On Growing Up: Swift Industries Celebrates 15 Years of Making Bike Bags

Based in Seattle, Washington, Swift Industries is a bike bag company known for blending classic randonneuring aesthetics with modern functionality. Co-founded in 2008 by Martina Brimmer and Jason Goodman, the brand has grown from a basement DIY passion project to a mainstay in the bike luggage space. In celebration of their 15-year anniversary, Hailey Moore writes about Swift’s journey over the years from its founders’ punk roots, to landing shelf space in REI.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have been a Swift Industries ambassador for the past three years, a relationship that started before becoming a routine contributor at The Radavist. My contract with Swift is non-exclusive, meaning that I am not required to use only their bags, and each month they pay me about as much as my out-of-pocket health insurance. So, if you see a photo of someone who looks like me on their website, that’s why. Onto the story…

Early Days

On an evening in May earlier this year, I sat on Swift Industries’ co-founders Martina Brimmer and Jason Goodman’s back porch in Seattle and asked how they met. A cargo bike leaned behind me, and their deaf pup, Meena, quietly roamed the small yard. Martina’s eyes flickered with a mischievous twinkle as she said, “It’s always been bikes,” before she and Jason went on to pass the narrative baton back and forth while recounting their formative days as a couple at Arizona’s Prescott College.

Their early stories hinted at Martina’s organizing and leadership instincts, with a project she spearheaded to launch a community-based bike repair initiative on-campus, and Jason’s longtime curiosity and fascination with the natural world, through his involvement with the schools’ Outdoor Education program. Both acknowledge the way that being devoted commuters at this time fit in with their environmental and social justice ideals, even if these ideals were informed by different backgrounds.

Raised by “normal, working-class Seattle folks,” Jason credits his parents with raising him and his brothers to “give a shit about stuff,” and introducing him to the outdoors, something that he “really latched onto and kept going with it.” It was Prescott’s environmental education and experiential programs, alongside a desire for a non-traditional college experience, that led Jason to the small, private school southwest of Flagstaff. After idolizing the bike messenger ethos as a high schooler, it was at Prescott that he went all-in on all types of riding: commuting, mountain biking, and road.

Martina clearly traces her college-aged principles back to her mom; “My mom is just a classic Bay Area hippy lady… Sometimes, I’m still kind of bowled over by how value-driven our lifestyle was; buying bulk in the early ‘80s and then thinking about how much plastic we consume now versus when I was a little kid. That those were already choices she was making because she was already so concerned about the environment is kind of staggering.” Riding bikes in the early 2000s felt, to Martina, like a way of making a statement, daily, about how she wanted to live her life. “It felt really political riding bikes. When [Jason] and I met, we were both very politically active, at the intersection of social justice work and environmental conservation.” She reflects, “And, bikes fit that, so well. I think that was something that grabbed both of us… plus, it was just super fun to ride bikes. And that’s kind of been the thing this whole time.”

Throughout the years since their first meeting, Martina says that riding bikes has “evolved a lot…from seeing the bike as a tool for autonomy and urban transportation, then eventually independent and self-propelled travel. [But] we just kept going further afield.”

Further Afield

The couple’s first instance of going further afield by bike coincided with one of their first dates: riding out to a local lake not far from Prescott at dusk, sleeping out, and biking back the next day. “We went camping, with our bikes,” laughs Martina, to emphasize that the outing pre-dated the now-ubiquitous bikepacking label. “We probably just slept in our gross punk clothes,” Jason adds.

A couple of years later, after finishing school and landing together in Seattle, Jason and Martina took their first official bike tour, riding from Seattle to San Francisco on roads over a couple of weeks. Jason recalls riding his “Davidson Discovery, a sport-touring bike they made for a short period when they were making stock bikes.” Martina grimaces while describing “the shittiest welds” (which, she and Jason then—endearingly—repeat in unison) that a random welder made while adding braze-ons to her racing Medici frame, in order for her to be able to mount racks and panniers for the trip.

Over the coming years, they would prioritize a few big adventures—riding from Montreal to New York City; and later, attending the inaugural Oregon Outback ride in 2014—but, in the way that so many post-college stories go, they were mostly consumed with the day-to-day of making their own lives work, piece-mealing the aspirational with the essential. Jason led outdoor education courses before going full-time as a bike mechanic; Martina studied to be a doula and worked as a high school sex ed instructor. It wasn’t until after they’d been experimenting with making their own bike bags and, as Jason said, “bartering with other punk friends for goods and services for [our] panniers” that they half-stumbled their way into starting their own business.

The year was 2008: Martina and Jason were in their mid-twenties and had been dating for a couple years. “I was at work one day,” Jason explains, “and Martina called me and was like ‘I just registered us as a business with the state of Washington!’ ‘Okay cool,’ I said, ‘What did you put down as the name?’ ‘Swift Industries!’”

While the name was official, it would still be a few more years of scrappy tactics before Martina would quite her job at Reload, the iconic messenger-bag brand, and stop “picking up shifts at the crust-punk Vegan cafe where I could make $35/day,” to commit fully to Swift. For Jason, it would be even longer. It’s these nebulous periods where ambition exists between hope and terror, in the wavering balance of bank accounts, and on borrowed time, that remind you that an origin story is never clean, never simple.

Enter: Ilana

Arguably, meeting Ilana is one way to mark the true beginning of Swift the company, as opposed to Swift the DIY project. Today, Ilana’s 12-year tenure marks the longest-running of any employee with the brand. Her current title of Brand Manager is one of many she’s held over the years, and relatively new, as during her first decade with Swift she navigated production and product design alongside Martina.

“I feel like Ilana and I grew up next to each other, sitting at sewing machines,” reflects Martina. After relocating to Seattle from NYC in 2008, Ilana randomly moved in next door to Jason and Martina in the Central District in 2010 (“not, like, the same block, but literally the building next door”). After watching bikes and rolls of fabric (some of which were, likely, the result of the pair’s at-the-time routine pilfering of Filson’s dumpster discards) go in and out of her neighbor’s basement, Ilana felt pretty sure “that there was a sewing studio and bike-bag manufacturing happening.” (To which, Martina self-deprecatingly rebuts, “manufacturing is a very generous term for what was happening in that space.”) In the kind of joint conversation, where friends fill in the missing pieces of each other’s recollections, Ilana and Martina continued the story of how she came to work at Swift:

Ilana: “I must have done some sleuthing and found the etsy store.”
Martina, with astonished amusement: “That’s right, we were on etsy!”

After seeing a backpack on said Swift etsy store—”a beautiful waxed canvas, roll-top, with leather straps and buckles that I now-know were punched by hand”—Ilana approached Martina about doing a work-trade to help her pay for the bag. Luckily, for both parties, Martina agreed.

From there, Ilana kept picking up hours sewing for Martina and Jason until “the work shifted and I jumped out of my other job and fully into Swift.” Following the basement days, Swift had their first official production space in Ballard, which—to borrow Martina’s term—might have been a generous description. “It was very unfinished,” described Ilana, “I don’t even think there was a door on the bathroom… there was also just an open hole in the wall instead of a window behind the toilet so I always wondered if someone outside could just see this perfectly framed butt.”

Still, working alongside Martina and Swift’s first employee, Sonia, Ilana reflects that she “felt incredibly lucky. I didn’t know what I was doing and these other two people—Martina and Sonia—[were] extremely competent and confident, and very cool. I felt excited just to be a part of it. Getting officially hired and moving away from [my other job] really made it feel like a career option. When we moved from the less-finished warehouse space to this more-finished space (with a door and heaters) that felt real, too.”

Alongside the shift to a more polished—and insulated—workspace, Ilana points to Martina, and later Jason, coming on full-time and being able to pay themselves, in addition to her and Sonia, as being a pivotal moment in Swift’s history. She recalls having the thought that, now, “this is sustaining people.”

Simultaneously, Swift was starting to put considerable energy into community organizing around the bike—a value that had always been central to Jason and Martina’s identities but that would later become a major facet of the brand. In Ilana’s retelling, their group rides, overnighters, and other events brought out “this huge community of cyclists in Seattle that I didn’t know existed before.” And while their bags had started from their own utility-meets-touring roots, it was this ever-expanding community that would go on to inform the evolution of their product line down the road.

Product Line Evolution

“We were getting more and more mesmerized with touring and wanting to travel that way but it was just as much an urban moment,” says Martina of Swift’s original product-line inspiration. To fully appreciate the origins and evolution of the bags Swift has made over its 15-year history, it’s important to remember the cycling zeitgeist of the early 2010s; crit racing was peaking, bike messengers were counterculture anti-heros, and gravel events were still largely grassroots. Cyclocross frames were thought to provide ample clearance for drop-bar bikes, and lingering vestiges of the United States’ road racing craze could be seen in handlebar widths and drivetrain ranges. Supple had not yet entered the alt-bike lexicon.

As a result, a traditional front-and-rear four-pannier setup was all but de rigueur for road touring, and it could readily double as a capable commuting setup. Wanting to bridge the urban function of Ortlieb-esque “so-heavy-you could-carry-anything” panniers with the romantic classicism of the randonneuring aesthetic, Martina and Jason developed two pannier models, each available in two sizes: the Roll-Top and Short Stack.

Their iconic Junior Ranger panniers would follow a few years later, in 2014, designed in the lead-up to the inaugural, mass-start Oregon Outback ride. Each sporting 10 liters of capacity, the Junior Rangers might seem plenty roomy by today’s standards but, as Martina pointed out in one conversation, gear in the last 15 years has gotten so much smaller, “I don’t know if we talk enough about the advancements in gear—and even though it is still expensive—the almost-democratization of ultra-light gear that has made it possible for us to be touring so light-and-tight. [Back then] our Therm-a-Rests were gargantuan; our sleeping bags were huge! The bag is just a function of how compressed what you’re carrying is.”

This form-follows-function constraint can also be used to understand the continued prevalence of the “rando box” hardware-supported handlebar bag, in the years before wider drop bars took off. The precursor to the Paloma, Swift’s original rando-box design was created after “some guy from Oregon hollered at us and asked if we could make a randonneuring bag,” said Martina. “And I was like ‘what’s that?’”

The rando box was a double-edged success—bringing in a relative surge of demand for the bootstrapping brand, while also presenting a sizable technical challenge. “We started getting more and more commissions for that bag; which was kind of brutal,” explained Martina. “To this day, it is probably the most complex design we’ve had. We were making every single bag to order, we didn’t have any stock.” To further the point, Jason added that the rando box was one of the first models to go due to its labor-intensive nature.

Aside from a non-trivial amount of luck, it seems like one key to success as a small business is having the capacity to assess your overarching structure, while simultaneously attending to the multitude of day-to-day demands. To be able to tip the scales from being entirely reactive, to being mostly proactive. For Swift, the rando box served as a catalyst for one such proactive shift. “At some point,” reflects Martina, “I was like, ’I don’t think we can hack it, making every single bag start-to-finish.’” She started scheming ways to standardize their process—a word and concept that would become increasingly important—and ultimately decided to experiment with a pre-determined color collection run of bags, “even though we thought the only reason people came to Swift Industries was for a custom bag.” Turns out, the stock bags (“which, we made in like batches of six…” laughs Martina) sold well because they didn’t have the same six-week lead time that customers might have to wait for a custom alternative.

Once they realized that stock bags were a viable companion to their custom program, Swift’s line started to expand. The first bag Ilana remembers learning to make was, adorably, dubbed the Little Dear, a cylindrical, snap-closure mini seat or handlebar bag that can, today, be seen as a precursor to the brand’s current Bandito. The Paloma, a more streamlined version of the rando box, surfaced around 2013 and has continued to be a mainstay. The Denny Blane Fanny Pack, named for Seattle’s now-popular lakeside haunt (“sort of a nudist men’s beach vibe” says Ilana), is an early example of Swift’s continued emphasis on “lifestyle” designs that can now be seen in the Ardea. Still, even after their shift to stock collections and prioritizing efficiency, the brand has some truly unique specimens in their proverbial portfolio.

“Oh yeah—the egg bag!” exclaimed Ilana, “It had a boot and a hammock!”

“It was like an elephant trunk!” laughed Martina.

These were, unsurprisingly, terms I’d never heard used to describe a bike bag. Moments later, out came the souvenir of nostalgia—the Docena. Commissioned by Rob at Ocean Air Cycles, the Docena was intended to be an Open Air Cycles exclusive handlebar bag (though, “of course Blue Lug picked some up, too,” adds Martina) with a niche design purpose: to safely carry a dozen eggs. As Martina fondly explained, “Rob was classic overstuff; [he brought] coffee outside vibes very early on—bring your aeropress, bring your hand grinder!”

From the outside, the Docena looked just like a cube-shaped rando box, with a flap-top. Inside, it was a veritable feat of bike-luggage engineering, with a “trap door” compartment separator (aka, “the hammock”) that kept any items added from the top of the bag suspended from items added via the roll-closure front opening (aka, “the boot”, or “trunk”). As if exhausted just by the memory, Martina sighed then said, “We were hand-drafting every single pattern.”

But like the rando box, the demands of the Docena brought commensurate rewards. Specifically, the Docena v2, which Rob requested come equipped with dual rows of daisy chains on the back for a removable “pocket” attachment. Intrigued by the idea of a modular addition, Martina bargained with Rob that she’d waive the R&D costs for the pocket if Swift could use the concept on other products. Rob agreed to the deal and, today, Swift customers can see the same daisy chain design from the Docena on their Kestrel and Ardea bags; the other half of the modular equation gave rise to their distinctive Sidekick Stem Bag and Rando Pocket.

The final, perhaps most instructive, product case study is the aptly-named Zeitgeist. When the Zeitgeist was first introduced seven years ago it was, as Martina explains, “definitively a saddle bag; it didn’t even occur to us to put it on handlebars. Until someone out there put it on the front.” This shift in the user’s interpretation, and implementation, of the design illustrates how the convergent trends of wider drop bars and soft-mount bags could translate to design feedback, if Swift was open to hearing it. Characteristically, Martina listened.

When it comes to the conversation about bike touring versus bikepacking, Jason and Martina have remained—strategically—neutral. After all, years ago with the first Swift Campout, they (intentionally, or not) sidestepped the semantic tug ‘o war by committing to the term “bikecamping” and their experiential-focused sister company, Swift Adventure Co. (SACo), offers an introduction to Bikecamping class. As Jason, the leader of SACo, said, “We call it bikecamping because, either way you slice it, you’re probably camping—unless you’re credit card touring and staying in hotels, and that’s cool too.” Then, chuckling, “[But] REI is calling it bikepacking, so we can’t do anything about it now.”

Whatever you want to call it, seeing the Zeitgeist strapped on the handlebars exemplified the sea change in how many—and, certainly, most newcomers—were now approaching self-supported, multi-day travel by bike. On the original design for the Zeitgeist—which like many of its peer products in the industry, takes design cues from Carradice bags—Martina said that “the fun part [was] taking those classic designs and applying what has happened with the innovation and modern textiles to a bag that really has its roots in more heritage designs.” And on updating it? “The other WAY cool thing is how our customers have asked us, implicitly, to continue advancing those designs… by taking products in a new direction through their use.” For the Zeitgeist, that meant everything from re-thinking the position of attachment points to optimize integration with handlebars over saddle rails, to adjusting the tilt of the side pockets that weren’t quite at the right angle.

Delicate Moments

“There are these moments at Swift that have felt so delicate.” The way Martina lingers over these last two words makes it sound like she’s handling something precious. Thinking about the defining decisions that have shaped Swift calls to mind those decision-tree charts, or the cerebral thriller Run Lola Run where time keeps rewinding to show how the movie’s outcome might have differed if one, mundane detail was changed by the matter of a few seconds. Weighing the balance of being reactive versus proactive, surfaced in many of the now-turning point moments that Martina went on to describe.

The first such moment came for Swift when it was clear that the company was beginning to outgrow its production space in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. Sitting on the shop’s front stoop, her friend/landlord turned to Martina and pointedly asked “What do you want from Swift?” At the time, Martina said she didn’t have a concrete answer. She knew she wanted the company to grow, but what did that mean exactly? In response to her ambiguous goals, he said, “ You do realize that you’re the only one holding this thing back? Swift can be anything you want it to be, so just think about that and build it.”

Martina was floored but her friend’s insight also provided the nudge she needed to create a clear direction for her business that had, unequivocally, outpaced the parameters of a passion project. When they moved the company to its current downtown location in Seattle’s Pioneer Square/SODO, Martina said, “That was the moment when I knew I couldn’t just be an intelligent maker anymore, I would have to become a business person and get over whatever weird shit was holding me back, and making me skeptical, or averse, or afraid of that title.”

As Martina drilled down on her own, self-imposed, mental blocks to growing the company she found that that “weird shit” included, “Admitting that I wanted money; that has never been easy for me.” How could she square that seemingly material measure with such a values-driven worldview? In retrospect, she said, “In my younger years, I thought that business and capitalism are inherently harmful; if I’m going to start a business, how can I do that in a way that pushes those boundaries? There are many things about that [philosophy] that I hope will always be puzzles and big questions.”

But the Martina of today looks at the paradox of growth, and capitalism, and being a business-owner with a different perspective; “I was 25. I was not thinking about health insurance, or employees with children; I was not thinking about retirement; I was not thinking about chronic health issues that crop up—I was truly in the blissful, naïveté of youth. I had this notion that all business people are used-car salesmen—we’re all just smarmy and out to get our own thing; it’s individualistic and greedy and hoarding. Naively. I just had to do a lot of growing up with those concepts, and define things for myself… Because, a lot of that is modeled; that isn’t just coming out of nowhere. But there’s room for a lot more.”

Relatedly, another “delicate moment” came shortly after, when she decided that she wanted to see Swift bags in REI. As she recalls, “the words ‘selling out’ were brought up a lot, as in ‘are we selling out?’” This, from a pair of founders who were embedded in the no-major–labels punk scene (“What happened to no gods, no masters?” quips Martina) where “selling out” was the worst form of social judgment. Soon, she also found that pursuing a more intentional leadership role meant that she wasn’t sewing everyday and that “didn’t feel very comfortable” either.

Later, and in perhaps the most difficult delicate moment, she and Jason made the decision to partner with a third-party manufacturer, Carry Gear, with a headquarters in Seattle and overseas production. With the clear fetishization of USA-made gear in the outdoor, and especially alt-bike, industry, it’s not hard to imagine the pushback Swift received for this decision. ”Every stage has closed some doors on relationships, and opened others,” said Martina. “Or I might say, closed a few and opened many.”

By late 2022, Jason had decided to put more energy into pursuing the types of outdoor education opportunities that had first motivated him in Prescott, by further developing SACo and working with another local organization. Martina more fully embraced her role as CEO. Still, despite the outward success, the internal tension between growth and values would prove an ongoing process of reconciliation. On day, now at the helm of a company with ten employees, Martina found herself in tears because “we had been talking about retirement benefits for people who have been here the whole time and it still felt so far away. And I was like, this is insane, why are we scaling if it still feels so far away?” She continued, “We looked at where our budget was being spent and we decided we just have to prioritize this and take the measures to move this forward. We were taxing ourselves by not scaling. It’s complicated.”

It’s still complicated. Since working with Carry Gear, Swift has moved most of its production overseas, to Indonesia. However, not all of their SKUs meet the minimum requirements. Those products, and their limited-release collections (like the annual Swift Campout drop, and other one-offs like a recent Blue Lug collab) are all still made in Seattle.

The Current Zeitgeist

Like most every brand in the industry, Swift felt the painful contraction of the post-pandemic bike boom and had to lay off several of its staff members earlier this year (“The hardest thing I’ve ever done,” said Martina.) But, as they recover and look ahead, they hope to stay true to the guiding principles that are the foundation of the brand.

“Exceptional quality,” says Ilana on how she defines the brand’s inner compass. “And, integrity; a general excitement and enthusiasm for the work that we are doing. Ethically, that we are making decisions that feel informed and intelligent. That we are measured in our approach to introducing new products.” On the latter point, the former Lead Designer and now Brand Manager feels that working with Carry Gear—a company with more experience in scaling and access to sophisticated machinery—offers a sort of checks and balances on their design and production decisions.

For Martina, her goals for the future are just as qualitative and they are quantitative. If there’s one part of the brand that she’s not shy about expanding it’s the part of Swift that’s been so effective at “generating culture.” She cites wanting to scale production in tandem with the community that has coalesced around the company since its first group rides. With events like “Swift Social Rides, and Stoked Spoke, and Swift Campout” she hopes to continue to foster “this positive feedback cycle that just grows and grows; you see the community growing and you see the brand growing, and it’s got this wonderful momentum behind it. I really, really want to scale that in a tremendous way.”

If you’re in the area, Swift is throwing a 15-Year Anniversary Bash in Seattle on Thursday November 16, 2023! Find the details and RSVP on their website.

Homepage photo (Jason & Martina): Kae-Lin Wang