Making Packs in the USA: Reflections from the Cedaero Workshop

Five years ago, we profiled the workshop of Cedaero, and today, we’re offering up something special to coincide with Hailey’s Fork Lift Pack review. Straight from the horse’s mouth. Read on as Karl from Cedaero muses on producing bags in the USA and why they continue to do so in an era of constant outsourcing.

Sometimes, I have moments that cause me to reflect on why we’re doing what we’re doing. For example, today, I received emails from two separate factories offering to produce our packs overseas at a meager cost. I’m constantly bombarded by offers from Vietnam and China, and many of the samples they show us genuinely look very nice. So why are we trying so hard to make them here?

If I do the math, we could have the same pack cut, sewn, and shipped with import duties paid for less than half our current manufacturing cost. This would be a game changer for us as a company that is still figuring out how to do this thing sustainably, pay living wages, use the best materials, and make enough money to exist at the same time. This dynamic results from decades of collectively off-shoring our sewing industry to places where labor is cheaper. While the bottom line numbers may look tempting (and we understand why many of our peers have taken overseas manufacturers up on their offers), some other costs are associated with that decision that keep us from going that route.

First, our method of constantly tweaking and improving our designs would be cut off at the knees. Once a design is sent for manufacture, it is set in stone for better or worse. Do you have a great idea to make something more durable and functional after the order is sent? That would have to wait for next year’s production run. Second, doing the custom work we’re known for would be impossible. If only people knew how much we agonize over which color of paracord to use for their zip pullers before we ship out their pack. We usually make the decision based on the question, “Does this person party??”.

In short, the people processing orders are also designing, cutting, and sewing the packs, which is what allows us to turn things around quickly and come out the other side with a pack that fits the person’s specific needs and aesthetic vision. This affords us a creative and logistical nimbleness that would go away if we weren’t making them in-house.

In this vein, it might be helpful to explain the general arc that the outdoor gear industry has taken over the past 40+ years. Many of the brands we recognize and love (Osprey, Jansport, Patagonia, etc) were founded in the 1970s or 1980s by one or two people who were passionate about the outdoors and started making stuff in their basement/garage. As the popularity of outdoor recreation exploded in the following decades, they rode that wave to grow their brands and expand their offerings.

Most of these founders have now hit or are approaching retirement age, and their companies have been sold to larger conglomerates or private equity groups (the VF Outdoors, Invista, and PONʼs of the world) who have used their resources and connections to apply a different model of design and manufacturing. Instead of the design, prototyping, and manufacturing happening under the same roof, many companies utilize pattern designers at factories overseas to make their products. Those factories will send design samples, the options, and colorways will be carefully reviewed by an aesthetic designer at the brand, and then the pack will be manufactured at the factory and shipped for the next season.

Now, those factory-based pattern designers are really good at what they do, and all of us have used and loved products they’ve designed. But it sets up a very different system for the industry, where the brand designers choose options from a menu and generate colorways instead of sketching ideas, cutting parts, sewing them together, and then making adjustments until the ideal version is put into production. Combined with the substantially lower cost of overseas manufacturing, this system is leveraged by the large brands so they can make more money off of their products and keep retail prices low.

The bike baggage industry is comparatively younger than the larger outdoor industry activities like climbing, backpacking, and skiing. In some ways, it looks closer to what things were like in the 80s and 90s. There are many small “garage makers” designing and manufacturing unique packs and pushing innovation at a rapid rate. Many of these brands have chosen to sell only directly to customers instead of through a local bike shop simply because their cost of design and manufacture is so much higher than the other products on the shelf which have been produced overseas. The pricing structure has been set using those low production costs, and we’ve become used to paying those prices!

Cedaero sits squarely in between the small “garage maker” and the large brands producing overseas (Bontrager, Blackburn, Topeak, etc). We’ve chosen to keep our design and manufacturing in-house, and we’ve also chosen to use material that is made in the USA where we know what environmental standards the factories are held to (something that cannot be said for most imported fabric). We also sell wholesale to local bike shops. These things add up to mean that our margins are significantly slimmer than if we had our products made overseas or used imported fabric. Essentially, many manufacturers in the USA are playing a game whose general rules have been set using low costs of materials and labor and high costs to the environment.

At the end of the day, we’re still figuring out how to make this–how to play within the system to stay afloat and hopefully re-write some rules around how and why our own hands can make things in exchange for a living wage. We’re figuring out how to set our prices at what the market will accept while still paying our bills and eking out a little profit. We’re also learning how to tell our story effectively in between designing and making packs.

Many people are surprised when they visit Cedaero that we’re only a team of eight people (and some dogs) who work in 600 square feet, not a large factory with a large warehouse – something that is true of many brands in the cycling industry. And yes, the same people who are designing and sewing your packs are answering the phone, responding to emails, taking photos, keeping up with Instagram, and going to events that we sponsor (and having borderline too much fun most days!).

Thanks for being a part of the cycling community and supporting the people who make your packs and other gear. You’re the reason we get to do this at all, and we’re incredibly grateful! If you’re ever passing through our corner of the north shore, our doors are open, and we’d love to meet you.

Karl Mesedahl, General Manager of Cedaero chaos