On a recent visit to Japan Tomoko and I visited a number of bicycle related craftsmen and shops, including Toei and Grand Bois – posts coming later! First though, in a suburb of Tokyo, Shoichi Watanabe and his Wife Tomoko make the most beautiful bicycle luggage in traditional vintage style, largely based on the products of the French Sologne and Lafuma bags, but with some added detail and innovations. If you want to equip your randonneuse with the most elegant and beautifully finished handlebar bags and panniers, you won’t find any better than the products of Guu Watanabe. As well as their advertised range they will make pretty much anything to special order. At the time of our visit they were making a very complicated canvas and leather briefcase. The quality of Japanese manufactured canvas and vegetable tanned leather is first class.
As well as being great craftspeople, they were very welcoming and a pleasure to talk to. Shoichi San demonstrated to me how he does the leather binding on the edges of their bags…completely freehand, without an edge guide or feeder! Believe me, that is an incredible skill, gained from over 20 years experience. He explained to me how the supplier of his edge finishing leather strips has just closed down, so he is recommissioning an old machine in his workshop to make his own, 8 strips at a time – a very fiddly and time consuming job which he would rather not have to do!
We enjoyed seeing their neat and efficient workshop with lots of beautiful tools and machines, adapted to the purpose of making beautiful luggage. More pictures of their work can be seen on their Flickr pages here. Thank you to Shoichi San and Tomoko San for their time and for the warmth of their welcome, and for my new green canvas handlebar bag!
The word Guu (from the French ‘Goût’) means ‘in good taste’, and is fittingly applied to these fine craftspeople.
It’s always good to have luggage the fits the age and style of the bicycle… In this case the French touring bicycle. Below are examples of small panniers from three French makers, from different periods – Lafuma, Sologne and Berthoud. The Lafuma examples are the earliest, dating from the 1950’s/60’s, whilst the Sologne items were supplied new with an Alex Singer bicycle in 1970 and hardly used. The Berthoud pannier is new. Berthoud bought the Sologne brand many years ago and continues to make a range of their products today, largely to the old patterns, but brought up to date with modern attachments.
There has been much debate elsewhere about the quality of Berthoud items in comparison with the original Sologne pieces, and indeed I would agree that the finest bags pictured here are the Sologne ones, but one has to remember that as well as the problems of finding skilled workers today to make these items, the materials change over the years too. The leather used by Berthoud is not as good as the Sologne bags, whilst the canvas is much the same high quality. The backing boards on the Berthoud bags are also robust, probably better than Sologne. The plastic Rixen and Kaul attachments, which adapt to virtually any rack, are ugly and obtrusive but the latest versions of these work well in practice. Previous R & K fittings had design problems, were fiddly to adjust, and often broke. The point about the Berthoud items is that for the price, they are really a very fine quality item, and are well suited to a stylish modern bicycle. They also age nicely, the canvas fades a bit and they acquire ‘patina’. If you want the exceptional quality it comes at a price – Check out the beautiful items made by Shoichi Watanabe.
Lafuma comes third in my reckoning. Thinner canvas, cheapish quality leather and lightweight rivets and fittings, characterise these offerings. On all of the ones that I’ve seen, the backing boards distort badly and are not waterproof. Rather than the functional spring anchor on the reverse of the Sologne bag, there is a crude leather tie to secure the pannier to the rack – fiddly and not very secure. Nonetheless they look ‘correct’ and function reasonably on a period machine where they are likely to encounter only light use.
In later posts I will take a look at French handlebar bags and early cycling luggage.
Click on photo for large scale detailed image
Here are a few examples of leather saddle covers and other leatherwork that we have produced, mostly for Victorian and Edwardian bicycles. The customer supplies the saddle frame, sometimes with the original broken leather top, and the new saddle cover is hand formed on a custom wooden block, using the finest quality oak-bark tanned leather.
Here is a recent saddle cover that we made for a Crypto Geared front driver:
It included transfering over the original maker’s badge:
Examples of our work can be seen in the Velorama bicycle museum, Nijmegen, Netherlands, and in various private collections.
You must be logged in to post a comment.