Local Maker Interview, vol. 1: Swift Industries
Though the big fish of the bicycle industry just seem to be getting bigger, more and more people are taking their own path and building their own place in the world of bicycles and bicycle accessories by designing and making their own products domestically. In answer to this, consumers are welcoming these local makers with enthusiastic appreciation and fueling what amounts to a sea change in the way manufacturing and commerce are done. This is my first installment of a series that will put a spotlight on some of these people, right here in my little local city of Seattle. These people actually design/fabricate/craft actual things themselves, and I’m very glad they do. These people are an extremely important (and growing) part of our national bicycle culture.
Swift Industries is located in the Seattle neighborhood of Ballard, where there were almost certainly a few pagan viking ceremonies held at some point, and probably still are. At Swift Industries HQ, Martina and Ilena fashion semi-custom bicycle bags that are, without exaggeration, as good as they come, functionally and aesthetically. Their workshop is located in a large and very open building that several makers and craftspeople of all kinds are lucky enough to call their workplace. Here’s a link to learn about Swift Industries in their own words.
It should be noted that Martina Brimmer, the sole proprietor of Swift Industries, is one of the most good-natured and passionate-about-what-she-does people that I’ve ever met. If you’re like me, you like to imagine someone’s voice when you’re reading an interview. Read her parts with a combination of great attitude and conviction. Read my questions in the voice of Stephen Fry if you can manage it. If that’s too hard, I’ll settle for Ira Glass.
When and why did you start Swift Industries?
We started Swift Industries in 2008, and we started it for a few reasons; Jason and I were starting to tour a lot, and I was working for R.E.Load Baggage at the time, which is a messenger bag company that was based here in Seattle for some time. I had sewing machines and all the materials here at my fingertips, and so I decided just to make my own panniers. I was touring with a really great old set of panniers, but they just kind of weren’t cutting it. There were certain features in the design that I didn’t like, or that were specifically lacking, like external pockets and stuff like that, and I also was not very fond of the aesthetics that I saw in bicycle panniers. I wanted something that looked a little more urban, but performed well enough to be taken into pretty rugged environments and to be taken on tour for a long amount of time, but I didn’t want it to look like it had come from REI.
When’s the last time you had a “real” job?
(laughing) About 3 months ago! So up until this last May, I was employed as a part-time High School teacher as well. I worked seasonally, running a wilderness program and an experiential education program at a local High School here. That was really incredible for the first 4 years of our company because it allowed me to teach for 4 weeks in September and then 5 weeks in May, and then I’d teach 1 block for 6 weeks in the winter. So I would have these gaps of time in between where I could really just focus and I didn’t even have to think about going into school. I’m just really passionate about getting kids out of the city, and this is an amazing place to do that, and it totally financially enabled us to pursue this company. So as of May I made a decision to pursue this full-fledged, which is very exciting and nerve-wracking, as any step of that nature will be for most business owners but the timing is wonderful. Right now the kids are off in the mountains doing their orientation for the school year and I’m not with them and I’m OK with it. I feel pretty stoked to be here and focusing on the work that’s going on at Swift.
How did you learn to make bags? Was there a lot of trial and error in the beginning?
It probably spans further back than my time at R.E.Load. My love of sewing comes from being in a household where my mother is an incredibly creative person and works a lot with textiles, so at home that always meant we were doing craft projects. I grew up sewing my own clothes, doing a lot of knitting, a lot of felting, and a lot of things that weren’t cool before the craft resurgence. I just loved it and enjoyed it, and my mom fostered a really creative environment where we would just get this itch, come up with an idea, and she would just make it happen. We had the resources, and there were always projects going on at home, and it was wonderful. When I stepped into R.E.Load, that was the first time I was actually working off of patterns. Even if I wanted to make a skirt or a dress at home, I very rarely worked off of patterns, and it was definitely the first time I ever used an industrial sewing machine. The learning curve was pretty intense, the first four weeks of working at R.E.Load I think I came home with awful headaches every night because I was just trying to focus on how to run the industrial machine and how to focus on learning these patterns. I feel like I gained such incredible skills there, and it was an amazing stepping stone.
What’s the biggest problem that needs solving in the world of bicycle accessories?
(laughing, probably at how weird and general my question was, but politely not pointing it out) The intuitive answer to that isn’t so much about problem-solving any element of the design, though there are certainly features and aesthetics within our company’s design that set us apart from what exists in the market. I think that, for me, the problem-solving is generally in how we manufacture and do commerce in the U.S., and the lack thereof. We wanted to make something that was custom and that also came out as an accessory that celebrates this resurgence in hand-built bikes, and steel bikes, and adventuring with bikes. I think that really athletic cycling has captured the American attention and that’s where we are as an audience, but there’s also a huge resurgence now in cycling for commuting, leisure, pleasure, and travel. I think that things manufactured overseas all kind of look the same. There’s very little that’s unique and customizable, and I think that those are the qualities that are really being celebrated in independent bicycling scenes right now.
How far will you let someone go with custom requests before you reel them back in?
It totally depends on what the requests are. The way that our company is set up right now, we have stock patterns and customers can choose the colors and features of those stock patterns to their specifications. They can ask for certain pockets, they can ask for certain hardware, they can change the colors. In that way, we don’t do a great deal of custom patterning and I try pretty hard to take custom patterning only in the winters when things are slow with our stock patterns. We’re always doing custom work to a degree, but custom patterning is something we have less and less time for.
Do you think that cycling in the United States is destined to remain disproportionately racing-influenced, or are other pursuits like bicycle touring making a comeback?
I think that there’s a huge comeback in these other pursuits, but I also should mention that I say that from the perspective of the West Coast. In a lot of ways I think I’m naive to what dominates around the country. That said, the people who we interact with as a company are doing incredible tours and travelling. We also have a really wonderful relationship with a lot of randonneuring groups, and while randonneuring is still a lot of epic riding, I think they try very hard to position themselves as a non-competitive riding style. I think that comes out of a wish to move away from the competitive athleticism of cycling. I think Grant Petersen’s book Just Ride is a perfect commentary on professional cycling. I have to say that I really love professional cycling too, but I also really love the utility of a bicycle. I think it’s really a genius machine for that. In that way, it’s a beautiful and flexible design that you can have something really sporty and then you can also have this crazy cargo bike that I can put 200 lbs on the front and carry that around. Even things like Cyclocross, which has a race element to it, is a response to the clean cut road cycling athleticism that you see. Kind of like, we’re gonna make this a little younger and a little sassier and belligerent, and we are not afraid of getting dirty.
Have you personally become more opinionated about bicycles and bicycle accessories in the 4 years since you started Swift Industries?
Yes! (laughing) I think that personally, my love of bicycles started when I went to college and got rid of a car. I found it to be an incredible mode of transportation. I had a total beater bike that I used to get around my college town. It was a machine that afforded me the luxury of being a solitary young lady who could leave the bar at 2am and feel safe getting home. It opened up the opportunity to travel inexpensively and of-my-own-devices. At that point, I was like “any bike will do”, and now I don’t feel that way (laughing). I mean, I don’t need some crazy expensive thing, but age 30 hit pretty hard and I’m achy sometimes, so there are elements of wanting nicer things that also have to do with my physical response to being on a bike all the time. Again, speaking to the general design of a bicycle, I think it’s a beautiful machine and I’m taking a lot of pleasure in making it beautiful with other accessories. I think that there are a lot of ways you can stylize a bike, and it sounds like a silly thing, but it’s kind of nice to put the cork grips and the Brooks saddle or whatever else on there. All of those aesthetics can be really lovely, and I didn’t think about that so much 5 years ago.
Now that your full-time focus is Swift Industries, what comes next? Big things, small things, what’s on the horizon?
There are a lot of things that come to mind when I dream of what I want this company to represent and embody that I would like to see in the next couple of years. Some of those things include moving into a larger space, though we hope to remain in the same building. We have a space opening up downstairs that we’re about to move into. With that, we’d like to incorporate a retail space. It will still be very much a workplace that people would visit to buy our bags, but it will be set up to be a more versatile showroom at some point. Really though, truly and genuinely, we just want to see more people travelling by bike. It’s just something that we love so much. So what I would really like to see are more workshops and events being hosted by us. We just went down to California and teamed up with a design studio called Roving Studios in San Francisco and did a pop-up shop that was a travel agency concept that was all bicycle-based travel (here’s the link, ya’ll – Scot) and ran 10 days of workshops; everything from cooking on a camp stove, we did like a cooking show, all the way through really much more specific touring mechanics. Things like switching out a fiber spoke or using a hyper cracker tool, things that really promote self sufficiency and can make you go into more remote places with your bicycles. Beyond that, you know we want people to feel comfortable going into remote places, but there’s also this huge population of people who have never even thought of travelling by bike. Certainly when we began touring, I used to get really hoity toity about credit card touring, but now I think that if that’s one way to get people on their bikes, that’s awesome. Why not just take what you need and go to bed and breakfasts and really enjoy your time going down the Pacific Coast? It’s wonderful. Why not just jump on a bus or Amtrak, go to Mount Vernon, and just hang out on the San Juans for 4 or 5 days in a yurt or go to a winery or whatever? One of the awesome things is that bicycle travel, like any kind of travel, is that it can be as rough and rugged as you want it to be or it can be something that’s really luxurious. I think that while some of us really just dream about getting to rivers to go fly fishing with our bikes, there are a lot of people who would just love to get out to a resort or to an island and just hang out like a typical vacation. I guess the point is that all of that’s possible with a bike. More and more people our age are thinking about it. Talking to people at The Adventure Cycling Association and the folks at Path Less Pedaled, it seems a lot of people our age are really starting to do this more, and it’s becoming really visible. I hope we’re at the beginning of a resurgence.
If I went on the Swift Industries website today, and I picked out my perfect bags with my custom colors and features, when do I get them?
We’ll ship them in 4 weeks. If we can, we’ll go even earlier, but we’re really busy right now, which we’re really excited about, but that’s the deal. You just gotta be patient! (laughing).
The final answer gets to be your own personal shout-out section, go nuts!
Russ and Laura at Path Less Pedaled
Sonia McBride at BabeCycle
All our customers for being so adventurous and inspiring
And huge thanks to all our mom and pop dealers who distribute our bags. They’ve made a commitment to take slightly lower margins because they’re selling handcrafted bags, and I think that’s pretty amazing. That’s reflective, I think, of that emerging culture that really values domestically made goods and sees that as being linked to the bicycle lifestyle in general.