After spilling a bottle of ink in her leather backpack as a student at Brown University, Mandana MacPherson set out to create a bag that would be resistant to spills and stains. In 1984, she founded Used Rubber USA, which manufactures handbags and wallets from used inner tubes.
Sea Bags in Portland has been creating handbags and totes from recycled sails since 1999. And last year, in South Portland, 26-year-old Alaina Marie Harris founded her company, Alaina Marie, making clutches, wallets and other items from lobstermen bait bags.
A professional designer, artist and educator, MacPherson, 50, has received several awards for her company, Used Rubber USA, for her innovative work in reclaiming waste inner tube rubber and transforming it into a functional – and fashionable – product.
While their products differ, all three companies have one important detail in common – they’re repurposing unwanted materials into stylish, interesting bags.
MacPherson has studios in both Maine and California, where she manufactures her products from high-quality industrial rubber, including the original inner-tube handbags, wallets and other accessories. In addition to her online business, MacPherson also has a retail store in San Francisco.
All of the inner tubes are reclaimed from the waste stream, and come from a variety of sources, including trucks, bicycles, motorcycles and other vehicles, she said.
“Since I’ve been in Maine I’ve done a lot of work with bicycle inner tubes,” said MacPherson, who lives in Freeport and collects inner tubes from bike shops in Bar Harbor and Brunswick.
“It’s amazing how much rubber they go through,” she said.
In addition to creating her bags, MacPherson also teaches designers and merchandisers an online course in sustainable fashion, she said, and a summer class in industrial design at California College of the Arts.
According to MacPherson, the perception in the 1980s about using reclaimed materials to create other products was different from what it is today because “people thought it was just going to fall apart.”
In the 1990s, “we could wear it proudly and didn’t have to convince people it was durable,” she said.
MacPherson takes pride in the durability of her rubber bags. They can be set on the ground and dragged around without getting ruined, she said.
“They are impervious to weather and water, and you can just sponge them (clean),” she said.
“The whole goal is being able to use this material that is not going to break down,” said MacPherson. “It’s a travesty when it’s in a landfill because it will never go away. The goal is to make a long-lasting product, which adds to the sustainability factor.”
Each bag has its own unique characteristics, MacPherson said. Used Rubber USA uses different types and thicknesses of reclaimed rubber. In addition, her bags tend to become smoother and shinier with time, she said.
“They are all slightly different and have a nice smoothness to them,” she said. “They take on a lovely patina, and wear, from being out in the world.”
Her business, now in its 30th year, continues to be well received, she said.
“This past year I’ve had a lot of customers come back to order other things, feeling compelled to comment that they’ve had their bags for 15 or 20 years,” said MacPherson.
Her bags create conversations between complete strangers, she said, “because they see it and wonder about it. It’s nice to get that message out and to talk about sustainability and materials.”
“It gets people talking about different ways of making and using products. You can change a whole mindset. You can change an industry.
“Products can’t sell just because they are green. They have to be quality products. They have to be stylish,” she said. “Working with recycled materials is not easy, but it’s worth it.”
Originally founded by Hannah Kubiak on Custom House Wharf in Portland, Sea Bags was the first company in the market to design and create all of its products from recycled sails, including a variety of Maine- and nautical-themed bags.
Beth Shissler, from Harpswell, who became co-owner of Sea Bags in 2006, is now the president of the company.
Sea Bags has three locations, including Portland, Freeport and Cape May, N.J. The products are sold online, and in stores all throughout the United States and overseas, said Shissler.
In 2006, “We were doing about 45 bags a year, and last year we did about 55,000,” said Shissler. “We’ve gone from a couple employees to just under 50.”
According to Shissler, Sea Bags practices sustainability by “taking a beautiful old fabric that is no longer sailable and giving it a second life – and keeping it from the landfill.”
Sea Bags, which has been featured in fashion magazines such as Vanity Fair, Vogue and Elle, thrives on local production and green products and practices, said Shissler.
“All of our products are made in Maine,” she said.
“We do everything from totes, to duffel bags, to cosmetic kits to change purses to courier bags. We are fashion forward and keep in touch with the latest fashion trends, but we also think there is beauty in an original sail.”
Every bag is one-of-a-kind because every recycled sail is unique due to its natural markings, said Shissler.
While some bags might have blue stitching, others have grommets and “a beautiful old patina from the ocean,” she said.
Over the years, Shissler said, the smaller Sea Bag accessories, such as coin purses and coasters, came about in the company’s efforts to reduce its own scrap and waste.
“We had smaller pieces of scrap sail that we couldn’t bear to throw away,” said Shissler.
In the last couple of years, Sea Bags has started to dye its sails with eco-friendly non-toxic inks and dyes.
“One of the cornerstones of our company is sustainability. It drives our decision-making,” said Shissler.
A former intern at Sea Bags, Alaina Marie Harris founded Alaina Marie in 2013 and began making and selling her bait-bag clutches from home.
This past summer was her first “real taste” of business, said the 26-year-old who graduated from the University of Southern Maine.
“I got slammed. I got an influx of orders,” said Harris, who has a degree in art and entrepreneurship. Her shop, which opened last winter, is located at 79 Ocean St. in the Knightville neighborhood of South Portland.
Harris was inspired to start her business after she used a real lobstermen bait bag as a cosmetics bag. She added a zipper, screen printed a pattern on it, and ended up transforming it into a practical, stylish clutch, she said.
“I got some compliments on it, made a couple more, set up a website, and the rest is history,” said Harris.
The clutches are handmade from brightly colored marine-grade mesh, and Harris also repurposes the fabric into wallets, wristlets and key chains.
Her products have even caught the attention of Martha Stewart and other major retailers, including Anthropologie and J. Crew.
The Alaina Marie brand is a cross between sustainability and creativity, said Harris. While her clutches are trendy, she said, they are also durable and functional.
In the future, she plans to keep adding other products to her line, including bait-bag pillows and larger tote bags.
“I love taking (recycled) materials and using them in an unexpected way,” said Harris. “I think that’s what makes my product stand out.”
Beth Shissler, president of Sea Bags Inc. in Portland, shows off one of the bags that the company makes from recycled sails. This rubber brief case was made by Freeport artist Mandana MacPherson, founder of Used Rubber USA, which prides itself in creating bags and other items out of reclaimed rubber inner tubes. A variety of nautical-themed Sea Bags can be found at Beachology in Old Orchard Beach. Alaina Marie Harris is the owner and founder of Alaina Marie, which sells clutches and other items handmade by Harris from lobstermen bait bags. Alaina Marie Harris sews together a clutch made from the same marine-grade mesh in lobstermen bait bags.