How to Make a Backpack

September 30, 2015

Design, build, test, repeat, re-design, re-build, re-test, re-peat; the process of design is a vicious cycle that a designer can repeat for eternity with the goal of reaching perfection or until a deadline surpasses him or her. I would know because I was caught in one when I wanted to design and create a backpack. I have been designing it for two years, and for a while I had nothing to show for it but a list of sketches. The process, the material research, and the design have all been stored on the upper shelf of my brain, waiting to be built.

About a year ago I felt like the months kept moving as I sat and drew this imaginary backpack. The more I drew, the more I confused myself about the process. One day I stopped and realized I knew nothing about anything related to making clothing, fabrics, sewing, or even backpacks. That day I stopped the sketches of backpacks and made a plan. What has come of that plan today is a series of leather wallets. I have designed eight wallets, two phone cases, and am working on a sketch book holder that I hope to release soon. I look at these small projects as the baby steps on the way to understand what it takes to make a backpack. The first wallet I made took me about a day and a half to make, plus the two weeks it took to design it, and it looked like a blind man made it. It was fun, but my fingers were a bit blistered from pushing the needle back and forth through that leather for what seemed like eternity. I knew that if I was going to make this work I was going to have to take a different route. I bought some leather tools that made my life easier but were still not giving me the production level I sought. I was looking for a better way to cut leather, engrave it, and sew it. I didn't think I was asking for too much, but everything I found on YouTube approached leather in the same fashion it had for decades, if not centuries-cut by hand, sewn by hand or machine. I wanted to take "hand-craft" and add digital to it. Digital-craft? Hand-digital? The name hasn't been resolved quite yet, please let me know if you've got something we can call this. This was me taking the same care that a leather worker puts into his or her leather and adding technology to making it a feasible business model.

The working man, the cobbler, the tailor, are a dying breed in America. Why build it here when you can ship it overseas for a fraction of the cost, right? When the value of things is scaled through a dollar sign, there is a problem. I found myself in the middle of a market that creates nothing, where everyone wants something, but they want it now and they want it cheap. How can a one man operation compete with that? Why even try? Why should I waste my time to make something that I can already buy for dirt cheap. I found myself in this question every day, for about a month, until I decided I was going to do it, I was going to find a way to make this all work out.

For the longest time I was looking at making what a leather manufacturing company calls a die cut. In theory it's a cookie cutter but for leather. It would speed up the cutting process, but the process of making a die cutter was lengthy and it meant that I was going to be making a lot of only one type of wallet. I was looking for a way to design, build, and test at a much faster rate, and I did not want to make a new die cut every month. I would have to create a die cut every time I made a change to a design, plus it would not allow me to engrave or sew any faster. I decided to put the leather work on the back burner for a while; I was frustrated and I was getting ready to ramp up for school-I figured I would have my hands full with that. That quarter school was great for multiple reasons; I found the tool I was looking for all along. It was kind of obvious and I should have thought about it before, but it all came together when I was laser cutting my architectural model. I was sitting there looking at the laser because you are not supposed to, but it's so bright! Then it just hit me, my brain switched on and did the math, laser - leather (Engraving/design time) = faster designs; better prototype capabilities, easier sewing, and custom engraving all in one. It was simple, so simple. I knew what I had to do; I had to get a laser cutter. Since then my set of tools has grown and has facilitated a design to production system that gives me the flexibility to experiment with new designs. What I have learned is that in-between the design, build, test, and repeat, we should always add "improve" before we repeat. The saying that there is always room for improvement is no understatement. How can it be more efficient? Where can I automate a process to give me time to design? Is there a script that I can use to facilitate numbering 200 doors? I do not want to spend my time sewing leather goods by hand, and you do not want to spend your day numbering doors. Let's use technology to help us bring back a level of craft that has been missing from the design industry for a very long time.

Arnulfo Ramirez