Like many women, I love handbags. They combine usefulness – indeed, essentialness – with all-important style qualities, so it’s little wonder that they are among our most prized possessions.
Handbags are deeply personal possessions too, the keepers of the cogs that turn our daily lives – our cards and money, our phones, our keys, our To Do lists, our diaries, our make-up.
These very special and important qualities of handbags are something that the founders of Northallerton-based Umpie Bags understand well. Sisters Joanna and Ruth Umpleby and their cousin Alison Booth launched the label five years ago. They started with the fabrics because, when Ruth and Alison began to talk about setting up a business, they had plenty of beautiful cloth from their home furnishings projects, plus some vintage fabrics handed down from their parents.
The two began making basic bags,and then Joanna moved back from Spain, where she had been living for six years. Before that, she had been the design director for the Jane Shilton handbag company for 20 years. Which was handy.
The first bags were soft, with jute handles and velcro fastenings, but they soon found that there was a market because women liked the individuality of them, and the fact that they were made in Yorkshire.
Now, as in the beginning, beautiful fabric is the key to each and every Umpie bag (the name, incidentally, comes from a play on the family name and “umping” bags about).
They now source tweeds from Warwick and linen kilims printed in England. All the fabrics are British-made where possible. “But also sometimes you get a fabric and you think, gosh, that’s just what we want. These hunting ones have been really popular,” says Alison as she points to some beautiful shopper style bags made in a hunting scene print.
They tend to use upholstery fabrics, which are hard-wearing. There are a range of styles including doctor’s bag style and carpet bags, totes and shoulder bags, all original and individual, all sizes and shapes, but what strikes most are the fabrics and the sturdy simplicity of the designs. They range from mini wool wrist bags (£25, matching the £59 ponchos that Umpie also stocks), right up to weekender styles and a Gladstone style with frame and leather handles plus magnetic fastening.
On some bags you can choose your handle length – longer and shorter. Many people choose both. There are four basic styles of bag in different sizes, some named after ancestors. Joanna says: “Our maternal grandmother was a seamstress and she was called Mabel. There is the Connie, the Nancy, a Hobo and the Annie shopper.” No, they don’t have an ancestor called Hobo.
The largest and most expensive are the weekenders, which all have different linings, with the most expensive coming in at £135. Prices are kept to an affordable level, and they make around 1,000 bags a year, selling through fairs and through their website. Joanna makes and is in charge of production and design, while Alison does the book-keeping, plus the shows and and marketing with Ruth. There are three also seamstresses making Umpie bags in Northallerton, while Ruth’s eldest son Tom Boomsna, a website builder, created the website, Joanna’s husband Glyn Williams is a photographer and takes all the product and model pictures, and Alison’s daughter Victoria, Ruth’s Sara and Ruth’s younger son George are the models, as Umpie also makes some men’s products and bags.
Umpie takes part in lots of shows and fairs across the country throughout the year including the horse shows at Badminton, Bramham and Burleigh, and this year’s Great Yorkshire Show. Umpie Bags will be taking part in the wonderful Christmas Fair at Ripley Castle, North Yorkshire, December 5-7 (You must go – it’s fabulous, and there are lots of ideas for decorations and really different Christmas gifts). Check out http://www.ripleycastle.co.uk/
Umpie bags can be seen and bought at http://umpie.co.uk/