Chrome’s iconic messenger bags helped put a face on the messenger inner city cycling subculture. The sharp, understated design has sparked many imitators, and been the source of envy for countless broke cyclists. These days, Chrome Bags aren’t just for riders. They’ve become the de rigueur city bag for anyone looking for a tough bag capable of withstanding everyday abuse.
What most consumers are unaware of is that seventy percent of their bags are handmade in Northern California, just a few hours outside of San Francisco.
Buckle in and zip past the break to see how it’s done…
Every new idea designed in Chrome’s San Francisco based HQ takes its first steps toward becoming a real product in the sampling room.
Here, in a small office filled with sketches, prototype bags, and design templates, the latest concepts pass through Clara’s capable hands. As an expert seamstress, her knowledge and years of experience form the principle bridge between design and manufacturing.
Her role is to take the sketches, blocks (sewing patterns), or roughly sewn samples which arrive and render them into production worthy prototypes. In the process, she is often able to anticipate failures and minimize waste by creating more efficient patterns.
Fabric & Cutting
One of the larger rooms in the factory is lined entirely with fabrics in dozens of different colors.
Chrome bags are made predominantly with two different materials – a weatherproof Cordura outer shell and a tarpaulin inner liner. While the majority of bags sold are a variation of a few basic color staples, the company offers extensive customization via their online store and retail hubs.
The employees take a tremendous amount of pride in being able to turn around customer orders quickly. They pull all the bits and pieces required for custom bags every morning, roll them into a “burrito,” and strive to have orders shipped by the end of the business day.
While a pair of custom Nike shoes make take 6-8 weeks to arrive at your door step, a custom Chrome Bag is sewn and shipped from the factory in under seventy two hours.
The other side of the fabrics room is lined with patterns. Each pattern is printed on one of two machines. The original printer required patterns to be printed on two separate pieces of paper then taped together.
The second, shown on the left, can print patterns without having to resort to stitching sheets of paper together, because it’s the little things that improve efficiency.
The patterns are made for either four or six bags and positioned in order to minimize total waste. Each cutting jig can trim up to 80 sheets of Cordura at a time.
Mid-day collection of scrap.
Once the materials are cut they’re placed on racks and wheeled out to the factory floor as needed. The items cued next for production are known as WIPs (works in progress).
This is just one small half the factory floor. The smaller bags are produced on this side and larger bags are sewn on the other.
The walls of the factory floor are lined throughout with patterns showing each stage of construction.
The majority of the sewing machines in this factory are over twenty years old. The industrial grade units were produced in Japan and only require routine maintenance every few months.
Jesus, with over forty years of experience in the industry, is their mechanical sheppard. Not only does he maintain and repair all the units, but he is constantly listening to feedback from the team and looking for ways to make things work more efficiently.
For example, the machine in the top left corner has been used to sew labels onto the thousands of bags the factory produces annually. It’s a simple machine that uses a guide to automate the sewing process, but until just a few years ago, you couldn’t buy a tool to do that. Even now, a dedicated machine would cost roughly $1,500 USD.
Jesus deftly modified existing machinery in order to create something for this intended application. His various little modifications to existing machinery have all contributed to small (but important) improvements in efficiency.
Quality Control & Shipping
Each Chrome bag is “built” twice. First, when the inner liner is sewn together and then the outer.
After a set of bags is completed, there is a two part inspection process. During the first inspection, the seams, connectors, and double tacks are checked.
The next inspector does a brief examination while preparing the bag for packaging. The careful inspection process results in a less than 1% failure rate on bags.
Made in America
Nearly three quarters of the bags that Chrome produces are handmade in the United States. Today, the rising cost of shipping, labor, and the ability to quickly make and distribute products offer big advantages over foreign production. By producing the majority of their bags in California, just a few hours’ drive from HQ, they’re able to work hand in hand to develop quality products befitting of a lifetime warranty.
The other big advantage of American production is basic efficiency. Every process at the factory is carefully time studied. Almost ten years ago, a classic messenger bag took over thirty minutes to produce. In the intervening years they’ve managed to cut that time down by roughly seven minutes!
So why are some of their bags produced overseas? According to the Steve McCallion, Chrome’s President, “Our goal is to make everything in America, simple as that. Some of our technical bags require specific machines that we just do not have due to cost restraints. When we are faced with limitations we look for opportunities to solve the problem. Doing so allows us to build a better product for our customers.”
Special Thanks to Chrome Bags