provide custom alternatives for people with specific disabilities, as long as you advertise clearly that you do. On the other hand, padding on the strap is also very important to me for the same reason.

    I like the looks of natural fabrics in bags too. But clearly you also think that synthetics are essential for good function inside? In my experience it’s not just the bag that suffers wear with natural fabrics, but my clothes. I make my own, generally in natural fabrics, and wear them a long time, and I get really miffed when a bag causes a wear spot. So I prefer very slick synthetics that won’t grab. Leather is the best alternative if you really want natural, but I realize some of your market won’t want that.

    I also walk a lot, and bike a bit, so waterproofness is really important to me. I like my coats merely water-repellent, so I don’t get bathed in sweat, but a bag cannot be too waterproof. Is that the case here? Is that synthetic lining at least water-resistant as well? And I’m totally with flashy linings by the way. They aren’t so useful to let you know that a pocket is open (not any better than at letting thieves know :-)), but they’re great to find stuff. A black wallet at the bottom of a black bag may as well be left at home, unless you have some minutes to grope around.

    That said, bag feet, which some people now look for in everything these days, are only useful in -structured- bags. No point in keeping the bottom off the floor if 1) the bottom’s floppy 2) the entire bag collapses around it. A leather bottom or equivalent is a much better alternative in my experience.

  10. Barb Taylorr says:

    It is a beautiful bag and I would deffinately be drawn to pick it up in a store and quite possibly purchase it. Ceratinly the clean sphisticated design lines are what would first draw my eye. For my tastes It has just enough detail to be attractive & classy, without drawing undue attention to itself, also the quality is visibly evident. From a functional standpoint the best feature I noticed was that the strap adjustment is at the side of the bag, not anywhere that would rub against the body. (It’s crazy how many bags out there don’t consider that.) It also appears that there is a way to confine the ends of the straps so they don’t dangle and flap. I love that. In regards to the back & forth about the number of accessory pockets, my opinion as a consumer is that if there are too many it is more annoying than helpful because I never remember which things are in which pockets. Half a dozen versatle pockets seem like plenty. What a lovely product, I hope your sourcing issues sort themselves out. Good luck!

  11. Paul says:

    Pockets: These can be time consuming, so I try to keep them simple. Front horizontal zip pocket (outside under flap) is one single compartment about 12w x 9d, with one 6×6 open top pocket on back panel. Pocket inside: Zipper opens to one large compartment, with a back panel with two deep pockets about 6w x 8d, one about 6×6, small slip sized for iphone, two pen slots. No stupid business card pocket or plastic window. All pockets are close to one another, not spread out over the whole bag (front, back, sides, flap, etc.) which is the problem I have with ‘which pocket did I put it in?’. I’m working on a ‘basic bag’ with fewer pockets, no lining, and lower price.

    Overall Design: I’m targeting specific designs to specific user groups, with features designed accordingly: bicycle commuter; student/urban/business case; diaper bag for men and manly-girls (not Arnold’s girly-men).

    Waterproof: Waterproofness is a function of the fabric and the design to keep water out of gaps, seams, etc. This fabric is for most purposes waterproof. If you set it in a puddle in a steady rain for 30 minutes you might see some water seeping in. If you walk or ride in the rain for 30 minutes, no water will wick through the fabric.

    Lining: Flap is lined with the shell material, lining of bag is cotton canvas, not waterproof. No water should get through the shell under normal use. I try to stay with light colors for visibility.

    Strap: I have some more flexible webbing that still has body, will be using that on my next bags.

    Wear: Good point on the natural material. Will think about that for the non-bike commuter style. One bike commuter requested the wicking back panel due to riding in hot/humid summer conditions where a waterproof nylon is uncomfortable.

  12. Matthew Pius says:

    Kathleen, I think the “RML rejects” is a great idea. Perhaps you could do a few more reject posts (if you have them) before you do another RML post. This way, people might be able to see the sorts of things you want to critique and avoid some of the unfortunate off-topic comments that you got on the first RML.

  13. Seth Meyerink-Griffin says:

    @Paul: Caveat: I commute about 6 miles one-way in Chicago by bike year ’round. I have a Chrome ‘Kremlin’ that was at the time the largest they produced, and I am quite happy with it.

    When the bag is stuffed as full as it can get, closed, and on your shoulder while biking, how well does the flap cover the bag? One of the bags that I used for a while had poor coverage (only overlapped by about 1″), so spray kicked up from passing cars or heavy wind tended to end up inside my bag.

    How well does the shape of the bag conform to the body when it’s being worn by a cyclist? My impression has been that this doesn’t matter for the vast majority of people that use messenger bags (when did Chrome bags become a fashion accessory for hipsters…?), but if you want to attract cyclists it could end up being very important. Or not. Timbuk2 bags seem to be popular, and the shape is pretty awful IMO.

    Have you considered adjustable external loops with Velcro closures for a u-lock? That’s one of my biggest gripes with my Chrome bag; because I use a long shackle lock, it has to go into an interior side pocket, which is less immediately accessible. (True, I could buy a Kryptonite New York Fahgettaboutit chain lock and wear it around my waist, but that costs money.)

    Question about the seam tape: Is this the same sort of tape that is available at I’ve been cutting my own bias tape so far (and I do clothing, not bags), so I am not sure if this is the sort of thing you mean. I’m betting that their prices are on the high side though, since they specialize in parachute equipment and supplies.

  14. Paul says:

    Thanks so much for your comments. Your comments on water protection are right-on the money. While that has been a pet peeve of mine, I have not yet incorporated specific design features to address your kind of all-weather commute, except for making sure there is ‘good’ coverage. For my first product launch I made a conscious decision – for a variety of practical reasons – not to focus specifically on the hard-core bike commuters, or solely on the bike riding market. I am targeting a broader group of customers initially and will expand and focus my line of products in time. One of my prototypes has been in continuous use by the manager of a local (Minneapolis) bike shop for nearly 6 months, and he likes it enough to offer my product as their first line of messenger bags. I also expect to have bags available for sale via the web by February. I will take an order for a bag now, but I don’t yet have one scaled up to the large size of your Chrome Kremlin.

    Cyclists are a very important part of my customer base and I will be addressing their specific needs – including lock stowage – as I have resources to do so.

    That said, I have experimented with a simple solution to the water problem for the particular bag design I am using now, and it works quite well. I will most likely develop a backpack for cyclists before I refine the messenger bag style much further. The backpack will not be a roll-top.

    As for the bag conforming to the body: Two important pieces of this are – does what you have in the bag conform to your body? and how the straps are attached. My bags are made from cotton canvas, which is good at conforming. My straps are not attached like a Chrome strap, but Chrome straps are very unforgiving (in my opinion) of wearing the bag in any way except high on the back. So I feel Chrome bags are more single purpose at least as wearing positions go and ignoring the fashion factor. I angle my strap attachment to make it more comfortable when up on the back, but my bags probably won’t ride as high as a Chrome. I also do not use a stiff plastic liner like Chrome and some others, as the waxed canvas performs extremely well in extreme wet. This also helps the bag conform well.

    Lately I’ve been making my own binding tape using a light-weight waxed cotton and it works well, and I’ll continue this for awhile, or until I can find the right binding supplier. I haven’t checked the mil-spec numbers on the parachute tapes against what I was using, but it is worth a look. Thanks for the lead.

    By the way, check back with my website later in January, when it will be overhauled and fit for e-commerce. I also just added some photos of my final prototype bike bag to Flickr. Several color variations available, and two sizes. I’ll have these available for sale by the end of January. Contact me directly if you want more information.

  15. Seth Meyerink-Griffin says:

    Follow-up question: I’ve tried two types of binders so far, right-angle and conventional binders, both double-fold. The right-angle binders I have are 1/4″, 3/8″ and 1/2″ (finished size), while the conventional binder is 1/4″ (finished). I assume that you are using a single fold binder; how well does that work when going over bulky seams? I’ve experienced continual problems with feeding when using a 11.5-12oz denim when I get to junctions where the intersecting seam has already been bound and faux-felled. Based on the messenger bags I’ve seen, there are a fair number of intersecting seams that are finished this way, so I thought that you might have some personal insight on this.

  16. Paul says:

    I’ve spent a lot of ‘quality time’ with my binders on thick seams. Sometimes I just need to work the machine by hand to get through the really thick spots, and to keep the seam fully buried in the binder to keep the binding tight. But part of that is due to a poorly designed seam on my prototypes, so I’ve been ‘re-engineering’ those spots to keep the seam thickness manageable.

    I fabricate my ‘hand-made’ binding tape using 10.10 oz waxed army duck canvas from Fairfield Textiles, I use this in my 1″ (1/2″ finished) binder. I bought the binder and the binding tape maker from Sailrite, I use their swing-away binder, which is not really a production-level product, but is very well made and is made for thicker seams – they cater to people sewing boat canvas. The binding tape maker folds a 2″ wide strip into a 1″ double fold tape, and the binder is single fold. I cut the fabric on the bias and it works very well on the curves. Take a look at the brown/black messenger bag photoset pics in my flickr stream – the one with the brown binding. The black binding in the color studies is photo-shopped in. I use sailrite’s 3/4″ binder with a light nylon grosgrain binding for pocket binding, zipper tapes, etc., but I could probably make the binder maker work with narrower material. Have not figured out the cost of making my own vs. buying nylon binding, but it is less work than I thought it would be for my current production levels, which are really small, and I like the look of the canvas binding. All my 3/4″ binding applications are fairly thin.

    Both of the sailrite binders can handle seams on the thicker side, but my personal ‘industry secret’ is that I had some very thick spots which would not work, so I pried the binder open to handle the thicker seam. Not recommended for some, but worked well once I made proper adjustments. And these binders are not too expensive – $59 and $69 respectively, and the binder tape maker won’t break the bank at $7.95. I’ll check the binder capacity on a pair of jeans and let you know. For low volume work they are great, especially if, like me, you have only one machine and installing the standard needle plate styles is labor/time intensive compared to the swing away style.

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