Saturday, October 13, 2012

Dill Pickle Bags: a Local Delicacy

Dill Pickle Camera Bag
There once was a girl from West Medford
who could trackstand for hours without effort.
And then in one go,
some bags she would sew,
eating pickles whilst cycling backward...

Dill Pickle bags have a cult status around these parts. "Brevet tested, randonneur approved," the bags are made by fabled long distance cyclist Emily O'Brien. Over the years I'd hear snippets of stories about her, told in hushed tones ("Don't you know she did Paris-Brest-Paris on an old fixed gear bike, subsisting on nothing but pickles and chocolate milk?").

Dill Pickle Gear
Then I met and befriended Emily: the approachable, mischievous creature who I now have the fortune to ride with when she is not off doing things like this. And while everything they say about her is true (well, mostly - her fixed gear bike Archie weighs a mere 30lb, not 60lb as some would tell it!), the popular portrait leaves many things out. For instance, her music career. Her ties to Europe. Her tomato garden, yarn spinning and knitting. Her gloriously warped sense of humor. And, of course, her talent for bicycle-themed limericks. I hope she enjoys the one I composed in her honour (it was tough to find words that rhymed with Medford, but lines ending with Emily or O'Brien proved tougher still, so Medford it was!).

Molly Stark's Dill Pickle
I remember fondly my first visit to Maison du Dill Pickle. The foyer is filled floor to ceiling with all kinds of bikes. New bikes, old bikes, frankenbikes, parts of bikes. There are also many wonderous doohickies, and, of course Dill Pickle bags of various vintages, colour schemes, and states of use.

Dill Pickle Gear
The workshop is in the attic. Two work stations with sewing machines. A table for measuring and cutting. Boxes with cloth and supplies. Rolls of fabric and ribbon everywhere. Patterns and mysterious notes taped to the walls. Iced coffee and popsicles on a hot summer day. 

Dill Pickle Gear
Pickle jars are everywhere. It appears they function as paper weights.

Dill Pickle Gear
As I photograph, Emily starts to make a bag from scratch to show me her process, chatting easily all the while. She draws then cuts out a pattern. Soon she is at the sewing machine. 

Dill Pickle Gear
As I watch her fingers dance just millimeters from the needle, I remember the first - or maybe second - time we met up for a ride. Emily was drinking a smoothie as she serenely navigated her way through a busy intersection. I watched this with horror/awe from a bench across the road. I'd arrived early and was sitting there, eating, with all my things strewn across the bench. Upon reaching me Emily hopped onto the sidewalk and remained on her bike - trackstanding, while chatting, drinking her smoothie and gesticulating, both hands off the handlebars - for what must have been at least 5 minutes while I finished eating, refilled my waterbottle, put my gloves and glasses back on and got ready to go. The way she works reminds me of this: the easy multitasking; the amazing coordination. She works quickly and calmly, and she makes it look easy and natural. 

Dill Pickle Gear
For hours, we talk about design. Function vs form. Desire vs experience. Classic vs modern. We discover there are projects we would like to collaborate on. Camera bags! Handlebar bags! Quick-release briefcases! So many ideas. 

Small Dill Pickle Saddlebag
To start with, I take home a standard small saddlebag to demo and provide feedback. Rummaging through a box of ready-made bags, we find a black and tan one that seems to suit my bike, and I ride away with it - a list already forming in my head of all the changes I'd like to make if I were to get a custom one for myself. Nix the mesh pockets, I'm thinking. Fewer drawcords and loops.

Small Dill Pickle Saddlebag
But after riding with the bag for a few weeks, I no longer want to change anything except the colour. The beauty of the small saddlebag, I realise, is that it maximises carrying capacity while minimising the profile and weight of the bag itself. In that sense, it is such a successful design, such a perfect balance of features (and lack thereof) that I cannot think of a single improvement without making the bag worse in some other sense.

Small Dill Pickle Saddlebag
Made of lightweight, durable cordura, the bag cinches and expands while retaining a narrow, under-the-saddle profile. In its most compact form, it the size of a large saddle wedge. In its expanded form, it offers as much storage capacity as many full-sized saddlebags - without the bulk or the width.

Small Dill Pickle Saddlebag
The main compartment is lined with a waterproof fabric. As someone who has ridden hundreds of miles in the rain (at a time!), Emily considers this feature important. Inside is an optional zippered pocket, with another one on the inside of the top flap.

Small Dill Pickle Saddlebag
The drawcord allows the bag to expand or cinch as necessary.

Small Dill Pickle Saddlebag
Optional reflective loops are designed to carry a mini-pump across the top of the bag. The mesh pockets on the sides and top are optional as well, but the more I used the bag, the more I discovered just how much I liked using them; it was like having extra jersey pockets. Everything that is not water-sensitive can be stored in them, and they are easy to reach into while cycling. On long rides, I found it extremely convenient to stuff the mesh pockets with food: Not only was it easy to access, but the size of my bag diminished over the course of the ride, since the mesh is collapsible and almost weightless. 

Small Dill Pickle Saddlebag
The bag's closure system is simple, quick, light, and replaceable in case of eventual wear or breakage.

Small Dill Pickle Saddlebag
The strap is expandable, with the excess length folded over and held in place by a clip. It took me a bit to learn how to clip back the strap properly, and on my first ride it fell out and drove me nuts rubbing against the rear tire before I realised what it was (what is that sound?). But I did get it eventually.  

Dill Pickle Camera Bag
The attachment system uses cam buckles, making attaching and removing the bag, as well as adjusting its position, very convenient. This is a useful feature for those who take their bag on and off, or switch it from one bike to another frequently, but don't want a permanently installed quick-release system. The bag can be attached either to saddle loops, or to saddle rails - making it compatible with a variety of saddles, including racing saddles.

Small Dill Pickle Saddlebag
At the end of my testing period, I had to admit that while the bag was somewhat more contemporary-looking than what I am normally partial to, its design and functionality suited my needs for a compact and easy to remove roadbike bag pretty much perfectly. As it happened, the bag was also just big enough to swallow my DSLR camera. I had been looking for a minimalist single camera carry system for a while, and this seemed like a good candidate. The only problem was padding. I have a 3-compartment camera insert from Zimbale that fits into wide saddlebags the size of the Carradice Barley and the Zimbale 7L bag. So I suggested Emily make a single-camera insert to fit the Dill Pickle Small Saddlebag. As Emily regularly makes padded inserts for musical instruments, this proved to be an easy task.

Dill Pickle Camera Bag
So now I have my own Dill Pickle bag, which is also the Small Camera Bag prototype. In construction it is more or less identical to the standard Small Saddlebag. For the exterior fabric, I chose olive-green cordura with reflective trim. 

Dill Pickle Camera Bag
Some have pointed out to me that the bag would look more "classic" without the mesh pockets. That may be so, but the mesh pockets are fabulously useful and I couldn't live without them.

Dill Pickle Camera Bag
Besides, since my bike itself is pretty modern I think the aesthetic is appropriate. The proportions work pretty well, too.  

Dill Pickle Camera Bag
For the waterproof interior fabric and the insert I chose gray, which looks almost sky blue next to the olive cordura. 

Dill Pickle Camera Bag
The removable padded camera insert is made out of 3/8" closed cell foam. The flap tucks in for extra security. The zippered compartments inside the lid and bottom of the bag remain free for basic tools. Alternatively, tools can be kept in the mesh pockets if they do not require waterproofing (or wrapped in a plastic bag if they do).

Dill Pickle Camera Bag
The insert is shaped to the inside of the bag and will accommodate a range of "prosumer" grade DSLR cameras with small prime lenses. For example, my Nikon D90 with a 35 or 50mm lens fits with room to spare. Basically, this bag accommodates a scenario that I find myself in frequently: I am going on a fast ride and I want my bike to be unencumbered. But I also want to bring a "real" camera and get some nice shots. This setup will allow me to do just that, with minimal hassle. It won't fit an entire photographer's kit with multiple lenses, and it won't fit a huge zoom lens. But I can choose a small prime lens and I'll be able to get some quality shots without attaching more bag than I need to the bike. 

Dill Pickle Camera Bag
One idea we toyed with when discussing the insert prototype was making an extra compartment for batteries, memory cards and the like. In theory the empty space around the lens leaves room for this. But ultimately we decided against it, because we wanted the standard insert to fit as many differently shaped cameras as possible. That said, custom inserts tailored to specific camera and lens combinations can be made as well - as can slightly larger, or differently shaped camera bags. But the beauty of this particular bag, is that it's the standard, compact small Dill Pickle bag made more versatile still with the addition of a removable insert. As I see it, the prototype insert is ready to go as a standard-production accessory.

Hi-viz Dill Pickle
Dill Pickle bags can come in many shapes, sizes and colours, and Emily is always game for custom orders. Of course as with everything, these bags are not for everyone. If you prefer leather, tweed and brass, there are other manufacturers who are more appropriate. What Dill Pickle bags are known for are their lightweight materials, function-first designs, and aesthetics that are highly customisable within those parameters. There are lots of cordura colours to choose from, as well as trim, ribbon, lining, and closure mechanisms. 

Dill Pickle Gear
The retail prices - starting at $170 for a small saddlebag - are what they have to be, considering the bags are handmade locally. The more affordable mud flaps are a mere $22 a pair. I would try some, but I almost never have fenders on my roadbikes (I know, I know). 

Emily's DIY Multi-Purpose Mount
What I will be trying soon is a new handlebar bag prototype and a couple of other interesting products. Emily lives in the next town over and our similar work schedules allow us to ride, talk and brainstorm together, which can yield interesting results when both parties are bike-obsessed. Who knows what contraptions lie ahead. For those interested, here are some shots of the Dill Pickle workshop, and more shots of the small saddlebags here.

47 comments:

  1. Very interesting product - but, to be honest, I don't know. I am very much not a fan of saddle bags as I do not like to have any weight hanging under the seat - it upsets the bike handling too much and drives me crazy ;) I don't even like a very small tool kit under the seat and prefer instead to use jersey pockets. I have actually modified the quick release on my saddle bag style tool kit to sit on the stays of my rear rack upside down on my commuter bike so that the weight sits lower.

    I wonder if she could or would make a high quality waterproof bag like that which was a trunk bag to sit on top of a rear rack? I am trying to find something like that which is waterproof and has a good quick release system that is not velcro based which would go onto a standard (not topeak) rack. I would want it to be low(ish) profile and hold a camera, snacks, tools, etc for my wandering about all over creation when not in a hurry rides.

    Btw, I too rarely to never put fenders on my road bikes (my cyclocross bike actually since it doubles as a light trail and road bike) since all they do is get in the way and drag a bit. Had I a touring bike, it would have fenders, but I don't, so it doesn't.

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    1. Yes I'm sure Emily can make a trunk bag; email her.

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    2. Agree with you, Chris. So now I use a hydration pack without the bladder to put my things in. Used to put items in my jersey pockets but would create a hole in the pocket soon enough.

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    3. I wouldn't dismiss saddlebags outright. In my experience, it really depends on the bike and on the bag.

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    4. Agree with V.

      Possibly Chris and Anon have newer road bikes with sloping TT and longer Seat Posts?

      My 30th Anniversary Spectrum is designed as many road bikes were in the late '70s with a straight TT, larger frame, so the seat tube and stem are shorter than many modern bikes my size would use.

      I have done two mini-tours with the bike using the largest Carradice. Four days worth of stuff (and my IPad) the ride is fine - neutral. Not as sprightly as no pack, perhaps, but certainly not anything I would term upset.

      On the other hand, much more than a couple of knick knacks in a handle bar bag and steering feels leaden.

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  2. Thank you so much, Velouria, for this wonderful portrait that so sweetly cherishes your friend. I am privileged to have one of Emily's custom small saddlebags, all in black "with everything" as it were, and it is my prized saddlebag, including above my leather ones. And Emily: Thank you for being you-you enrich our world and inspire us.

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  3. you and your drab green :)) for myself i imagine something happy, maybe pink and yellow! anyway, the bags look great and thanks for thinking of those who would rather not buy leather.

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  4. I like the bags and the limerick!

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  5. She has a lot of good ideas and from the pictures her work appears first rate.

    My only problem with cottage industries is I cannot support them all (or if I did would have one of those crazy houses packed with stuff floor to celling).

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  6. That bag looks simply fantastic. I've faced the same problem -- I love to take photos, but I love to ride fast and without a huge amount of baggage. Haven't previously found a bag that would handle a full-bodied Nikon and just hang from the seat. This would be great.

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  7. I am lucky enough to own two of these bags and you're right -- Emily has thought of EVERYTHING. Every single feature is so well thought out, you just know it was developed and executed by someone who has spent A LOT of time on the bike. The quality, fit and form are all miles above any other bag.

    BTW, Emily herself is a delight to do business with. And hey, you can't buy any more local than someone sewing in their own attic. :-)

    In short, if you don't have one, GET ONE! You won't regret it!

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  8. A Brooks saddle on a carbon fiber seatpost?

    The small saddlebag looks almost ideal for a gofast bike which only occasionally has to carry more than repair kit and cleat covers; "almost" because it does lack the beauty and uniform aesthetic of more traditional saddlebags. I've gone back between small bags (Banana, Jandd) and larger (Carradice Junior) for my gofast; this would convert as needed. Good design.

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    1. Not a Brooks saddle, and not a carbon seatpost : )
      Not that there's anything wrong with either.

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    2. Berhtoud, carbon fiber wrap post, and Dill Pickle...Looks good.

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  9. I had the pleasure of riding the latter part of the VT Fall Classic with Emily and got to hear a few of her limericks along the way as well as talk bag making (I'm an aspiring bag maker myself). Thanks for the great profile.

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  10. Pretty cool product! I like the availability of bold colors (or, colours) and how they can be expanded and customized(customised). I don't think they detract from the "classic" look; they enhance with a flash of joie de vivre.

    Maybe I'm missing something at the website, but I don't see any base line specs for capacity in cubic inches for the bags.

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    1. I too was wondering about capacity. Is the large saddlebag similar in size to the Carradice Barley, or is it more like the Nelson?

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    2. I will ask Emily to chime in with specs or add them to the website. Re the large saddlebag, I'd say it is closer to the Barley.

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    3. The large is more or less in between the Barley and the Nelson.
      The main compartment has a capacity of roughly 700 cubic inches when full, but not stuffed, not counting any of the exterior pockets. The side pockets add maybe 60 cubic inches apiece; the zippered rear pocket adds about 145; the top mesh pocket is maybe 120. So if you had the rear zippered pocket, two side pockets, and the top mesh pocket it would total around 1085 cubic inches without stuffing it especially full or extending the flap. I measured it with packing peanuts though, so that's only a rough number. It's about 11.5" wide, 8.5" high, and 7.5" deep.
      The small saddlebag is roughly 7" from front to back, and roughly 6 1/2" from top to bottom. The opening is roughly 6"x6". These are fairly rough measurements too, as it isn't square in any direction.
      That info should be up on the website by the time V. approves this comment. :)

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  11. That is one of the finest, most functional designs i've ever seen! congratulations on a one in a million find!!

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  12. These bags look super functional but a little busy in terms of style. Just my humble opinion. I also get the sense that they would be more appealing to women than to men, but I could very well be wrong, and often am.

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    1. Funny, to me the bags look more masculine than feminine. But that sort of thing is hard to define.

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    2. It is probably just the one picture where the mesh pocket is stuffed with multiple tubes of sunscreen!

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  13. West Medford? I couldn't get any more locally-made unless I made my own stuff. Good to know! Right now I'm happy just running a tiny wedge on my road bike (and giant Ortliebs on everything else), but those are a nice balance -- big enough to take a few extra things without playing tetris with your cell phone and patch kit, small enough you aren't tempted to pack stuff you don't need.

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  14. 57k climbing, snow, 1000k and you're second guessing the design. Shame on you.

    Looks perfect.

    Classic = ti bike, cow saddle, purple tape, red hubs, busy writing on the rims, food wrapers and sunscreen visible in the mesh...think you should've put a Carradice on that. Ye Olde English Audax riders from 1832 would approve.

    Yoke on the bars oot saddle = big bag needs support.
    Sit and spin doesn't matter what the heck you put back there.

    The end.

    Might want to tow a trailer for a medium format cam because Ansel would.

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    1. The big bag in the photo gets support from a very lightweight aluminum fender. Not the best.

      Bag supports end sway. Worth it.

      Nicest support I know is the Karrimor Uplift, originally designed and made by Tonard. There are enough of those still around to supply those of us who know, anyone who made and promoted them more broadly would do the sport a service. The young uplifts are now 40 years old. An uplift is the only way to get big bags on little frames. I have bags I could not use on my 60cm frames without either an uplift or a support that robbed capacity.

      The first Jack Taylor Rough Stuff, arguably the first MTB, was created to carry photo gear into the rough stuff. The tradition lives on.

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    2. JT Rough Stuff - super cool.

      Em has some proper-looking bag support in her 2xcx report.

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  15. Hmm....Wonder if she'll take a trade?

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    1. Since she does this for a living now, I doubt it. Though I suppose no harm in contacting her and asking.

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    2. Hmm....I also make things for a living and what I make is considered too expensive for most who would otherwise love to have one. These folks are writers, artists, craftsmen, etc. and we've developed a very nice alternative economy. I value having someone I respect as an artisan have on of my pieces and it works the other way as well. Lives are enriched and that's what it's all about.

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  16. That is one sick ride report. PBP on fixie seems rather tame in comparison.

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  17. Thanks for such a nice write-up, Velouria! My work room looks so nice in your photos it makes me want to go get back to work! :)

    @Thomas - FWIW, I've had vastly more orders from men than from women, but that is understandable since men greatly outnumber women in long distance cycling. In any case, they can be ordered with less stuff on the outside according to your own taste... that's why it's custom. :)

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  18. Would we be able to get some clear pictures of the mounting straps setup, both on the bag itself and with the bag attached to a bike? The problem I've always had with this style (transverse?) is that they tend to point almost straight down at the ground when mounted to the rails and seat post. I had a Carradice Super C Barley mounted on a Selle An-Atomica (only pushed back mid-rail) and a zero-setback post, and it had the Super C logo on the bag pointing straight down; it was ridiculous. The back of the bag became the bottom, and you had to hope that the contents wouldn't slide out under the lid and drawstring closure. Had the same problem with a Nelson, though not quite as bad.

    Anyway, any help or opinions anyone may have on Dill Pickle bags' performance in this area would be great; I've been thinking about trying one for awhile, but $170 is a steep gamble.

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    1. Without a bag support these bags do tend to point down. I'll try to get some better shots of the straps. The black on black makes it difficult.

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    2. The angle partly depends on the specific geometry of the saddle; the small will point down less if it's attached to the rails than if attached to the bag loops, and less on most "plastic" saddles than on most leather ones, because the rails on the leather ones continue farther toward the back whereas on the plastic ones they end right after the part that's clamp-able by the seatpost. In any case, the drawstring "skirt" scoops in enough that stuff shouldn't fall out, particularly with the lid cinched.

      The large, which has a wider opening, is designed with a profile that keeps the mouth angled upward somewhat more than is typical on bags of this type. Even with a very small, loose load in it going over bumpy roads, I've never had stuff bounce out. Additionally, the side pockets (if you get the Cordura type) are angled toward the front of the bike so that when the bag is hanging, the pockets stay closer to vertical.

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  19. These bags look great. The bag and insert to carry a small toolkit and a DSLR is exactly what I need. I'm one of those who doesn't like racks on my road bikes--my fixie would be okay as it's an old touring frame, but my geared road bike is more aggressive and just handles weird with a noticeable load back there--and also need to be able to easily switch between bikes. Currently I use my Chrome bag with an insert or for really short rides my "camera case": a Finnish surplus gas mask bag that I modified by adding foam padding and changing the strap setup a bit.

    As a recent grad working a service industry job I can't afford one of these now--not that I don't think they're worth the price--but it is definitely on my list should I find a large wad of cash on the ground.

    (BTW Velouria, my Chrome is your old one that I got from one of your occasional sales. It gets used every day and is very happy in its new home. Thanks)

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    1. Oh nice, glad you're enjoying that Chrome bag!

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  20. My Lord what an accomplished rider. On a fixie? I'm in awe.

    I read her account that you link to, and her ride started and ended just a few miles down the road from me in Manassas (and I like it here just fine--not all suburbia is "crappy"). Though I'm not sure if any of our roads intersected or overlapped, much of the terrain sounds and looks like that of the Backroads Century about a month ago. I was actually worried about dogs on that ride, but, oddly, I'm not sure I encountered even one.

    Another great post and on the riding, wow, just a whole 'nother level.

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  21. Replies
    1. Nice bags. I will save it for the day when the cost/flexible income ratio isn't so bad. I like the idea of carrying extra clothes without a rack. The look is fine for me, although all that mesh clutters the nice design, at least in my opinion.

      I read the 508 report, which made me never want to ride a fixed gear bike on a 508 mile ride. I drove the road from Kelso to 29 Palms last year, in reverse and at night and have seen that area in the daytime. It's a pretty impressive ride and reading the story of Emily's ride is amazing. I believe I read a story of her first 508, which was equally thrilling.

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  22. Go Dill Pickle! Immensely respect your experience and insights into producing these great products.

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  23. Glad to see that Emily is getting some hard earned recognition.

    She's not only a World Class Cyclist---She also plays most historical woodwinds (aka Transverse Flute) as well.
    She's incredibly creative and entrepreneurial- as you can see.

    Her bags are Awesome!
    She made a bag for my camera gear at my studio. It has a pocket or sleeve for every item.
    It's durable and lightweight.

    All of us @ Rustic Kitchen wish her the best!

    Jim Cafarelli
    Executive Producer of "The Cooking Show" @ Rustic Kitchen

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  24. A few years ago, after she returned from grad school in Europe, Emily and I rode together across Massachusetts from Boston to Westfield and back as part of a 360K populaire. As you do on rides such as these, we wound up chatting about a bunch of stuff, including her seamstressing and desire to start making more Dill Pickle bags. At the time, I was idly considering getting a front bag, looking at Acorn and Berthoud and the rest of the usual suspects, and so turned to her and said, "hey, can we talk about you making me a front bag?"

    So a few weeks after the ride, she and her boy came over for dinner and we spent an evening drinking wine, talking about rides and what we'd like to see in a real randonneur front bag.

    "I want to be able to flip a cue sheet one handed."

    "... and still be able to read that cue sheet in the middle of a rainy night."

    "... and pack it down for checking it in as luggage when travelling internationally."

    and so it goes. The result is the bag that you saw at that RSC party. I've had it for a little more than a year now and I still love it and it is everything that we talked about making. She's been a great collaborator in that process and while there are a few ways it can be improved, as a prototype it still works really well.

    As a side bonus, I've also found that it's perfectly sized for carrying six bottles of beer, and I don't if Emily specifically designed it that way or if it's just an unconscious design requirement that we both share but never articulated to each other.

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  25. freaking skillz to pay the bills - very nice! Thanks for bringing this craftswoman to my attention.

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  26. I've had my small seat bag for maybe two months and really like it for my long rides. I will be doing my first "official" century in Albuquerque this coming weekend and will be using the bag for snacks and to store the jacket after it warms up. The bike is a Laing Sport that hails from 1975, toe clips and all. Emily's bag is a nice modern complement to my old fashioned ride.
    Theresa in Tucson

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  27. Thanks for bringing Emily and her great bags to my attention! Doing business with her was a pleasure and the bag looks and feels fantastic.

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