Behind the counter at Duluth's Frost River

Frost River makes packs out of high quality materials in their shop in West Duluth and sells it to retailers across the country. They specialize in canoe packs, but their reputation has enabled them to expand into products ranging from shoulder packs, luggage, briefcases, to hunting and fishing accessories. Last week a Lake Voice reporter was taken through the detailed process of creating one of their handmade bags from scratch. Mark Bartell is a craftsman at Frost River, overseeing the construction of 50-100 bags daily. All Frost River packs are made by hand, but before they can be sewn together the requisite parts must be assembled. Their bags use a wax-infused cotton material made in New Jersey that comes in rolls 56 inches across and must be cut into specific sections and pieces depending upon which bag is being created.

Frost River used to do all this cutting by hand but the machine does not make mistakes and computer software minimizes wasted materials. "The point of the machine is the yield we get out of the material," said Bartell. "Any rectangular [cut] we get mid 90%, circular, 80-85%." The percentage refers to utilization of the raw wax-infused cotton. The old hand-cut method achieved rates of only 70%. Here is a video of their cutting machine in action:

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Each bag requires a host of accessory materials like leather straps, snaphoooks, brass hardware, buckles, D-rings, O-rings, and zippers. The parts are sourced from the company's headquartered in the United States, and, though Frost River does not make them, Bartell puts just as much thought into selecting materials as he does into designing bags. "A lotta people ask us why we don't use a brass zipper," he said. "Well, the teeth break off. That's the reason. And [Frost River's zipper] adds a little bit of water resistance too, since it's coiled so tight."

Sewer lady

All these inputs--enough to create one bag--are placed into a grey plastic bin and carried upstairs, where about a dozen sewers use the parts to sew together a finished product. "They're a temperamental bunch," Bartell said. But they're our bread and butter so you have to try to be as nice as humanly possible to them."

After an initial assembly process, the bags are turned inside out and a high temperature melding device is used to melt the wax and seal the packs in critical areas around zippers and straps. The process is called 'turning and burning.' The inside-out bags are given to the sewers for final stitching and other small finishing touches.

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The assembly is handled by sewers and a few other dedicated craftsmen. Since the purchase of the automated cutting board, Bartell spends most of his time overseeing construction or perfecting existing pack designs or creating new ones. The automated process has saved him so much time that he can devote his entire day to the designing process, something he now does entirely on the computer. Before computer aided designing he created a new bag design by hand-made prototypes, a process that often required many attempts before a working model was perfected. The computer software has changed all that, though, and now Bartell designs everything using software program called acu-rest. "Now more often than not I can nail [a design] with the first prototype...that never would have happened by hand."

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