Editor's note: Missoula has long been a hub for artists. From paintings and poetry to jewelry and sculpture, individuals have lent their creative spark to make something new. But there are another set of creators in Missoula, craftsmen who head into a workshop instead of a studio to hammer, shape and sweat out resilient, durable handmade goods. This is the first in a series of stories about some of Missoula’s Makers.
Each of the bags Joe Goertzen makes start the same way.
First, the leather craftsman rolls a sheet of leather on a large work table. Using plastic patterns, he hand cuts the shapes that will form each bag, then brings the pieces to another table where he hammers in the rivets that hold the strap clasps that keep the bag closed.
After clipping off the ends of the metal pins, Goertzen sits down at an industrial sewing machine to stitch the bag together, adding the zippered insert and metal rings for the shoulder strap.
“I like to think people can take it folfing one day, then get on a plane and walk into a boardroom in Manhattan with it the next day,” Goertzen said.
After hammering in more copper fasteners to attach the strap, Goertzen finishes every bag by making sure it bears the mark of his custom-forged steel stamp, a holdover tradition from the saddle makers who first taught him the basics of leather working.
Start to finish, the bag took him less than a half an hour to build.
“This whole process, you just figure it out as you make 100 of them,” he said.
Goertzen grew up in Kentucky, where he went to school as a fine arts major, training in classical painting technique. In the early 2000s, he came to Missoula as part of an exchange program, and loved the town so much he moved here after college.
After coming to Missoula, Goertzen decided to try to turn his hobby of altering clothing and gear into a career.
“I’d buy things from old Army surplus stores. I’d get stuff at garage sales that was cool and vintage looking, and change the pockets up or make it different to work better for me,” he said.
Initially, Goertzen was looking to find a bigger gear company to work for so he could learn the trade. On the side, he began experimenting with leather, buying a handful tools to help him develop his skills.
By 2008, his own side work was progressing to the point that finding a bigger company to work with faded into the background, and starting his own business, Goertzen Adventure Equipment, became front and center.
“I started talking to saddle makers in the beginning. Having them show me how to do things, sewing and tack stuff. I was using an old hand crank sewing machine and just had to learn everything,” he said.
By 2010, he was making bags full-time.
Goertzen’s workspace is in his partially-finished basement in Missoula. He’s used to the unusual office space. Until he and his wife bought their current house two years ago, the workshop was crammed into a smaller basement in their rental home.
That’s not to say everything is happening downstairs. Goertzen has contracted out some of the work to other people. A woman in Potomac sews the zippered canvas pockets that fit in each bag, and several other people do the final assembly on his fly fishing lanyards.
None of these people work out of his house, and Goertzen said even alone, he’s starting to outgrow the space.
By next year, he wants a more dedicated workshop and showroom to call his own, and even bring in a full-time employee so he can get back to concentrating on new gear.
“It’s the repetition. I love designing new bags, but that’s less of my day anymore,” he said.
The amount of time it takes him to make each bag varies based on its size and complexity. If he has all the supplies for his smallest bags, which he said are the right size for carrying books for birdwatching and are also popular as women’s purses, he can make a batch of up to 10 in a day.
Goertzen’s own outdoors lifestyle influences his bag design. He recently got a new dog, which he said has him thinking about making a new high-end line of bags for upland bird hunting.
“I’ll try to make some this season, hand them out to friends to see what works,” he said.
Goertzen found his first success making gear for fly fisherman. Being based in Missoula gave him credit with a community that sees the town as a fly fishing mecca.
“I’m a small fish in the purse and bag pond, but in the fly fishing community I’m not so small,” he said.
During the past several years, the niche demographic gear for hunters and fly fisherman has been overtaken in popularity by the more general use leather shoulder bags. That’s what makes up most of Goertzen’s business now.
As his business grows, he said out-of-state and wholesale accounts have been areas he’s seen the most expansion, doubling or tripling each in the last four years. He now has almost 20 outlets around the Northwest, Alaska, Georgia and Ohio selling his bags.
When he was first starting out, he bought leather from Hide and Sole in Missoula. Now to keep up with demand, he’s importing large rolls from out of state.
Goertzen said he doesn’t spend time wondering what would have happened if he had found a bigger company to work for rather than going at it on his own.
“I would have learned quicker, but creatively there’s no comparison with starting my own company. Black Diamond can compete with me in almost every part of my company except I can have an idea today and ship it out to customer in a matter of weeks,” he said.
The start of the school year in Missoula is always a busy time for Goertzen, then again during the holidays. But with the Internet, he said there really aren’t any slow times, as orders come in from across the country and around the world.
“It’s let one guy in a basement be able to become an international company. That’s the best feeling, being out fishing, look at my phone and see an order came in,” he said.
Another rewarding part of his job, Goertzen said, is walking around Missoula and seeing people with his bags slung over their shoulders.
“I can see that they still look great, make sure that they are holding up even after years of use. Missoula is like my test bed,” he said.
To find Goertzen Adventure Equipment’s gear online, visit www.leatherandcanvas.com.