April 26, 2018

Bartackers and Poison Oak with Garrett Kautz of Strawfoot

In a detached garage on the west side of the west coastal town of Santa Cruz lies a veritable oasis of craft and hobby. Created by Garrett Kautz, the 350-sqft garage is stuffed like a paper bag packed by a 20-year veteran of the local grocer's union. Every square foot is utilized to house bicycles (each custom and handmade a few miles down the road), motorcycles (a KTM and a Grom), rolls upon rolls of fabric (from waxed canvas to Cordura), a small army of sewing machines (Do you Juki?) and a library of sewing patterns.

It's here—between bike rides, camp trips, and father duties—that Garrett, along with his friend Vince, brings to life the products offered under the moniker Strawfoot.

The brand is a realization of a need to create. Some people just can't help it; there's a visceral need to roll up the sleeves and make from scratch. This is Garrett in a nutshell. Driven to design from the requirements in his life, whether surfboard covers, cycling bags, or campervan accessories—initial Strawfoot products are most often prototyped simply because it was easier (but also better) to build than to find in the market.

Walking the tightrope of fatherhood, business owner, and west coast lifestyle, he also happens to be the friendliest dude in the state of California. We recently hung out in his studio for a few hours and caught up over a pint:

Q & A

Strawfoot. What is it and what do you make? What’s the name Strawfoot about?

Strawfoot is a small sewing operation and brand. We make lifestyle bags, cycling accessories, and campervan stuff. It’s just my friend Vince and I, sewing in a 350 sq ft detached garage behind my house in Santa Cruz. The name came from a song from a Colorado-based alt-country band called 16 Horsepower. They played dark and weird gospel country. I love that shit. I used it as a login name for years, so it seemed appropriate, but it’s probably a terrible name for a brand.

How did Strawfoot get started?

Everything we make stems from a personal need for a product. I learned to sew because my wife and I needed surfboard bags and then over the course of about a year it turned into a side business. It’s been eight years now, and a lot has changed since then, but I still enjoy what I do. I’m pretty sure my wife still thinks I don’t have a real job...

You use some pretty burly materials like leather and waxed canvas. How and where did you learn to sew?

I bought a used walking foot sewing machine in 2010 and would buy heaps of Sunbrella scrap fabric from an awning shop. I would piece it together for surfboard covers and then began buying army tarps at the flea market so I could make totes and messenger bags. I had sewn with my mom and grandmother, but I had no business operating an industrial machine back then. Luckily, we have a friendly sewing machine repair guy who was patient with my questions and gave me a really hard time. Frank still sharpens my shears and continues to make fun of me.

You've made quite a few products over the years from surfboard bag to socks and caps to camper van window covers. How has the product changed over the years and what's next for Strawfoot?

Since it was never meant to be a full-on business, I’ve kinda just let the products reflect the things that we’re passionate about. It started with heavy canvas and leather bags, then cycling bags, athletic socks, a few t-shirts, a bunch of custom stuff for clients and now we mainly focus in the insulated window covers for Sprinter and Transit vans. We built out a campervan for our family and needed window covers so after a few months of spending way too much time working on patterns, we offered them for sale. Two years later, it’s pretty much all we sell. If I look back at the course the brand has taken, it seems cohesive to me, but definitely not completely planned. I wouldn’t recommend our approach, but I’m grateful it has worked so far for us.

What’s the hardest part of running your own business?

Before having kids, I would have said it was difficult to stay focused on the work because I was distracted by riding bikes and surfing with my wife. Now we have two daughters, and I have a hard time responding to my emails. Balancing work and family life is a real struggle these days.

What's your favorite sewing project to date? What’s the one thing you hope to never sew again?

Many years ago we made mini-bar bags for a hotel in San Francisco. It was the first really big order we had ever done and a product that was largely designed by someone else. I still look back and am proud of what we made and how many we cranked out of our old shop. Something I hate making? I would be happy to never make a backpack again. I’m not sure why, but they have always been my least favorite bag to make.

If not sewing, what do you think you would be doing?

I thought I would be farming, to be honest. I grew up on a farm and got a degree in Agribusiness. I always wanted to learn a craft and use my hands but got jaded by the organic ag scene in California. If I could have gone back to school, I think I would have wanted to get a post-graduate degree in Agricultural trade policy or economics that focused on food policy. I had a really influential professor at Cal Poly that got me fired up on trade and economics.

What’s your favorite tool in the studio?

The Juki bartacker—it’s programmable and electronic and so nice. I love the simplicity and nostalgia of the old sewing machines, but the new electronic machines are great. I hated on the new Chinese machines for years, but they’re pretty reliable and efficient now.

What's up with Santa Cruz? Why is Santa Cruz home?

My wife isn’t technically from Santa Cruz, but she spent a good portion of her life here, so it’s where we ended up. There are definitely weird things about the town, and it’s expensive, so that sucks, but the beach and the redwoods are both within a mile from our house. I’m still not sure how anyone can afford to live here, but it’s an incredible place. It’s taken me a while to fully appreciate what is here.

What's the story behind the poison oak hats/patches/stickers?

If you ride bikes in the mountains here, it’s one of the main things you deal with. Poison oak is everywhere here. So we decided to embrace it and make patches and stickers.

Bikes! They seem to be a pretty big part of your life? With two daughters and owning your business are you getting enough rides in?

I grew up riding BMX and motocross, but don’t get to ride much now. Luckily, my wife is a nurse and works an alternating schedule. I’m home with the girls a few days per week, but they’re young, so it’s a critical time to be here. It’s difficult for sure, but I couldn’t work an office job and not be home with them.

What's a day-in-the-life of Garrett Kautz look like?

On a productive day when my wife is home to watch our youngest, I’m up at 5 and head to the garage to work until our daughter Olive gets up at 7. I’ll sometimes ride her to preschool on the cargo bike, work until I pick her up at 1, and back to the garage until 5:30. After dinner and putting the girls to bed, I’ll catch a few innings of the Giants game and I’m out by 10. If my wife is working...it’s the same except I only work when our youngest naps...so, not much gets done.

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