Randi Jo Fabrications: Small Trailer, Big Heart
Nestled on the banks of the Umpqua River is the rural town of Elkton, Oregon, home to Randi Jo Fabrications. Specializing in the production of high-quality soft goods, the family-run business is dedicated to the creation of utilitarian products that everyone can enjoy. Find out more about how they got started, why they love waxed canvas so much, where the business is headed, and see an exclusive photoset from their heartwarming little workspace…
When I asked Randi, the face of Randi Jo Fabrications (RJF), how she got into sewing, she quickly replied, “It’s in my blood.” Growing up in the small town of Elkton, Oregon, Randi began sewing at the ripe age of nine years old alongside her mother and grandma. From costumes to wedding dresses, Randi developed her skills and an attention to detail that can still be seen in what she makes today. Randi Jo Fabrications creates high-quality soft goods with a focus on function and purpose, and is best known for their waxed canvas Bartender stem bags, riding caps, and aprons.
Today, Randi works alongside her husband Eric, with help from their two children, to create some of the most attractive, yet unmistakably functional cycling soft goods we’ve seen. The Randi Jo Wool Flip-Up Cap also happened to be part of last year’s Bikepacking Gear That Lasts gift guide. Emily and I spent a night, and the following morning, at their home and shop to learn more about the company, the people behind it, and the products they make. Yes, I was easily persuaded by talk of a local Mexican food truck and freshly baked scones in the morning, but it’s hard to feel anything but all warm and fuzzy after experiencing Randi and Eric’s genuine nature and great hospitality.
As part of my visit, I asked them some questions about the business and their philosophy. Here’s what they had to say…
What’s the story behind RJF?
The first sparks of the business were really back in college in 2003. Eric and I met at The Evergreen State College, where we were working on the same theatre project. He was documenting it and I was making the costumes for it. I rode my bike everywhere instead of driving, and I got him back into cycling. We would ride bikes and when it was raining outside we’d geek out on the Rivendell’s publication, The Rivendell Reader, together, reading through a backlog of 30 or so issues. We were being steeped in steel, canvas, and wool. A year later, after graduating from college, we rode with my dad across the country along Adventure Cycling’s Northern Tier Route. I made us some knickers and caps for that trip. Along the way, being in the saddle for eight to twelve hours per day, we started talking about what worked and what didn’t with the pants (like don’t use linen for touring cycling knickers, as we had holes forming in the seat of the pants). We started to wish we had smaller bags closer to our hands and thought about what might work, etc.
We finished the trip after 71 days and got some odd jobs like felting wool curtains that would be part of a Cirque Du Soleil performance, and making a bear costume for Nordstrom. Eventually, we moved to California, and I had a bike built by Rick Hunter of Hunter Cycles. It was exciting, but felt weird to have someone making something so cool for me, so Eric talked me into making Rick a pair of knickers. Rick liked them and later asked me to make some caps for his biz, so I made some for him and some more for a booth at a bike swap in San Francisco, then I started selling knickers off our Burley flatbed trailer at cyclocross races and things just kept build momentum, slowly but surely.
We moved back to Oregon and opened a small bike shop / sewing shop in my hometown of Elkton called Rainy Peak Cyclery, then moved that to Cottage Grove. We would close the shop here and there and travel to bike swaps and frame builder shows up and down the West Coast to set up a booth. One day in Fairfax, Rivendell was there and Mark Abele came by the booth and we started talking wools caps. I made them a batch, then another and another, and it really helped us get our name out there. In 2009 we had our son, Beck, and by 2010 with a baby, bike shop, and a sewing shop we decided to sell the shop and take our chances sewing full time. We moved back to Elkton and have run Randi Jo Fab from our house since 2011.
You mentioned your family has lived in Elkton for six generations. What kind of role has family played in the company?
When we moved back to Elkton in 2006, my dad encouraged us to open a bike shop in a vacant building in downtown Elkton. He has been into bikes for a while and has requested a few products that are now in our current lineup. He designed the first version of the MUT, and my dad and mom are the namesake of our Jeff n’ Joan’s bag. My family is also filled with self-employed entrepreneurs and it has always been in my head that owning your own business was the way to go, especially if you want to live in a small town! I learned how to sew from my mom and my grandma. In my teens I would cycle over to my Grandma’s house to hang out, watch Martha Stewart, and craft. My mom helped me read patterns, break sewing rules, and take on challenges.
Why waxed canvas?
I was drawn to it after spending a lot of time with my nose in Rivendell readers. I just love the look and feel of natural fibers. Waxed canvas ages well and can be renewed with a fresh coat of wax. You can’t refresh the coating on synthetic fabrics. When they lose their water resistant coating, that’s it.
Customers love you for your classic, utilitarian style. Why is it important for you to choose this over current bikepacking bag trends?
We like to keep things looking clean; no big logos, no over-designed, unnecessary do-dads. Functionality is our main goal, but it has to look like something we’d want on our own bikes. Why does everything have to be black in the bikepacking world?
How do you come up with new product ideas?
Mostly out of necessity. We ride and talk about what we could use on our bikes. Folks ask us to make panniers, but honestly, who can beat the classic Ortleib? Ours are 14 years old and still going strong. We don’t feel like we need to reinvent the wheel just to have new products come out all the time. A quick example of improving upon a classic design is our cycling caps. We use high quality fabrics and offer them in four different sizes and two different brim widths. We want a cap that you can wear all day without getting a headache, and one you can wear off the bike without looking like a super geek. We just make stuff that we want to wear and use.
What are you working on at the moment? What’s coming up?
We have been working on a handlebar-mounted camera bag off and on for almost 5 years. We’re feeling good about 2019. I’d really like to put some more time into the kids’ line. There isn’t a whole lot out there specifically for kids. We’re talking easily accessible open-top bags with mesh bottoms. And something like that for the big kids, too. The coffee cart was a thing for a minute, but we haven’t made it for a few years. Some new stuff is coming, and some variations of products we’ve made before. We’re always looking at new materials for our current products as well, still natural fibers for the most part. It’s a slow process, what with us only being two people doing 10 different jobs.
Can we expect any big changes coming up?
Nah, just slow and steady. Our son has some interest in sewing, so maybe in a few years we’ll have a bit more help. If there are any qualified sewers that want to move to tiny Elkton give us a call! In a couple of years we’re hoping to move into a bigger space.
Tell us a bit about the Elkton Bike Station.
Eric kept most of the tools when we sold the bike shop. The house we moved into, owned by friends of the family, had a 110-year-old grain storage barn, it had been used as a pottery studio in the 70s. My dad fixed it up, Eric cleaned it out, and he runs a repair shop out of it. The town is small, 180 in within the city limits, but about 1,000 or so in the general area, so there are a few repairs a month and some used bike sales, but mostly it’s a community service – rural bicycle advocacy! There are tons of roads to ride in the area, and plenty off the highways, mostly gravel roads and log roads, so we try to encourage people to get out and ride.
What kind of cycling do you and Eric enjoy? How about the kids?
We like to stick to low-traffic or off-road routes. Fire roads, gravel. We pick the kids up from school every day on bikes. The kids like the same, really. They have fat bikes, so we’ve been taking them out to the family ranch to ride around. Eastern Oregon is one of our favorite places to ride with the whole family. Lots of gravel roads, very little traffic, and lots of wildlife to look for.
Any tips for bikepacking with children?
Lots of breaks, lots of snacks. And audio books!
What bikes is your family currently riding?
It depends on what kind of riding we’re doing, as we have a pretty varied stable. The triple tandem gets a lot of action, as does the Hurley tandem and my Karate Monkey with the Weehoo trailer. The kids each have fat bikes (Framed and Specialized), our daughter has a 20” Early Rider with the cutest suspension fork. We’re working on getting our son a new bike – dipping between a Rivendell Clem Smith and a Surly Bridge Club. We also use our super sweet Hunter Cycles cargo bike when we have lots of packages to take to the post office.
What’s going on in Elkton, Oregon, these days?
The wine business is thriving. The K-12 school has improved so much in the last six years, and I think more young families are moving here. The Elkton Community Education Center is an amazing resource. They have a native plant park, an amazing garden, a replica of Fort Umpqua, a library, and an incredible youth employment program. Also we have a taco truck, so we pretty much have all of life’s necessities!
Any parting words you’d like to share?
We’re happy to be doing what we’re doing. Most of our inspiration has come from folks who have braved their own path, like Grant Petersen of Rivendell, Rick Hunter, Paul Components, and even musicians like Ani DiFranco and Fugazi who didn’t like the terms of the established record companies. These people started small and worked toward sustaining themselves, which has been our goal. No big factories in our future, just what we need to keep going and have enough time to nurture our relationships with our kids and other loved ones, listen to some music, and take plenty of bike rides.
The cycling community that we’ve interacted with over the years, whether it be face-to-face or through online connections, have been wonderful with their support of our endeavor. There have been countless times where we received orders and wondered how in the world people had found us. We’ve always valued people’s trust with doing our best to make a product that people feel good about purchasing, most often from a photograph. One of our biggest motivations to keep going is the support from our fellow cyclists. Obviously, without orders there’d be no need for us, so we are humbled by every order we get, which is why we always include a handwritten note. Hopefully we can keep improving, if for no other reason than to give folks something useful that they feel fine having spent their money on.
Thanks to Randi and Eric for putting us up for the night, and for the generous hospitality. Stay tuned for more information on products from Randi Jo Fabrications soon. Also, the taco truck in Elkton is worth a visit!
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