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Old sails find new life as tote bags

Small company searches across the country for used materials to convert into custom-crafted products

Beth Shissler, left, and Hannah Kubiak tourn old sails into a fashion statement.

Sea Bags, a company housed on the working waterfront of Portland, Maine, has managed to handle rapid growth while avoiding outsourcing.

Beth Shissler, 40, says they are in the business of taking something old and making it new again: worn-out sails are transformed into durable, stylish bags of all sizes that typically run from $95 to $150.
The recycled materials come from many different sources — a small percentage is donated — but much of it is bought from various distributors throughout the United States and the world.
Sea Bags has 17 full- and part-time employees who keep up with supply and demand, according to Shissler. She says the company went from distributing roughly 60 items per year in 2005 to more than 2,000 each month.
“My first concern when I saw our rapid growth was, ‘Oh my God, are we going to have enough sails?’ ” says Shissler.
The problem was solved by hiring Carrie Fletcher, who travels all over the country for supplies.
“She has developed partnerships with companies that have access to used sails and travels as far as the West Coast to get them,” says Shissler. “But we never buy anything new; it has to be used material.”
Shissler says a small percentage of the materials are from individual donors, who get a bag made out of their donated sails as a thank-you.
Because Sea Bags is housed on the waterfront they also do repair work for area commercial fishermen and lobstermen.
“We are worried about the state of the industry and we want to be supportive to the community around us,” says co-owner and founder Hannah Kubiak. “I’ve lived in Maine all my life and the water is a big part of who I am.”
Kubiak began making her bags in 1999 as a fun idea to earn some extra cash, never anticipating the success her product would become.
“It was a very tiny operation, more of a hobby than a business,” says Kubiak, 34. “It was just sitting at the sewing machine with my best friends.”
Kubiak grew up sailing on her father’s 40-foot 1933 Archer Design sailboat in Kennebunkport, Maine. When she was old enough to sail on her own, her family gave her a 13-foot plywood Chickadee sailboat. Her father also owned the Port Canvas Company in Kennebunkport, which sold the tote bags and duffels that gave Kubiak the early inspiration for her products.
“It was a natural way for things to progress,” says Kubiak. “Sometimes it is so hard to cut a sail because it is just so beautiful; the first cut is definitely the deepest. But the bags certainly speak for themselves.”
Kubiak says college was never appealing to her, so she took a three-month intensive course at the Chapman School of Seamanship in Stuart, Fla. In 1999 she decided to go into business making her recycled bags in small batches for customers and small gift shops in the area.
“Whenever I needed money, I would make a bag,” says Kubiak. “I made myself busy enough.”
In 2005 Shissler, also a Maine native, ordered some of Kubiak’s bags for her mother’s seasonal gift shop in Penobscot Bay, Maine. Shissler had been a customer of Sea Bags since 2003 and was looking for a change of careers, so she contacted Kubiak about becoming business partners.
“Beth came in and everything took off,” says Kubiak. “Beth comes from this business-minded background and I’m very artsy, and it’s like the perfect recipe. It felt so natural.”
Shissler says they officially became partners in September 2005 and started getting the word out about the product.
“They sold in my mother’s gift shop, so I knew the appeal for the products,” says Shissler. “Each bag is unique and tells its own story.”
When the products started to become popular, Shissler knew they were going to need more help making the bags, but wanted the production to stay in Maine. They reached out to the community and contacted the Maine Correctional Institute for Women. Through the Maine Department of Correction’s Industries Program, the inmates constructed the bags for the company from kits the company sent weekly.
“I believe that if our sails get a second chance, these women should, too,” says Shissler. “Our relationship with that program has since wrapped up, but we had two years with them that were a glowing success.”
Because fashion trends tend to have a short shelf life, Shissler says they constantly focus on bringing new products to the table while keeping the same standard of quality. In addition to bags of all shapes and sizes, they have a bath mat, a draft dodger and coasters. Kubiak says they will be adding new bags made from the canvas of old schooners for their spring collection. The products will include leather embellishments, all of which are recycled.
“Plus, people really like products that are locally made,” says Shissler. “The fact that we sell nationwide, but still remain good citizens to our community is a big draw.”
For more information, visit www.sea  

Other companies that offer sails a second chance include:
• Reiter8, a company based in Brooklyn, N.Y., makes a variety of totes as well as pillows out of recycled sails.
• Re-Sails based in Newport, R.I., features jackets as well as bags.
• Second Wind Sails, based in Gloucester, Mass., features shower curtains and pillows as well as bags.

This article originally appeared in the February 2009 issue.