Meet Your Maker

The Founder of Moop Bags on Making It in Pittsburgh

April 06,2015

The Founder of Moop Bags on Making It in Pittsburgh / Mark Vevle

In the city of steel and manufacturing, it’s fitting that one of the most locally celebrated makers is known for her tough-as-nails, utilitarian canvas bags. Wendy Downs, founder and designer of Moop, crafts backpacks, messenger bags, clutches, and more right out of her Pittsburgh studio. A proponent of made in America, she is personally involved in every design, material selection, and stitch detail, resulting in a quality utilitarian product that holds up to repeated use.

As Moop enters its eighth year of production, we caught up with Wendy to discuss what it means to grow the business and scale her production while maintaining the integrity of the product. (But also: Amish donuts!)

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Photo courtesy of Wendy Downs

Tell me about Moop, what you enjoy about your business, and what you’re currently working on.

I started Moop in 2007 and moved the business from Massachusetts to Pittsburgh in 2009 to be closer to family and reap the benefits of an affordable city with deep manufacturing roots. I love being a maker and owning my own business because, while it has the same challenges as any other job, I have a personal hand in its trajectory. There's a lot of personal growth that comes from owning your own business, and I feel fortunate that it allows me to make so many connections with other creative entrepreneurs.

Up next for Moop in 2015 is big change: I’m forging a manufacturing partnership with Spooltown (run by a team of talented women in Portland, OR). I’ve been talking a lot about it on my blog. It’s a huge transition for me because up until now I’ve had total control and built everything by hand. But business has been good, and for business to grow, this is a necessary step. I’m mindful of the labor behind every bag and believe that by being transparent about my change in the manufacturing process, I’m adding to the dialogue about what it means to be a maker. There’s also an added perk that by growing my small business, I’m growing other small businesses and supporting like-minded, independent American manufacturers who work hard doing what they love.

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Photo courtesy of Wendy Downs

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Photo courtesy of Wendy Downs

Who are a few creative people or entrepreneurs that inspire you?

I like to surround myself with people who make things, build things, write things or work towards making the world a better place. A few of my favorites are Tugboat Printshop, Reiko Yamamoto, and Scott Bricker.

I really love the printmaking work of my fellow Pittsburgh friends of Tugboat Printshop. They hand carve wood blocks and print on a large press in their home studio. Their work is so detailed and beautiful; you should definitely check them out. They have open studios most weekends of the year and are available for visits by appointment.

Reiko Yamamoto makes the most beautiful handcrafted ceramics. My favorite dishes were made by her. They’re minimal, elegant and beautiful. She’s also available for studio visits, or you can shop for her work at one my favorite Lawrenceville shops, Mid-Atlantic Mercantile.

My friend Scott Bricker has been working to make Pittsburgh a safer place for bicycles. He founded Bike Pittsburgh and has since built it into a bicycle advocacy organization that is making real, positive change for bikers in our town of crazy, winding brick streets. Plus, they throw the best party in town every August. He’s also been a big part of bringing a bike share to Pittsburgh so, this summer, when the weather is perfect, you’ll be able to rent a bike and safely ride it all over town.

Where do you go, or what do you do when you need creative inspiration for a new project?

I love to ride my bike on one of Pittsburgh’s rail trails or kayak in nearby Lake Arthur (about 45 mins north of Pittsburgh). Both activities give me an opportunity to focus on the natural landscape of western Pennsylvania and let me leave the distractions of my day-to-day responsibilities behind.

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Photo by Jon Dawson

What souvenir/gift would you recommend visitors take back with them from Pittsburgh?

A screen print you make yourself in the basement of The Andy Warhol Museum! You can learn how to screen print by printing one of Andy Warhol’s iconic images on paper, a t-shirt, or a tote bag. It’s definitely worth it to take the trip through the museum plus you get to make a Warhol of your very own.

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The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, entrance, © Abby Warhola

What place or event best captures the spirit of Pittsburgh for you?

I think it might be Pittsburgh’s Polar Plunge. Pittsburgh is full of a bunch of weirdos and many of them go and jump in the icy frozen Allegheny River on New Year's Day. I think you get a good cross section of Pittsburghers new and old at that event. It takes equal amounts optimism, hard headedness, and resilience to do that—all traits of Pittsburgh at large.

Do you have a favorite day trip out of the city?

For a country drive, head up Route 19 North (taking time to stop at all of the antique stores along the way), all the way past McConnells Mill. Keep going for a while, and when you get right around Grove City, look for a hand-painted sign on your left that just says “Donuts.” If you follow it (and you should), you’ll turn down a long, long gravel driveway and end up in the front of a house with an Amish family selling the most incredible Amish donuts. Bring cash (and yes, your eyes will be bigger than your belly) but those donuts are like none other!

Check out the rest of Wendy's top picks for where to go in Pittsburgh, or go statewide by viewing the full Pennsylvania guide.

The Founder of Moop Bags on Making It in Pittsburgh / Mark Vevle


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