Why you should care

Your summer beach bag just got a whole lot more interesting.

Where some people see an unusable sail, Susan Hoff sees an accessory.

Hoff designs large tote bags made from old sails and horse tack. While they seem perfectly suited for the beach, the bags are ruggedly trendy enough to be used as an officemate that reminds you of all the active fun you should be having sailing and horseback riding.

Set the mood with some sailing songs, why don’t you?

The bags are a combination of reclaimed materials, including vintage textiles that Hoff often dyes. Sometimes she embellishes them by drawing stripes on the sails, heat setting the design so that the ink stays. The bags can be custom made for size, color or design. Hoff herself travels with the larger bags, patinated grommets twinkling.

The idea for making reclaimed bags came to Hoff after she returned from a sailing expedition. A sailor since age 14, Hoff used to lead Outward Bound sailing expeditions in Maine. She learned to sew in high school in Illinois and studied art in college, so when a friend gave her a large used sail from an old schooner, Hoff cut it up and made bags for herself and a few friends. She used pieces of leather from her childhood horse saddle to form the handles. When the popularity of her bags grew among friends and friends of friends, she started to realize she could make money off of her idea and brought them to some of her favorite stores in Maine to be sold on consignment.

When Hoff moved to New York City to drive a boat on the Hudson River, she decided to simultaneously try launching the Susan Hoff Collection at a trade store in September 2009. Soon after, she settled down in San Francisco, where sailing is a popular pastime.

Now, Hoff’s bags are available online and sell in six stores across California, Colorado and Rhode Island, including West Elm. Hoff’s business supports her full time, and she’s opened a studio and showroom in San Francisco. Hoff is a one-woman shop, producing about five bags weekly while running the business.

The bags range in price from $168 to $320, depending on the size. The craftsmanship of each individualized bag is impressive and labor-intensive.

Each one I get, I’m so inspired by the handiwork and craftsmanship. The history of the sail inspires me.

“I drive around the state collecting materials. It’s an ongoing process,” says Hoff. “There’s so much sailing here and so much wind; people go through sails a lot because they got beat up and worn out.”

She acquires the material by selling sails or trading other materials, making 10 to 20 purses from a given sail. Hoff also accepts donations, but she ends up using only 30 to 50 percent of materials donated since the sails are often too stiff or dirty to work with. The horse tack leather — usually from horse reins or old saddles — is harder to find, so she usually buys it, either locally or from the Midwest.

The 30-year-old designer spends at least one day crafting each bag once she’s cleaned the sails and leather and dyed the textiles. She sews the body of it with a machine and hand stitches the handles on the sail.

“Sail material is so cool,” she says enthusiastically. “Each one I get I’m so inspired by the handiwork and craftsmanship. The history of the sail inspires me.”Hoff says she’s considered using cheaper material that is new and not reclaimed, so that she wouldn’t have to process and clean it, but the material just wouldn’t have the same look or history.

Imagine the stories these sails and reins could tell, if only bags could talk.

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