Building Bags With Hold Fast Custom by Will Holman

In 1853, the Mt. Vernon Mill Company built Mill Number 2 at the corner of Chestnut Avenue and the Falls Turnpike (now Falls Road). Powered by the flow of the Jones Falls, the Mt. Vernon complex produced cotton duck continuously until 1972, when production was shut down in the face of increasing overseas competition. Mill Number 2, along with Number 3, limped along as storage buildings for the next fifteen years. In 1987, they were renovated into the Mill Centre, a complex of studios, galleries, and professional offices that kicked off a development boomlet that has brought us Clipper Mill, Meadow Mill, Union Mill, and Mill Number 1.

In the midst of all these conversions – stout old factories turned into high-end restaurants and high-ceilinged apartments – a young couple is bringing textile work back to the Jones Falls Valley. Hold Fast Custom was founded by Jeremiah Jones, 36, and Cecilia Grimm, 37, (along with business partner Robert Hall) in Brooklyn in 2009. Their first product was a bombproof toe strap for pedals on fixed-gear bikes.

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“I was a daily cyclist, I rode my bike to work, and I was perpetually breaking toe clips. Turn of the century technology,” said Jones. Most fixies lack brakes, and require the rider to pull up on the pedals in order to stop, which puts great strain on the clips. “Even the really good leather ones were a hundred and five dollars a pair. And they would just wear out. There was a need for durable foot retention for pedals,” added Grimm.

They worked out of the closet in their apartment for the first eight months, prototyping a heavy-duty nylon strap with Velcro adjustment. Jones did the design and testing; Grimm worked on the marketing and website. The fixie and freestyle biking market is a tight-knit community, and the Hold Fast FRS (Foot Retention System) took off quickly.

“It was very blogosphere-run, just word of mouth. It was a big trend in Japan for awhile,” Grimm said, laughing. In order to scale out of their apartment, they contracted work out to a parachute-manufacturing company in New York. “We did pretty well that first year. We were in the black within the first two months,” said Jones. After a few months, they attended a trade show called Interbike, opening up a wholesale business. As sales climbed, they wanted more control over their product and couldn’t afford to grow in the Brooklyn real estate market. So, at the beginning of 2010, they moved to Baltimore, near where Jones had grown up.

Things moved quickly. Hold Fast started out on the first floor of the Meadow Mill building, working out of a tiny shop for three years. At the beginning of 2014, they moved up the road to Mill Centre, doubling their footprint and hiring more workers.

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“The strap side of the business now just takes care of itself,” says Grimm, attributing plateauing sales to market saturation. In order to fill their sewers’ time, Jones and Grimm began expanding their product line. Hold Fast Custom offers design, prototyping, and manufacturing under one roof for start-up brands or established companies looking to do small production runs.

“It’s a very process-driven system,” Jones says. “You have to figure out how the physical puzzle goes together [and how to] make a hundred of them go together in an optimal amount of time.” Jones and Grimm not only end up designing the bags, but the patterns and the jigs and the process to make the bags at scale.

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A new bag brand, Treason Toting Company, found Hold Fast through a small-manufacturers network called Maker’s Row. “They brought us a sample they had made, outlining the problems they were having. Over about six months, the first bag kind of came to a conclusion about how it was going to be made,” Jones said. “We’re always looking for the path of least resistance from paper to finished product.” The first products launched this summer, and Treason has been making the rounds locally with a Creative Morning talk and hustling nationally with appearances at several trade shows.

But some design talent has been found closer to home. “Nikki [Hiza], our production manager, is working on shoes,” says Jones. “Jarrell [Sankey], one of our newest sewers, he makes hats.” Grimm and Jones let employees use the company machines to make their own experiments, and work with them to iterate new designs. Sankey has been making enough to sell, and Sixteen Tons has been stocking them at their shop on the Avenue in Hampden.

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“It’s about a change in the social economy,” Jones says. The model, a sort of informal co-op, shares benefits both ways. Employees have equity in the process, new products work their way to market, and everyone learns to sew faster with fewer mistakes.

Alongside the design-build service, Hold Fast Custom has been producing small runs of one-off products for events. Right now, they are prototyping out the core products and figuring out how to make them efficiently so they can offer a straightforward pricing structure. Quick turnaround, solid construction, and a local, Made-In-America pedigree are their competitive advantage in the world of Alibaba and Amazon. Eventually, Grimm wants to do this through a web interface so “our designs can be customizable for other people. From tool bags to hats to aprons.” Examples hang around the workroom, draped over the time clock and pinned above the computer.

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Howl, a pet supply store on the Chestnut Avenue, has been early customer. Their logo is printed on blank pieces at a small silkscreen shop around the corner and brought to Hold Fast for assembly. Seams are stitched once, reinforced with webbing, then topped off with a rim and handles. The bag gets turned inside out, pressed and stacked – all inside of 15 minutes. As I watched the assembly of a tote, nobody broke a sweat. Low music came from a stereo in the corner, and the crew chatted as the machines clattered through cloth. Even with the demands of running a business, and looming Christmas production surges, Grimm and Jones were full of even more plans.

“[We want] to educate people in the arts of commercial sewing. It’s a dying art,” says Jones. “The people who know how to do it are reaching retirement or have jobs already. We want to find the people that are like us, that work here, that love to make things for that simple pleasure, just building stuff. It’s a gratifying job.”

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Hold Fast Cutom has now officially changed the name of their business to SewLab USA. To find out more, head to their website here.

Author Will Holman is a writer, designer, and project coordinator for the Baltimore Arts Realty Company. His first book, Guerilla Furniture Design, is out from Storey Publishing in March, 2015. Follow him:  @objectguerilla