A Stitch in Time
For the past few months, I’ve been sewing my own pipe bags. Which felt like a betrayal at first, but I've come to terms with that.
Since I started selling pipes in 2004, I have gotten my leather pipe bags/socks (and a couple of my all-time favorite stories) from Neil Flancbaum of smokingholsters.com. Whose bags set the standard for the US artisan pipe market, so if any of you have glanced at the bag in which one of my pipes arrived for more than a second as you tossed it into the drawer with dozens of other pipe bags and thought, “has Neil been drinking?,” um, no.
I’ve been learning.
If you haven't noticed, perhaps I've been aided by the ephemerality of the pipe bag, which, for many, is to the pipe as the peel is to the banana. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been doing my best and getting better, and I’m fairly picky. I’m not saying my bags are AS good has Neil’s (and his pieces that take real chops, like the Ultimate Pipe Bag, might as well be in a neighboring galaxy), but we’re talking about a simple bag, not a catcher’s mitt. Most pipe bags exist for, as one high-end North American carver put it, “presentation value.”
Value. I remember my grandmother Howell getting on the old Ford tractor in her seventies and running a bush hog around the farm. She could have paid somebody, but she wanted to do for herself — she valued independence and self-sufficiency. I've written plenty about my dad's DIY streak, and while I know he was getting the most he could out of a public school teacher's salary, the assumption that self-made was better than store-bought was so basic that I don't recall ever talking about it. When flyfishing, any fish you catch seems bigger if you tied the fly yourself. If that’s how you’re wired, anyway; flyfishing shops DO sell a lot of flies. Let’s just say that there are things you do for yourself if only to prove that you are able, and/or not lazy. While some people still grow gardens and raise chickens because they would starve otherwise, there are plenty of suburban gardeners and chicken farmers who would give you a blank look if you asked how much money they were saving.
A pipe bag contains about five bucks worth of materials. Elk or deer hide thin and supple enough to make a nice bag isn’t cheap, that’s 99% of it. Five bucks may be a little high — it’s an average that depends on the size of the hide; because of the shoulders and haunches and irregularities around the perimeter you have about the same amount of waste with any hide, but the bigger the hide the more bags you get in proportion to the waste. I’m speaking empirically, no doubt there is math that explains this. The nylon cord for one set of drawstrings costs six cents (not a guess, I figured it out), and thirty bucks worth of thread should make about a million bags. OK, that one is a guess. Anyway, five bucks. A bag from Smokingholsters costs twelve bucks, so there's a possible savings of seven bucks per pipe. And seven bucks is seven bucks.
Which reminds me of a story, don’t remember where I heard it so apologies if it’s yours. An elderly farmer and his wife were regulars at the county fair, where every year a helicopter pilot offered a quick aerial tour for $50. Every year, the couple would stop and look at the helicopter, and the farmer would say, "Let's try it, Agnes. I've always wanted to see the place from the air and we're not getting any younger."
"Now, Herb," she'd say. "Seeing the farm from the air is fine and all, but fifty bucks is fifty bucks." They would wrangle back and forth, and this performance was repeated annually, until finally the pilot decided he'd had enough, and said, "Listen folks, here's the deal. I'll take you up for free, on the single condition that neither of you says one more word. If you shut up now and stay shut up until we land, you owe me nothing, but ONE WORD and you pay me $50."
The couple nodded and got in the helicopter. The pilot's plan was to give them the most aerobatic ride possible and elicit a "WATCH OUT!" or perhaps an audible appeal to the Lord. So he flew like he was dodging rockets back in ‘Nam, swinging violently from side to side, diving down to brush the treetops, climbing up and corkscrewing down, determined to get that $50, but nobody said a word.
Finally the helicopter started to run low on fuel so the pilot reluctantly landed, turned around to concede defeat, and saw that the farmer was alone. "Where's your wife?!"
"She fell out half an hour ago," said the farmer. "I was gonna say something, but fifty bucks is fifty bucks."
Let's start with the machine. In order to sew even thin leather you need an industrial walking foot sewing machine. While the machine I bought has a motor the size of a gallon paint can and will drive a needle through 1/2” of shoe leather, that’s not the important part; the important part is the walking foot that compresses and holds the material together as it carries it forward for the next stitch. Elk leather is stretchy, and regular fabric machines — though some may punch through and have a long enough stitch length — stretch and bunch it. The walking foot (also called a triple feed) doesn’t. The machine proper, called the “head” separate from its table and motor, is mostly cast iron and experience has shown that one person can carry it, but two would be preferable.
My Dad would often accuse me of trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, which sounded odd coming from Mr. Use-It-Up-Wear-It-Out himself. He was right, though, guilty as charged. For some reason it is vastly more satisfying to clean and fix and adjust an old, forgotten, worn-out thing than to buy a new, shiny, plasticky, imported one, and apparently I’ve always been that way.
Of course, my old sewing machine is imported too, but from Japan, and I have great respect for Japanese craftsmen. Take my Yamaha clarinets: exquisite workmanship, perfectly adjusted from new, haven't been touched with pliers or screwdrivers in two years. The couple of heavy equipment operators I know say that Japanese machines are harder to break. One of the things that struck me when I toured Japan with the PSO in 1997 was the care and pride invested in work. Maybe this is an outsider’s romantic view, but it seemed that in Japan there was no such thing as work that was beneath you; no matter how small the job, you did it to the very best of your ability. If you were to buy, say, cookies at the bakery in one of Tokyo’s subterranean supermarkets you might hesitate to eat them because they were so crisply and beautifully hand-wrapped. Don’t get me started on sushi.
Speaking as a craftsman, it‘s the little things that will bring you to your knees. It’s only an insignificant detail until you screw it up. I bought the Juki because it was the only thing available within driving distance, but I think it was fate.
My Juki LU-562 was built in the early 1970s. The previous owner bought it new and used it to run an upholstery shop out of his garage in The Middle Of Nowhere, West Virginia. It had sat unused for a number of years and his daughter was selling it. It had been his pride and joy, she said, but . . . that’s ok, it was all too easy to fill in the blanks. A while back I told a colleague in another city whose lovely C clarinet I had borrowed for Strauss’s Alpine Symphony to let me know if it ever became available for sale. "Sooner or later everything's for sale," he said.
The Juki was coated in a thick, sticky brown layer of varnished oil and dust, which isn’t as bad as it sounds, nothing that a box of Q-tips and a quarter bottle of Hoppe’s No. 9 solvent couldn’t fix. These machines are total loss oilers, consuming oil like a 1930s Harley-Davidson motorcycle engine where the oil goes in the top and falls out the bottom, oiling what needs to be oiled on its way. The Juki has about a dozen holes that each get a drop or two of oil every time you start the machine; an oil pan underneath catches the drippings and needs to be swabbed out now and then. Levers and rods and wheels Rube Goldberg around — I’m again reminded of the exposed valvetrain of an early motorcycle engine — and the oil is thin and tends to spread over the outside of the machine as well as the inside. If the gentleman ran out of energy in the end to keep his machine clean, at least he kept it oiled, and the word on these things is that if they are properly lubricated they can run forever.
If it lasts another few hundred hours that will be long enough for me, which is the same thing as forever. I sent the daughter a few pictures of her dad’s machine all cleaned up and back at work. It’s hard to tell over a text exchange but she might have been a little verklempt.
"How much did the machine cost?" you wonder.
Nothing. Ok, practically nothing. Of course money changed hands, but it’s an asset. It was a used machine in the first place. It’s already better than it was when I bought it, and it won’t have depreciated much (if at all) if I need to bail out or get tired of making bags. Further, because of self-employment tax, the machine’s impact on my bottom line is about half of what I paid. I’m a pushover for tools and machines, but have started trying really hard to buy only stuff that will pay for itself, and this is one case where the math actually worked. The sewing machine is turning a profit..
"What about the time?"
Dinkum oil: I just made a batch of 29 bags. It took me less than an hour to cut them out of two elk hides and to tack the drawstring hems, less than an hour to sew the drawstring hems. About half an hour to tack the main hems and less than an hour to sew all 29 bags. Which I know because I had a window of less than an hour for that job and I just made it. Maybe 10 minutes to turn them right side out, 15 minutes to cut all the drawstrings with my field expedient hot knife (three photos down, probably a separate blog post). It will take a minute or two per bag to thread and tie the drawstrings but I can do that as needed. If I count that right we’re at about four hours. 29 bags at $7 each is $203. Or, $50 per hour, make that $26/hour after tax.
That’s quite a bit better than I do making pipes.
With practice I’ll get faster, and better. Already I’ve learned some tricks. Using a plastic squeeze bottle instead of the brush to deposit a thin, precise line of contact cement to tack the hems is a pretty good one. I thought of it myself, which probably means it‘s the oldest trick in the book. I’m buying leather at retail from a place I found on the internet (Glacier Wear, the material and service is great); maybe if I wanted to buy a quantity I’d never manage to use I could find a wholesale source and cut my material cost in half.
So, it is to my financial advantage — at least now that I have the time — to make my own bags. For most makers, the bag is one of those incidental costs like PayPal charges, and even with my labor it still costs me something. A really sharp businessman would have found an offshore source and gotten a crate of bags for fifty cents apiece. But making bags affords me the pleasure of acquiring a new skill, a new machine, and a new capability for work. It allows me to tailor the shape exactly to my preference; my ideal bag is a touch slimmer and longer than Neil’s. No offense. Recently I made a commissioned Billiard with two stems and was able to whip up a little pouch for the extra stem out of scrap. That’s value, presentation or otherwise, that I was able to add easily, with no extra steps, no extra postage, no extra planning or waiting.
Beyond all of that, it’s probably a control issue. I know, I know, common theme. With so many huge things completely out of my (or, apparently, anyone's) control, finding just about anything where I can exercise some degree of self-determination amounts to a toehold on sanity. If you read my post Twice Warmed you may recall the security that comes from having warmth stacked in the back yard. The power may go out, but we won’t freeze (Oddly enough, it did go out for 27 hours not too long after I wrote that. And we didn't freeze.). Trading work for security seems honest, and keeps me from stewing. I could have paid for wood to be delivered and stacked, but even if I didn’t need the cash (which isn’t actually the case) that would have been a transaction, not an accomplishment.
Having 40-odd pipe bags made and material for at least that many more on the shelf is a little like having plenty of dry firewood. There are a hundred things that could go wrong making pipes, but I won’t run out of bags. As a matter of fact, I just realized that this post was a little light on photos, pulled out a nice big hide and made another 18 bags. Partly because I thought you might be interested to see some of the intermediate steps, partly because it just felt good.