Local products in the bag

Vancouver’s Last U.S. Bag Co. finds niche selling accessories

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In the late 1990s, as millions of manufacturing jobs were being slashed in favor of cheaper labor overseas, Will Macia and his colleagues at a U.S.-made accessories company sat around a conference table in Portland. Someone, according to Macia, remarked: “Gosh, we are rapidly becoming the last U.S. bag company.”

In 2001, when the corporation reorganized, the moniker took hold and Macia became president and co-owner of Vancouver-based Last U.S. Bag Company.

“It’s a conversation starter,” he said, with a laugh.

The jobs landscape has changed significantly since the joke that led to Macia’s company name. Of course, a lot of manufacturing is still outsourced, but a new wave of locally produced goods is emerging here, and Macia’s company, despite its name, is far from the last one standing. Macia welcomes the increased competition, which he said is good for business.

In fact, Last U.S. Bag Company has joined with other local accessories manufacturers to help recruit a new workforce.

Accessories are a different industry from apparel, a long-suffering U.S. manufacturing sector. In 1990, about 902,000 Americans were employed in apparel manufacturing, but just 151,800 jobs were left in 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

From sketching a design to stocking retail shelves, apparel requires a fast turnaround because it’s seasonal, with new product lines coming out twice a year. And with customers coming in a wide range of shapes and sizes, it’s tricky to sew clothing to fit just right.

All of this adds up to risk for clothing manufacturers, which intensifies the pressure to keep production costs as low as possible.

Accessories manufacturers, Macia said, face less overall risk. And his company has stayed afloat in part by finding its own niche and by staying nimble enough to churn out small production runs.

Quilters’ bags

Last U.S. Bag has a signature line of luggage for quilters, marketed under the retail label “Blue Fig.” At first glance, the bags look like carry-on bags typically used for air travel, but they unzip to reveal padded storage for sewing machines and organizational systems for sewing accessories. Small bags start at about $30 on Blue Fig’s website and can cost up to $250 for sets of wheeled bags that carry sewing machines and notions.

“We actually started as a company that built carriers for sewing machines,” Macia said.

Walk into almost any independent sewing store in the country and you’ll likely find the Blue Fig label, which is dominant among its category. Still, the product line is a small one.

“It’s not something that every household needs, unfortunately,” Macia said.

To grow, the label has expanded its offerings to include coordinating zippered cases and pouches that can store anything from sewing needles to toiletries.

In an apparent contradiction to the parent company’s name, many Many Blue Fig products bear the label “Made in China.” Cost and availability of components make it imperative to keep some manufacturing overseas.

Almost 15 years ago, Blue Fig products were being pushed out of the market by lower-priced competition, Macia said. At the time, a set of coordinating Blue Figs bags cost about $250 wholesale, or $500 retail. The company was still making its products in the U.S. but had pared down its staff to just one-and-a-half full-time employees.

Today, certain components of the Blue Fig products — wheeled handsets, similar to those on rollaboard suitcases, for example — aren’t made anywhere in the U.S., according to Macia.

By moving much of Blue Fig’s manufacturing overseas, Macia said, the company was able to cut the price of its bags in half. All of the products are still designed in Vancouver. And the design process includes quite a bit of manufacturing, to create prototypes and perfect the final patterns.

Today, the company has ramped up to 20 employees, with new hires expected in the coming year.

Finding niches

The company works with several sewing machine manufacturers to develop accessory lines specific to their machines.

“We do full product development,” Macia said. “So that means starting with a needs analysis for the market itself … developing prototypes and testing them … getting feedback and then helping them come to market.”

These days, quilting products comprise just a portion of the Last U.S. Bag Company’s business. Last U.S. Bag Company performs product development for others as well. For example, the company recently partnered with Portland-based Danner to develop a high-end men’s accessory line. The leather and canvas bags were designed and manufactured in Vancouver.

The company regularly produces promotional products — backpacks with a company’s logo on them, for example, or a set of rain covers used for the Major League Soccer championship.

Last U.S. Bag also manufactures accessories for electrical companies and other industries with safety rating requirements. Collapsible canvas buckets, for example, store tools for utility workers. These items are produced in Vancouver, where quality assurance is high enough to guarantee that the stitching won’t fail when a worker totes his tool bag atop a wind turbine or oil rig.

“You couldn’t manufacture these products in China to meet the necessary safety ratings,” Macia said.

Macia and his colleagues attend trade shows several times a year to drum up new business. As a small company with manufacturing equipment and skilled employees, it can retool quickly for short-term orders. Under a recent contract, Macia said, his company produced custom reusable packaging for Boeing, which frequently ships aeronautical parts from a factory in Auburn to the assembly line in Everett.

“These types of products,” he said, holding a sewn plastic case with Velcro enclosures, “can save millions of dollars a year (in disposable shipping materials) for Boeing.”

Last month, Last U.S. Bag Company consolidated its offices into one larger space in Vancouver. Macia said he expects to hire two or three more employees in 2016, including one designer and additional production staff.

Other manufacturers

Last U.S. Bag Company isn’t the lone sign of a healthy manufacturing business this side of the Pacific Ocean. There are about 13,400 manufacturing jobs in Clark County now, according to Scott Bailey, regional economist for the Washington Employment Security Department. That’s about 600 more jobs than existed two years ago, and 1,200 more than four years ago.

Still, Bailey said, there are slightly fewer manufacturing jobs than in 2007, before the recession, and many less than in the early 1990s. Toward the end of that decade, there was a nationwide mass exodus of manufacturing, mostly to China.

Bailey said that in one or two years, the U.S. went from 17 million manufacturing jobs to 13 million.

“If you look back 20 years before that, we had only lost about a million (jobs),” Bailey said.

Bailey said his agency doesn’t track statistics for markets as specific as accessory manufacturing.

But Macia said he sees signs that the niche is growing.

“Right now, I’m seeing two to five new companies coming out of (the Portland area) each year that are seeing some success,” Macia said.

‘Maker movement’

Macia attributes this growth to the “maker movement,” epitomized by the millenials who brew their own beer, make their own furniture or take up knitting.

“Consumers want a product that is a little different, that has a story behind it,” Macia said. That has led to renewed interest in “products that were made locally, with skill and with care,” he added.

Portland has become a hub for this renewed interest in craft. And when local hipsters have a great idea for a new accessory but aren’t sure how to produce it for the marketplace, they turn to established companies like Last U.S. Bag. Macia said his company has partnered with several local startups to manufacture their designs.

Last U.S. Bag has also designed and produced its own line of vintage-inspired urban luggage. The brand name, Company 944, is a reference to a Civilian Conservation Corps camp that was funded as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Camp 944 was located near Carson, where part of Last U.S. Bag was housed until its recent consolidation.

One downside to the manufacturing business in general is that the workforce has dwindled. Macia’s is one of a dozen local sewing companies that have joined together in the last year to help train workers in industrial sewing. The collective recently secured a grant from the state of Oregon and hired a full-time instructor, with the hopes of someday partnering with a local community college.

As students in the program rotate through apprenticeships with each member company, they gain exposure to different careers — shoe-making, upholstery, heavy industry equipment covers and, in the case of Last U.S. Bag Company, accessories.

“When people think of sewing, they think of sweatshops,” Macia said. “But that’s just not the case here in the U.S.”

In 2014, the average annual wage in manufacturing in Clark County was about $55,000, compared with $46,000 for all industries, said Bailey, the state economist.

“It’s interesting and difficult to predict where this whole ‘makers movement’ is going,” Bailey added. “It could be like craft beer, where it really grows to where it eats into the market share, but who knows.”