There was a sewing factory down the road apiece that went out of business. I knew the guy, went down there to see what might be available, and ended up buying every sewing machine he had.
One of them was the Famous Ferdinand 900B Bull, a massive block of steel that spent its days impersonating a sewing machine. I swear on my mother’s dusty bible that the needle alone weighed 14 pounds.
Do you remember the actual bull from the child’s book named Ferdinand, the one who only wanted to smell the flowers in the Spanish countryside, until he sat on a bee? Well, our Ferdinand made that Ferdinand look like a baby chipmunk.
Ferdinand 900B Bull Sewing Machine
Ferdinand The Actual Bull
We got him loaded in after a while. I ended up selling him to a guy who knew what Ferdinand could do. He drove up from Iowa with his wife, and was going to use Ferdie for saddle work. Ferd didn’t have reverse, so for what we do he wasn’t a great machine, but he sure was fun to look at for a few months! I have a few newer versions of him with reverse – same size but somehow 1/5th the weight. These beasts can sew through 1″ thick plywood without any show of strain whatsoever – They might as well be sewing butter, or lace … or a flute player’s psyche.
But they’ll never be as tough as Blanca.
About a year ago, I was working at my shipping table, and I heard a short squeal. One of my sewers had made a mistake – you work around needles that go up and down ten thousand times a day, and sooner or later you’re gonna get bit, sure as a cat in a dog park. But she went back to sewing! What?! One of our ladies went over to her, and so did I – she had run the needle clean through her thumb! Up it came, and I think out of embarrassment and pride she tried to keep sewing. Oh my, no, go home! Wrap that up! This is why we have PTO and MNSure and bandaids and cold packs. Go home!
This was the first time that had happened here, but every one of my sewers told me right then and there that they had ALL gone clean through a digit at least once in their careers.
But they’ll never be as tough as Jairo.
You still reading? I’m just saying, leather work is not for the faint of heart. I’ve hurt myself plenty at work, but usually doing dumb stuff with power tools. Ask Lindsey. She has stories.
I’ve got one more myself. Steel your stomach and read on if you want, no one’s forcing you. This is a bad one, from about 8 years ago.
Before I get into it, I want you to know most of my crew has been with me for many years, and I rarely ask anyone to work overtime or push them for fast production times. But there are a LOT of blades and needles and belts and pulleys and rivet machines and clickers and snap setters and more in a leather goods factory, and there are going to be mistakes. This one is famous.
My cutter’s name is Hairo. He pronounces it like Hydro, rolling the r pretty hard, which I can’t do because I’m a muppet. Others might spell it “Jairo.” Up until last year, he cut every leather bag and nylon bag we ever made, by hand, with a knife made from three bars of steel taped together. He slides the middle bar forward from time to time, when he needs more steel. He sharpens it constantly on a stone he keeps on the table next to his work. Lay up the leather, scan it for marks, lay up the pattern, lay down the straight edge, push it down hard and draw the blade, sharpen sharpen sharpen, draw it again to make sure, rinse and repeat.
It’s that straight edge that scares me, and he really has to push it down hard, with his left hand fingers, right on the edge of the edge. One day I came back from lunch, and noticed a good amount of something blackish-brownish on the floor in the bathroom. I grabbed a towel to clean it up, and under the brown it was … red. “What’s this?” I thought. I went out to the floor, and Hairo was still cutting. I asked if he was OK, and he kinda looked at me, like, no, not so much at all – but he didn’t say much. The bandage was huge. And it didn’t appear to be working! Oh my, go home! How bad is it? Do you need anything? Like, some more blood? I know a guy. Please, sit down, my friend.
He actually came in the next day, but went home right away. You can’t cut leather without a strong left hand. He came back 4 days later, and that’s when he finally showed me his finger – the poor guy had actually…
OK, seriously, why are you still reading?
…he had actually removed a ½ inch piece of his finger – big enough to think that he could put it back where it came from, tape it down long enough and maybe save it. Oh my. Oh m-y-y-y-yeow! Stitches maybe? Too small for that, really, but not by much. Oh my.
That’s leather work.
It’s not easy. It’s hard work. Things are heavy, things are sharp, and things will sting.
Just like that Spanish bee who bit Ferdinand in the butt and got him into all kinds of trouble.
Keep safe, everyone. Leave the danger to us.
I spent a few days in Berkeley with Glenn in 2017, where he lived for most of his life. It was apparent that he was a musician from the start – the first thing we did was listen in awe to the Vertical Voices recording of Maria Schneider’s compositions, on an incredible stereo that had its own back story: They were given as gifts to members of a studio house band Glenn was in, after an executive got a line on them following a record label meeting in Germany — something like that. I’m messing up all the details, but it was a fantastic amplifier/speaker set I’d never heard of, before or since, and we let the recording run. Did he invent the gig bag? Uh, yeah, pretty much.
I don’t think we talked much about the bags probably until the middle of the week, a day after Glenn drove in to San Francisco to hear Maria Schneider and her band, while I was next door checking out the San Francisco Symphony for the first time (I went to college with their extraordinary first bassist, Scott Pingel, and my tix were free. Ha!).
Turns out, he learned to sew as a kid, on a farm in Indiana or Illinois, if I recall, and even made some stick bags way back. 60-some years later, he estimated that he had designed about 15,000 patterns. Some were in his basement, some in his stable, most in his warehouse, and we got to digging through things by Thursday the week I was out. At one point, Glenn found himself crawling around in the rafters at his Oakland, CA factory looking for something I’d need — while I was having an Oakland Stroke down below. He assured me he would not fall, “something something about having trained as a trapeze artist.”
Wait. Huh. WHAT?!
He told me about a circus act that wintered on a farmstead near where he grew up — Not the Flying Wallendas, but close enough. He became friends with a circus kid who lived there, and the family taught Glenn how to … uhh … trapeze, I guess. He wasn’t joking about any of it, decades later, walking across a rough hewn beam 14 feet in the air without any safety nets, while I was trying to decide if I’d try to break his inevitable fall or not. Thankfully, he got down well enough and we got back to sorting the leather I’d end up buying.
Ask me about the historic landmark Wells Fargo stable in his back yard sometime. It’s the shed he shipped out of, and where he made his patterns, and smoked the cigarettes that were causing a pretty ferocious cough as we talked through the details of transferring his life’s work to Minneapolis.
I’ll see if I can’t remember more of the stories down the road apiece. There were plenty. Maybe the one about drawing the first tenor bag ever made around his friend Lenny Pickett’s Selmer. Or the fact that David Garibaldi was his roommate way back. Or that Glenn played on some of the Peanuts sessions, and was in both Journey and Jefferson Starship before they were either. Or that a young Jimi Hendrix used to hang out 2 or 3 doors down from Glenn’s house. Or that one of his handbags was central to an episode of Fantasy Island.
For now, though, I just want you to know that it’s good that Glenn knew leather goods.
We had a strange, difficult, and surprisingly profitable year. Here is a short account of starting in a bad place, going dark, going darker, coming out of it, going back into dark, coming out of it again, getting lucky, and closing out with confidence.
I invested in a brand new website in Nov 2019, and it crashed in mid-December, costing us tens of thousands of dollars of lost holiday sales. (I was actually in the middle of a recording session of Rush’s “Tom Sawyer,” arranged for 8 trombones, drums, and the great Julius Collins when Lindsey texted me, “Our website is down.” More about THAT cool thing below.) The 12-person website development firm I hired for this proved incompetent, and I ended up fixing it myself in mid-Jan. This made for a financially scary February, as Covid-19 was looming overseas. I was worried.
When the shutdown was announced, I took a chance and designed some reusable face masks, and ran a GoFundMe campaign with the intention of donating masks where they were needed. At that time, my wife and brother-in-law were being asked to do sketchy things at their hospitals. I did eventually donate 15,500+ high quality masks to underserved communities. But early publicity garnered some modest purchases from local government agencies. I brought 500 home to wash one night and spent the next 4 hours untying knots. I reached out to one of our buyers, who supplies clean room products to Boston Scientific and others, and asked them if they could wash 10,000 of these at a time. They said — and this was both exciting and terrifying — “Yes, but can you make 80,000 in 30 days and if so, we’ll order another 50,000 after that?” We weren’t going to be able to make leather goods during the shutdown anyway, and these could be sewn at home on normal industrial machines…YES, PLEASE!
A week before our last installment of 30,000 masks, the George Floyd Protests and then the arson attacks swept through the neighborhood. I had been working for nearly 3 months straight, packing boxes at 4 AM more than once, and now I had to worry about losing everything. My house, too, was deep in the smoke of the fires for 2 nights. I can never explain the fear and anxiety our city and our people went through. I was an emotional wreck like I’ve never been before, and I will never forget that fear. On two mornings, there were fire trucks in my parking lot, actively fighting fires on two sides of our building — 100 buildings are gone within a 1 mile radius. For the record, nearly all of the people eventually arrested for arson were from out of town — they came not to support the protests, but to make the protesters look bad. We took a week off, and finished the order. I was still a mess. We had back orders, we were tired, and we were both extremely sad and undeniably angry.
One of my sewers contracted Covid on her week off, and was very sick all of June. She came back after the July 4th holiday, which was when my other two sewers contracted Covid — “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I thought. One of them was out for 5 weeks, the other had a mild case and was out for 3, and thankfully all three of them came through in good health. But when we should have been catching up to old orders, I had only 1.3 sewers from June through mid-August, and nobody in March, April, and May. That’s nearly 6 months of lost production thanks to Covid-19, and we were less than 2/3 of the way through the year!
But there was some good news right about now: I invested the mask money in a very special German-made leather cutting CNC table. This beast scans patterns and turns them into CAD files. It also scans and recognizes the outline of a leather hide. The operator grades the quality zones of the hide, and projects our patterns onto the hide, maximizing yield. Each pattern is color coded by model, so we can cut a sax bag with a guitar bag and a trombone bag, and then fill in the scrap with key fobs or dog collars or whatever. The conveyor moves the hide to the end of the table, the projection system follows the conveyor, and the operator pulls the pieces and puts them into sewing kits for the crew (the projector actually flashes which pieces to pick first, by color: Sax, guitar, trombone = easy!). It can also cut foam with a bevel, route wood, draw with a pen, and cut plastic or rubber up to a half inch thick. It can cut up to a million medical gowns in a week and can handle full hides — it’s an absolute beast. This table will dramatically speed up our production, reduce our waste, organize our production, and I am thrilled to have it. (This guy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0oBjRmkZzLY).
In August, the U of MN asked us to make bell and instrument covers. I was honestly reluctant, because I knew we had to get back to our normal work, now that everyone was back and in good health. I was a little short on cash from my table purchase, but, OK, let’s make a few hundred pieces and maybe something will come of it. Boy did it! Without even trying, I had orders for 15,000 units by mid-September. “Huzzah! What?!” It took a few more weeks to properly unload these to our contract sewers, and we’re now probably closing in on 30,000 units. We got back again to Cronkhite and Torpedo products in early October. Then my wife found herself Covid-positive and I had to stay home for 3 weeks (her case was mild, thankfully). We had other family members impact our tiny work force via quarantines. The table install took 60 hours of my time the week before Christmas. My kids were home alone trying to navigate computer school — since March. 2020 was not making any part of my year easy!
But I’m fortunate, and not complaining about the lucky parts. This summer (2020) I hired a CAD/CAM/CNC engineer to work out our composites projects — these are getting very close after some long delays. This fall (2020) I hired my replacement in the shipping and purchasing department, and I just added someone to take over for Lindsey and help streamline our catalogue with the remaining guitar, banjo, mandolin, sarode, pipa, and ukelele bags no one knows we have. I am hopeful we will have a place for Lindsey when her kids can be out of computer school this summer. We will catch up to orders. We are into September Cronkhite orders (I’m writing this on 1/28/21), Torpedo is short on just a few leather items, and orders were so low this fall that I’m expecting to get Cronkhite caught up through Dec 1 by the end of February. We should be trained in to the table by then, and gain more ground against the 7 months we lost in 2020. Hang in there, and don’t think I don’t lose sleep over every single one of these late bags — ugg. You have no idea how this haunts me at night and through my inbox daily! It just kind of had to be this way this year, and I am so thankful so many of our customers had it in them to let us work through the year. My gratitude is forever yours. 2020 was a nightmare of stress, luck, hard work, pivots, fires, and catch up. I feel unbelievably fortunate to have not been burned down, not gone out of business, not gotten Covid, and indeed to have come out with some smart investments and two great new hires. For me, the worst is over, and I definitely see daylight. I know not everyone can see it (yet!), but I’ll leave you with the theme I’ve had to remind myself about constantly this year:
Stravinsky’s Firebird at 5:42 is coming!
With respect and solidarity,
President, Torpedo Bags and Glenn Cronkhite Custom Cases
PS: I just got home and played my video choice on a solid stereo, and I must say, the audio quality is a horribly compressed MP3. Ugg. Sorry about that. Here is a better version, but without the animation: