Sunday, July 21, 2013

Living more creatively
in the kitchen and beyond
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel July 12, 2013

Rachel Santos makes her classic bucket bags from woven strips
 of upcycled rubber bicycle inner-tubes. Santos defines
 “upcycling” as the process of converting end-of-life products into new, 
valuable products without using lots of energy.

The brilliant writer Michael Pollan, famous for making Americans rethink their relationship to the land and the food they eat, spoke at Santa Cruz High School last month about his new book “Cooked: a natural history of transformation.” There are no recipes in this book about cooking. Rather, Pollan explores the act of cooking at home, because, he writes, it’s “the most important thing an ordinary person can do to help reform the American food system, to make it healthier and more sustainable.”

Pollan told the sold-out Santa Cruz crowd that the average American spends a mere 27 minutes a day on food preparation and another four minutes cleaning up, which is less than half of what his mother (and mine) spent cooking and cleaning up in the 1960s. With Americans watching 34 hours of television a week, and 8 in 10 Americans watching the vast assortment of cooking shows, Pollan suggests that a great many Americans are spending considerably more time watching images of cooking on television than they are cooking themselves.

Of course what Pollan is also suggesting is that living healthier and more sustainably is also dependent upon our willingness to live more creatively. If creativity is a three step process—from concept, to planning, to production—we’ve missed out completely when we merely watch others cook. What’s more, we’ve willingly traded the smell, taste and health benefits of delicious home cooking for a passive bit of entertainment.

So, it’s all the more amazing when you discover people who don’t fit the reality-TV-watching demographic, who spend their time creating things that promote sustainability and self-sufficiency and do it without a recipe before them—who spend time imagining, engineering, and then executing, and who aren’t afraid to learn through trial and error.

Held last month at the School of Visual Arts Theatre
 in New York City, the Independent Handbag Designer
 Awards recognizes and discovers new designer talent
 and creativity across an array of handbag categories. 
Rachel Santos, of Dante Robles Design in Aromas, won
 in the Timberland Best Green Handbag category, for her
 classic bucket bag made from sustainable, recycled materials.
Rachel Santos is one such person. A resident of Aromas, she recently traveled to New York City for the first time in her life, to become a winner in the 7th Annual Independent Handbag Designer Awards. Attended by industry notables, the award ceremony honored winners in six categories, and Santos’s lovely woven bucket bag won the Timberland Best Green Handbag award, which requires the bag be made out of sustainable, recycled or organic materials.

She loves to ask others what they think her shiny black bags are made from, because the usual guess is leather. Folks are surprised when she tells them the leather is actually reclaimed bicycle inner-tubes. Her handbags don’t look, smell or feel like bicycle inner-tubes, because they’ve been utterly transformed.

To win such a prestigious award is all the more amazing when you learn that she began working with rubber as a textile only a year ago. But it seemed to be the perfect fit for a woman with a degree in environmental studies, a 15-year career working in open space preservation, and a family-nurtured talent for crafting. In her line of work especially, she is constantly considering end-of-life (EOL) materials and asking herself how they could be resurrected and given new life.

Besides handbags, Santos also uses the rubber and valves from spent
 inner-tubes to make bracelets.
After briefly working with EOL neoprene wetsuits, she switched to rubber inner-tubes from road and mountain bikes, since they were easier to stretch and weave, and very easy to come by. Every two months she stops by Specialized Bicycle Components in Morgan Hill, who hand over 4 or 5 boxes of spent inner-tubes they’ve collected for her.

“Initially I was just having fun,” she says about her handbag design. Then her husband, who has experience in marketing new products, was impressed with her design, and told her, “I think it has legs,” she remembers. He encouraged her “to go out in front of people and get their feedback.” And in the process, she learned that her design was something extraordinary.

In developing her handbags from scratch, she had to discover ways of working with an unfamiliar material. “You have to get used to the way it moves and feels,” she says. “You have to adapt to the material.” So she learned how to carefully cut open the tubes, wash off the inner coating of talc, allow the rubber smell to off-gas, and cut them into even strips. She tried various cutting methods until her husband developed a rotary cutting system.

With her woodworking skills, she created a loom for weaving panels of inner-tubes. She then invested in a Juki industrial sewing machine with a Teflon pressure foot, for sewing the woven rubber the panels into handbags. “I was experimenting, prototyping,” she says. “The Juki allowed me to do so much more.” She also incorporates other parts from inner-tubes, like the Presta valves, into her handbag designs. Besides her winning bucket bag, she’s created a clutch, a satchel and a cross-body handbag.

Santos would like to develop her inner-tube weaving into a line of clothing, and participate in the Fashion Art runway show in Santa Cruz, but for now she’ll concentrate on working with Timberland to reproducing her handbag for sale in their flagship stores across the county. “The fashion industry has started to reduce their carbon footprint,” says Santos, and she is pleased to be working with the outdoor clothing retailer, Timberland. “They have a consciousness of moving in that direction.” Timberland makes footwear and outerwear from recycled, organic and renewable materials, and even builds their stores in a sustainable way using repurposed and reclaimed materials.

The future looks pretty bright for Santos and her label “Dante Robles Design,” as she scrambles to market her handbags through social media and by making industry connections. “I met quite a few of the leaders of the handbag industry in New York, and some manufacturers,” she says. And “some of the other contestants in the competition want to collaborate with me in the future.” She’s also thrilled that her winning handbag will be featured in the September issue of InStyle Magazine and Bicycling Magazine.

The oak leaf, with its stem pointing upwards, is the perfect symbol for
 the upcycled materials Rachel Santos uses in her handbags.

“Dante Robles” is Latin for “enduring oaks,” and Santos has added an aluminum oak leaf to her bags with an upward-pointing arrow on the stem—the perfect symbol not only for the extended life of the upcycled materials she uses, but also for the upward trajectory of Santos’ career as a handbag maker. “[Winning this competition] has been a great launching pad,” she says.

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