Fifty-five days on a cross-country bicycle trip gives a person a lot of time to think. Portland bike courier Dave Stoops thought about his paniers. The bags hanging on either side of his bike’s wheels did the job, he says, but he had a few ideas for improvements.
Back in Portland after that 2006 trip, Stoops found an old sewing machine in a free box. He recalled playing with his mother’s pin cushion as a toddler and sewing a pillow in middle school home economics and took the machine home. Soon, Stoops says, “I was messing around with the sewing machine pretty much every day for hours and hours.”
He made a backpack and used it for several months to commute thirty miles a day, by bike, to his job as a draughtsman for a Clackamas engineering firm. Then, Stoops says, “kind of all at once the thread started to fail on me. I had just used basic cotton thread. I didn’t really know better at that point.” He bought a heavier-duty machine, capable of sewing stronger, multi-strand thread. He moved production from his kitchen table into a spare room at a friend’s house and started calling his operation Black Star Bags.
Stoops’ creations caught on in the bike courier and racing communities in town, as he donated bags as prizes for events. “If you have someone who’s really fast,” he says, “and they’re wearing our gear, that’s gonna create some interest.” When the time came for his next summer trip, riding with seven friends down to San Francisco for the North American Cycle Courier Championships in 2007, he made the whole crew paniers. “I think the last day before the ride I sewed all the way through the night,” Stoops says. “I was definitely tired, those first couple of days, but it worked out.”
Back from San Francisco, Stoops focused on making more bags and moved into the back of an art gallery on Alberta. When the gallery moved, Stoops took over the space, renting parts to other makers on the cheap, out of appreciation for the help he’d gotten from friends as he started out.
Now, in a retail and production space on Hawthorne, Stoops employs three other sewers, a part-time material cutter, and a part-time office manager. Longtime associate Misia Pitkin, who makes biking caps as Double Darn, shares the space. Black Star is branching out from its durable, waterproof paniers, messenger bags, and backpacks to co-branded collaborations with other companies, including grocery totes for the Alberta Coop and accessories for the high-end Portland audio equipment firm ALO.
The Black Star team, Stoops says, has become a second family. “We hang out, we have potlucks,” he says. When there is a particularly thorny design problem, they all “stand in front of the bag and try to work it out together. I couldn’t do this without them. We just have a blast. It seems like it’s hardly work.”