Sidgl – or sigil – is a mark that represents an object or an idea. My idea is this: to make beautiful, durable and thoughtful multi-functional objects for active people. To make things that help people stay active and to help people become more active. Great design can help heal the world. Making great design that facilitates and excites people to move heals the person.

How did I get here…

At the age of 12, I was put to work by my father, an art professor and book printer – sorting type. Specifically, moving type from a job case into dixie cups, so the cases could be freed for use with other type sorts. the work consisted of jamming my fingers into the old wooden compartments of the cases, wearing out my cuticles and fingertips, and possibly poisoning myself on the accumulated lead dust. I was anchored to the glamor of that job for 3 dollars an hour.

Over the next few years, I Karate Kidded my way through the shop – cleaning the presses after press runs, throwing type, and learning to set type. Performing press runs on an old Chandler Price Platen press. Which – in these modern times, a parent might pause and look at a 13 year old running a piece of machinery that could remove his or her hand and think. My father was so proud I didn’t lose a finger on his watch. Wax on. Wax off.

The first time I set and print my own piece – I was 14 or 15. A lightbulb went off. I made the connection between what I was doing right then, with my hands, and the newspaper sitting on the table next to me. The mundane mystery of how something was printed was all around me. In the cases of type and in the cans of ink. Locked in the bed of a press – I felt as if I had unlocked a secret door. I started to absorb everything I could about page layout and printing. I wanted to know how – I had a great teacher. My father, it turns out, was one of the most influential letterpress printers of the late 20th century. Sure, you might say, as a parent, he poisoned me and left me to work with dangerous machinery (I miss dangerous machinery) – but he was an amazingly gifted book designer.

Through the 12 years I worked for and with him, I raced alongside him as he learned – I absorbed and innovated and made beautiful things. Like fathers and sons, he would kick me out of his workshop one day only to invite me back in the next day to help with a press run. I learned the elaborate language of book design, and I learned it at a time it was being translated into a digital form.

In 1993, I took a job with Aldus Corp. working on a program called PageMaker. I got the job, not because I knew computers, but because I knew type. The thinking at the time was – well – we can teach you about computers – my value-added was specifically my experience as a book designer.

A 3 month contract turned into a 2 year contract turned into a profession. I worked on text composition engines, Roman and Japanese. I worked on xml output and e-book technologies. I spoke at conferences and colleges about the history of book production.

I loved my career – I felt I was doing vital fucking work – but there was this voice in my head – this nagging whisper. I was designing books in my head – I was staring at the world and I was remaking it with my fingertips.

One day, I was at a bus stop, waiting for my then-wife. Watching the people coming and going, I started to notice how they were carrying things: The ill fitting backpacks. The swag bags from tech shows with the crappy buckles and company logos. Shoulders and backs hunched, uncomfortable against the load they hauled. The most interesting thing I noticed, was that everyone was ignoring their discomfort – taking it for granted. To get their stuff from a place to b place just meant it was awkward. Not only were they ignoring their discomfort, they were ignoring the source of that discomfort – the bags they carried. They had rendered these cloth homunculi invisible. I was immediately aware of my own bag situation. The kind and variety of bags I carried – and the discomfort they carried with them. Straps that slid off shoulders, straps that dug into neck muscles. Backpacks that adjusted the load in such a way, the contents would bang against my lower back. To solve the problem meant buying new bags – and the choices were – find something that looks like it was designed in a wind tunnel – a piece of gear meant to be hauled up a mountain – or a bag that was beautiful, but would not be suitable for the wet of Seattle’s weather.

I was itching to solve the problem. A friend reminded me that I had, at the time, posted to Facebook: “These bags are horrible. I want to make my own.”

I wanted a messenger bag. It had to fit these criteria. All of its components had to be sourced from the United States. Not from patriotic need, but because I was curious about manufacturing in this country, which I had been told was gone. This bag had to fit multiple contexts – it had to be able to survive the Seattle rain, then go into a meeting, and it had to look professional – no company logos, shifting straps or look like a hand-me-down from Lance Armstrong. The bag HAD to be durable – the design HAD to be durable. If it was going to last, then the design couldn’t become anachronistic. It had to be striking – I wanted  something that other people would notice. Create a place where someone’s eyes could rest for a few seconds – just those few seconds of “ah”. In a world full of cheaply made and poorly designed and disposable things – I wanted to make the opposite. And it HAD TO BE COMFORTABLE.

I knew from book design and from typography that the eye is an incredibly sensitive tool and that there are ways the eye moves and apprehends visual information. I knew from my years setting type that the better something is designed, the more directly it communicates its message to the beholders brain.

I knew from book design and typography.

But I didn’t know from bag design or sewing. So I started from the most naive place I could.

Looking at a blank page – I had my list of criteria – how then do I translate that to a template. I drew a rectangle. More specifically, I started with a length – 20 inches was good – that seemed like a nice, vital number. I divided that by 1.618 to get the height – the golden ratio. I broke the rectangle up into proportional components and angles  – I made shapes. Like mapping out the flow of text across I page, I mapped the component pieces into a whole. Gradually, a bag took shape. It had things! Pockets! Buckles! I drew detailed schematics and I wrote out all the measurements. And then I took these plans to a contract sewing company and asked them to make me this bag.

I wish I had kept the prototype they made for me. It was like Arthur Dent’s cup of tea for Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – It was almost exactly unlike what I had drawn.  There was no life to it. As they handed me the prototype, at first I did not recognize it – I might have scowled. I took it home. I glared at it. A week later, I went out and bought a sewing machine. I swore I wouldn’t learn how to sew for this project – but the only way I was going to translate the bag that was in my head to something I could get someone else to manufacture, I had to make a rough copy of it.

I started with a muslin mock up, but it was just a shell. It didn’t have any of the vital components – the pockets and zips and flaps and snaps. The mockup didn’t feel like the vision I had in my head. It was approximating my ambition, but it wasn’t true to it. I wanted to feel the weight of it. How it hung on the body was essential. How comfortable it was and how stable it hung on a shoulder was critical.

I started sourcing fabric – I found a mill in New Jersey – the last mill making wax-impregnated cotton canvas in the US- mostly for the government. Their process is not to coat the fabric after it has been woven, but to actually incorporate the wax in the weaving process – consequently, the colors are more vital, and the fabric is more durably water-resistant. I tried a bunch of different types of webbing and was frustrated with what I found – it was either too shiny or too thin, or too – not right. Then I remembered seeing heavy-duty webbing used to hold down loads on big rigs. And goddam I love the google. I found it. And I bought it. And it was good. I found the buckles at an aviation surplus store.

As the reality of my design took shape, as I made prototype after prototype. Sometimes stopping after a long day of sewing, only to find I had sewn the whole bag wrong-side out, I would go outside and bellow at the heavens. But I kept going. I would jettison one idea for a more pragmatic idea as the reality of the construction became apparent. I would use the prototypes, finding out where it was lacking or what features were neat but I wasn’t using, and I would redesign and resew.

Over time, I have adjusted the shoulder straps, making them more like wings – the bags wrap around, from shoulder to hip, spreading the weight across the back, taking the dead weight off the trapezius. The friction in the design keeps the bag from slipping while on the go. I have removed velcro closures and replaced them with zippers. A more quiet choice certainly, but also, a more pragmatic one in terms of structure – a zipper has more flex than a strip of velcro. I have removed and added pockets in different permutations, and I have moved from a home sewing machine to an industrial model. Anything to increase the durability and stability of what I am making.

What I learned all those years ago as a book designer was this: the end goal is not the book itself. The end goal is the process of learning how to do something . The book, or in my case the bags, are an artifact of that process. A flag placed along my path showing me what I have learned and where I need to go.

Sidgl. Or Sigil. A mark representing an object or an idea. This is my revolution. You are most welcome to join.

–Ben Trissel

About Ben Trissel

Ben is the Founder of Sidgl, 4th generation craftsman and designer that believes in thoughtful design, sustainable manufacturing and functional beauty. Sidgl makes handcrafted bags that are designed to look good, feel good and above all function well.

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I am constantly in pursuit of my 3-goals for sidgl -- better design, greater sustainability and working with a community of like-minded individuals.  Join me as I explore this fashion revolution. --Ben


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