Happy Monday! This morning I’m excited to introduce Nancy McDonald of Re-Velo Bags and Accessories. She creates some truly fun items out of recycled bicycle inner tubes, so I asked her to tell us a bit about her process. Nancy was kind enough to share some great tips—my favorite is that she washes inner tubes in her washing machine. Clever!
I also just have to point out clever her shop motto: “Turning flat inner tubes into well-rounded accessories.” Love it!
JK: I see on your blog that you ride a bamboo cargo bike—that your boyfriend made! I know this interview is supposed to be about inner tube crafting, but can you please tell me about it? It looks amazing!
NM: I love my bamboo bike! it only weighs 26 lbs. so it’s super light for a cargo bike—or any bike really. It’s wheel-base is 5″ longer than a regular bike so I can put larger panniers to carry all my junk on the back and not hit my heels on the edge of the bags when I pedal. It’s great for commuting or all day riding. It’s very flexy so it’s comfortable for long rides and over bumps. The joints are hemp and epoxy. I’m hoping he’ll make me another bike this summer. You can never have enough!
Tell me a bit about your Etsy shop, Re-Velo. What inspired you to work with inner tubes?
I’ve always enjoyed riding bikes and I met my boyfriend in a bike shop where he was working as the head mechanic. He showed me an inner tube bag made by another company that was sent to a shop where he was working and I thought “I can do better than that.” Plus, the material is free! Bike shops love to give away tubes to someone who can use them. I was also working at a job that used industrial sewing machines so I had access to a machine that could handle sewing rubber. All the stars aligned and I just kinda fell into a business of my own. I had no aspirations before that but it’s been really satisfying owning my own business and working on all the many aspects of it from the designing to the sewing, blogging, photographing the items, shipping, etc.
Do you sew things besides the bags you sell in your Etsy shop? What other crafty outlets do you have?
I’ve sewn clothes all my life. I took fashion design in college. I don’t sew as much as I’d like. I have a couch in my living room that could REALLY use a new outfit…I made potholders for all my friends one Christmas with one of those little metal looms. I handmade Christmas cards one year. I like to cook and garden—anything where I can work with my hands. I was a videographer for many years. I’ve made jewelry, done ceramics, even re-tiled my shower with 4 different tile colors and 2 grout colors.I generally learn enough about something to create what I want, then move on to something else. I’d like to learn to weld. I’ll build my own bamboo bike frame at some point. I have a great teacher for that one!
Do you sell your bags anywhere else besides Etsy?
I did sell on my site for awhile but it was a pain to manage. I sell my stuff at a local bike shop. I could sell a lot more if I had more time to sew and market myself. I have gotten huge orders from our local Bike Week celebration organizers. I really have to gear up for those well in advance. They order 300 to 500 items each year. I also have a Zibbet shop and I’ve just signed up for my first local show. It’s actually an Earth Fair, not a craft show. I’m looking forward to getting some customer interaction and feedback.
I’d love to hear the logistics of how you work with inner tubes. What kind of sewing machine do you use, and why? Do you have a dedicated machine? Any suggestions on needles, thread, etc.?
It’s not easy. There has been a lot of trial and many errors. I have a Rex industrial machine that I use for everything. I got it dirt cheap from a former boss. It can handle the thickness of several layers of rubber easily. I still have to hand turn the wheel on certain parts so the needle won’t break. I use a Teflon foot so the rubber will feed through properly. Even then, it can be a challenge. Some tubes I just give up on because they are so “sticky” despite washing them in my washing machine and then scrubbing them by hand after I cut the pieces. I use regular thread. I’ve used heavy duty thread also on larger items. I use a size 14 needle to make the smallest hole I can. I also use a silicone spray on the machine and needles occasionally. It’s always a challenge to sew rubber though. Every time I sew woven fabric I’m shocked at how EASY it is.
How do you “pin” the inner tubes while you’re working?
I don’t pin anything usually. Most things are really small so there’s no need. I definitely have to make sure everything is matching up constantly as I sew. For larger items where I piece strips together, I always cut way more length than I need so I can cut it down to size after all the pieces are sewn together. I do use binder clips on really large bags but I haven’t sewn anything big in awhile. It’s on my to-do list to make larger bags. I don’t plan on creating any messenger-type bags since so many people do those and at this point unless I feel I have something original to add, I want to stay with my unique designs.
How do you choose and clean your inner tubes?
I try to find the cleanest tubes I can to start with – especially after cutting open a few with green slime in them a few years ago. Not fun. I have a few widths that are requirements. My wallets must be made from tubes of a certain width because the width of the tube is the width of the finished wallet. My purse straps also need to match the D-ring size. But for everything else, I can usually use just about anything. I’m not too fond of 26″ tubes since they tend to curve too much. To clean tubes, I cut off the valves and usually slit the tube on the inner circumference with very sharp scissors. I then use a dry towel to wipe as much of the talc off as I can. I do all this outside. After I get several cut and wiped down, I put them in the washing machine. I wash them on warm with laundry soap. I like to use Zum laundry soap since it’s made locally and smells great but anything is fine. I hang them to dry and then cut them to size as I need them and then scrub them again by hand with a nylon scrub brush and Zum soap.
Last one: Give us a glimpse into you studio. What’s your favorite part about being there? What do you listen to or watch while working?
My studio is WAY too small but I make it work. I live in a 2 bedroom house and one bedroom is my studio. I have an industrial serger in my studio as well as my Rex machine so it’s pretty tight. I do haul my stuff into the living room occasionally when I’m doing some non-sewing parts of making bags so I can see Breaking Bad, Duck Dynasty or the Food Network.
Any time I get in the zone is my favorite part about being in my studio. It’s when everything just flows and I almost don’t have to think about what I’m doing. Everything just comes together with very little effort. It definitely doesn’t happen every time, but the fact that it might is a big part of what keeps me going back.
I listen to podcasts a lot. Fresh Air, This American Life, The Moth. I also listen to 60’s girl groups, Elvis Costello, Dusty Springfield, Burt Bacharach stuff, Tammy Wynette, White Stripes…I was the kid in high school listening to Billie Holiday and watching Marx Brothers movies. My music tastes are all over the board.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks for your interest in my little shop! I feel lucky to be alive and creating at this point in time. The internet has opened up so many opportunities for anyone who wants to make and sell products. I’ve sold items to customers in England, Australia, Italy, and just last week, Estonia! Whoda thunk it?