Material Girl

Beverly Cummings, owner of Vermont Vagabond in Hinesburg, proudly calls herself the 'Vermont baglady.'

by K.K. Wilder

Beverly Cummings, owner of Vermont Vagabond in Hinesburg, started designing and making "bags for your stuff" when her son complained that his backpack was wearing out. She got serious in 1988 when her family relocated to the Northeast Kingdom and she needed to find something to do.

A Hinesburg woman who calls herself "baglady" says she grew up in Hoosick Falls, N.Y., the youngest of two brothers and two sisters. "I was very shy when I was young," she says, "a good student." She learned to sew through high school home economics. She also did sewing projects with her pals in her 4-H Club.

As high school went on, Beverly Cummings, the baglady, started to lose her shyness. "The older you get," she says, "the bolder you get." She became a cheerleader and was voted prom queen ("It was a small school," she quips). In 1960, she graduated. "It was just the beginning of computers," Cummings recalls, "and I thought I might get into that field after I graduated."

Instead, she married Bob Cummings at age 17. "We were kids having kids," she says.

After marrying, the future baglady worked outside the home doing office work. "Then, when my oldest son, Bob, had cancer at 15, I wanted to work part-time at home," she says, "so I started home sewing."

Cummings soon began to gain an understanding of comedian George Carlin's sketch about our constantly wanting to own and transport "stuff." Carlin says we all need "stuff," and when there's too much stuff for our living quarters, we rent or buy a storage shed.

Carlin also says that wherever we go school, office, business trip, vacation we seem to want to cart stuff around. So we buy some more stuff to carry it in. The famous American activist Peace Pilgrim, who gave up her home and worldly possessions to walk the country spreading her message of peace, cheated when it came to her stuff. She wore a smock with oversized pockets that could store her important stuff: a pen, notepaper, a toothbrush and a comb. For 25 years, she was a vagabond with a purpose.

Beverly Cummings understands vagabonds. As for her purpose, she calls herself Vermont's own baglady. Her company, Vermont Vagabond Inc., builds what she describes as "durable, functional, good-looking bags for your stuff." Cummings' home-based business produces hand-sewn waist packs and water packs, and travel, sports, business and computer bags. Vermont Vagabond also makes shoulder bags, tote bags and kids' bags. Add accessory bags and packs, all in several colors and variations, and there'll surely be enough items to carry all of anyone's stuff anywhere.

"It all started with my making just one waist pack," Cummings says. She and her family were living in North Bennington at the time, where she worked for K&H Products, a company that makes professional video and audio equipment bags and cases. "I sewed there for owner Bob Howe for 11 years," she says, "and eventually moved up to assistant designer in his company."

One day, Cummings' younger son, Jason, came home from high school and complained that his backpack was wearing out. "I decided to take his pack completely apart," Cummings reports, "improve on the design, and make a new one for him myself. Some time later, Jason asked for a fanny pack. So I again designed and sewed one myself." Soon, people started asking her to make them waist packs of various kinds.

In 1988, Cummings and her family relocated to the Northeast Kingdom where her husband was a construction engineer at the hospital in St. Johnsbury.

"Work in the Kingdom was limited for me, though," Cummings said, "so I started thinking about what I could do. Then I thought of Bob Howe. I realized I'd already learned a trade from him how to make a successful home-based business. I figured if he could do it, so could I." Then, laughing, she says "Goodness, he probably has no idea what a role model he was for me."

Her husband adds, "Bev had worked so hard all those years for another company, then suddenly realized she had a niche product she could make and sell herself: her hand-made bags. She started making them and taking them to craft shows." They sold well. Very well."

Later, their son Todd suggested she sew a bunch of fanny packs in Jamaican colors (red, white and blue stripes) and take them to an upcoming Vermont Reggae Festival. "She did," says Bob. "She made 300 and took them to the festival. We sold all 300 of them!" he exclaims. "They all went, just like that! Fast as popcorn!"

In less than a year, Cummings realized her business was at a point where she could no longer do everything herself. "I thought, 'So, I'll just do like Bob Howe did and hire some home-sewers.'"

It wasn't quite as easy as that. It proved a tough task to let any part of her sewing go. "After all," she explains, "from the beginning, the sewing had been my baby. It was hard to think of anyone else doing my thing, especially when it came to the quality."

Cummings admits to having gone through a few nightmares as she tried out people whose work wasn't up to her precise standards. Luckily, she soon found the Kingdom has many fine home-sewers.

"There's a lot of talent in our state's sewing industry," she says. Some of the better sewers Cummings found also worked for places like Slalom or Bogner. "My current sewers now sew our items from start to finish, so it's no wonder they have a feeling of ownership and pride in what they do. It's not like a production/manufacturing facility where each sewer just sews on pockets and so forth." Her craft booth for shows has a sign on it: "L. L. WHO?"

Orders kept increasing, and in 1990, she and her husband felt the time was right to get serious about the business end of the work. Cummings formally registered her business as Vermont Vagabond Inc., the name she'd used from the start. Her husband left his job to help her promote and grow the business.

"We knew the place to do that was in Chittenden County," she says, "so we moved to Milton and jumped into Vermont Vagabond with both feet." Later, when they saw the need to expand their space, zoning problems came up, so they relocated to Hinesburg.

Bob says, "I stepped out of my corporate world to work with Bev. For three years, I did various jobs: I learned about her business; wrote a business plan; helped get Vagabond computerized; put time into marketing; and went out on the road for an entire summer to do the craft shows and had a lot of fun. Vagabond has such a high-quality product," he says, "I was proud of selling it. And I loved talking to the customers and to other craftspeople at shows."

At the end of the three years, Bob returned to his own business as construction engineer for Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington. Now his days are packed with the hospital's $200 million Renaissance Project, expected to be complete in 2005. He says he still finds time, however, to go to the craft shows now and then. "I love all of it except the packing and unpacking, he says, "and I always take time to look at comparable products."

Meanwhile, his wife works in her 750-square-foot shop over their garage in Hinesburg. There's a big fabric-cutting table; underneath is a rack full of rolled fabric. There's a large glass-top table for cutting materials that can be cut with a knife. "Plastic pieces and foam pieces have to be cut by hand," she says, so a hot cutter sits on a countertop. "Here," she says, "we cut the big rolls of webbing we use for straps."

There's a large tape measure. The hot cutter heats up, melting and cutting at the same time to seal the nylon web. The wall displays all her patterns on racks. "I hang them up with coat hooks," she says. The shop has shelves full of thread, zipper material, labels and Velcro. Another long shelf holds bins of the components for the bags: snaps and buckles, for example.

Barb Collins, one of two full-time home sewers Cummings employs, stitches up a bag at Vermont Vagabond's home base in Hinesburg. Cummings has a list of stitchers around the state she can call on for large orders.

Part of the shop contains Cummings' office with her desk, computer and file cabinets. There's a shipping table where items are packaged, along with a postage meter scale and shipping boxes. "For the most part," Cummings says, "Vagabond is my offspring, but without my family's support, it wouldn't exist. My son Todd, for example, has helped me from the beginning with graphics."

These days, Todd owns Visual Communications. "I work from home, too," he says, "and I free-lance." Before he had his business, however, he helped with the first Vermont Vagabond catalog. "Vagabond's initial brochure," he admits, "was just one color." Laughing, he adds "We actually hand-wrote the text on the pages."

Later, when he was newly graduated from a California art school, Todd started applying his knowledge to help Vermont Vagabond. "Now Vagabond has a full product catalog with all 40-plus items," he says, "and goes to about 12,000 people.

"I still make updates to the catalog and the website, as well as handle Vagabond's identity materials, such as the logo, and most promotional materials." He also does the digital photography for the company's catalog and website.

"I'm so proud of Mom for making her career and for building her own successful business," he says. "Vagabond has quality products, all made in Vermont. It's nice in this global economy to have such items."

The baglady's products have definitely gone global. "We ship all over the place," she says. Still, Cummings goes with the rhythm of her work. "Half of the year, my commute to work is very short. I fill a cup of coffee, then cross my driveway to my quiet studio. There are lots of trees to see through my windows." This is when Cummings gets to do what she calls the best part of her work designing the bags. "Sometimes I review letters from my loyal customers."

One such fan wrote that she took a trip to Africa and her Vermont Vagabond bags traveled on ship, airplane, truck and camel. She took pictures of the bags in each setting. "Two fellows who traveled in Antarctica did the same thing," Cummings says.

Then there's the other six months. "That's the worst, or hardest, half of the work," she says. "Then I'm doing the shows setting my booths up and down, driving the road all over New England, and occasionally to Virginia, Maryland and New York. Of course, once I'm there, it's great."

From a high school girl's sewing lessons in her home economics class, a creative, daring and diligent baglady built a business. "I now make nine different categories of bags and packs," Cummings says, "in eight colors and two-tone combos quite a variety."

George Carlin would agree. He'd probably say, "Way to go, baglady!" •

Originally published in June 2002 Business People-Vermont