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R.E.Load Bags Factory Visit – Handmade Messenger Bags from Philly

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When we went to Philly just before Christmas for the Belinky Junkyard Cyclocross race, we made time to see the highlights: Chinatown (noodles!), the Liberty Bell and R.E.Load Bags.

I own two R.E.Loads, the Midpack (which I’ve reviewed) and their largest messenger bag, which borders on ridiculous in size but creates a lot of bag envy from others. Both are awesome, but tame by comparison to some of the artwork Ro and the gang pump out on a regular basis.

Each bag is hand cut, hand sewn and designed by one of the resident artists. Each of them have their specialty, so no matter what you want your bag to look like, they can handle it. Here are just two examples of some one-off work they’ve done:

Their designs are made using cut fabric swatches that are stitched and embroidered into place, some with more embroidering than others. None of this is screened on. Click past the break to see how they’re made and some of the other killer designs they’ve done…

R.E.Load is on the second floor of an older mill-type building, just across the Interstate from downtown on the north side of Philadelphia, PA. R.E.Load currently has five people, three of them making the bags. At one time they had 11 people and were trying to expand into more wholesale business, then the economy tanked and they scaled back to their current size.  While the reasons sucked, it has improved the happiness factor and let them really focus the artistry that makes them happy.

They’ve been in business since 1997, and had a studio in Seattle, too, for a while with co-founder Ellie, who now works in San Francisco and does the Americana collection.  All the day-to-day operations and custom work is done from Philly.

Besides the standard heavy duty Cordura material that’ll look new for years even under heavy use, they have a new waxed canvas (brown, left) that gets worn in more quickly for an aged look and feel. . They originally started with canvas bags and now offer all three fabrics, but canvas is only in black. Ro says it’s just not a good fabric for durability.

Once the order comes in, Sarah pulls the fabric and the template and cuts out the pieces. Each bag they make has a vinyl template; the various models are rolled up below the table here. Since each one is cut to order, each bag can be fully customized, including different colors for each part of the bag. The panels are cut about a week before the detail work and final assembly is done.

From there, they generally match the thread to the fabric, but you can request contrasting stitching or other colors.

Here’s where the magic happens…

…and here’s how it gets to UPS or the post office if it just can’t wait until the next day’s pickup.

In the back of the place is the showroom for folks that want to see all the options first hand before committing. The 80’s Vision Skate themed bags were excellent enough reproductions to win them a cease and desist order (I actually had the Christian Hosoi hammerhead skateboard that the Rising Sun bag is based on!).

Here’s Ro(land), co-founder of the company, showing off the new Flight Pack backpack. It’s like their roll top Midpack but is smaller and has a simplified front pocket and waterproof fabric liner instead of the vinyl, so it’s lighter weight.

The houndstooth is a new stock design, one of many pre-made bags they sell if you can’t come up with something good on your own.

Some other stock designs include food (sunday, pizza) and pattern and floral motifs.

They print out the designs for the appliqué, then use a light table to cut out the fabrics and stitch them to the bags. Depending on the complexity of the design, various people work on the bag. Gerik makes the cat bags, the idea for which started on a whim and has taken off. Now people are sending in pictures of their cats to get made into bags. Some of the work is pure art, which Ro says is hard for him to put on a bag knowing it’s just going to get beat up.

Lastly, I just had to show you their floors…bricks of wood cut cross-grain. Gorgeous!

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