Western Bound Goods has emerged as a thriving business in Bozeman, Montana.
By Lynn Ascrizzi
Anyone lucky enough to live close to an awesome mountain range must soon feel its lofty vibes rubbing off on their soul. After all, mountains set our sights beyond the mundane, help us to find strength in creative independence and even inspire us to embrace a more upbeat lifestyle.
This seems to be the happy frame of mind enjoyed by artist-craftsperson Jill Johnson, who singlehandedly owns and operates her studio workshop, Western Bound Goods, in the popular mountain town of Bozeman, Montana.
“We’re right in the mountains, close to Yellowstone National Park. The mountains are all around,” she said. There, in her downtown studio, surrounded by the neighboring presence of not one, but six mountain ranges, she designs and handmakes leather-accented, waxed canvas backpacks, crossover, weekender and tote bags, purses, fanny packs and waxed canvas aprons.
“The backpack is the thing I make the most, the thing I like. It is pretty versatile. I use it on a day hike or put my laptop inside when going to the studio. Several companies make waxed canvas backpacks. But people like the design aspect,” she said, of the bold and colorful Pendleton wool fabric accents.
Recently, she has developed smaller items made from Pendleton wool, like valet trays and storage baskets, a line she calls “home goods.”
“The baskets are selling better than valet trays. It’s a different option, available for the home. I think people, in part, follow me because they like Pendleton wool. The wool comes with quality. And, they have Native American inspired patterns.
A Montana native, her light and airy rented studio space is located a little off Main Street, in a brick, repurposed former school building. “I have one of their old black chalk boards in my studio,” Johnson, 42, noted. Now called the Emerson Center for the Arts & Culture, its mission is to build community by promoting the arts and culture. Besides providing artist studios, the center hosts art classes for kids and adults, art exhibits, theatrical performances and small restaurants.
“It takes me less than 10 minutes to get to the studio,” she said, referring to a condo she owns in Bozeman, purchased in 2013.
The area’s exhilarating mountain scenery, its lively shops and museums, yummy restaurant cuisine, breweries, grills and eateries and downtown full of historic homes, make the area an irresistible magnet for people seeking outdoor recreation like hiking, fly-fishing, birdwatching and skiing.
All of the above makes the fast-growing town, population 50,000, a veritable haven for artist-craftspeople…especially if you arrived early, ahead of the burgeoning number of folks now eager to put down stakes in the area.
In short, Johnson is surrounded not only by splendid mountains, but also by a supportive, interactive cultural milieu.
“Western Bound Goods embodies exploration and freedom,” she said, of her brand’s image and appeal. “I’m in the studio a lot. People usually email me if they want to visit or message me. I sell my stuff locally in the retail shop, Heyday, a boutique located on Main Street,” she said.
Her other retailers include Montana Supply, a clothing and accessory store in Big Sky, Montana; Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort in Solvang, California; and The Four Seasons Hotel in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Most of her products, however, are marketed online via her website and through Instagram and a customer email list. The majority of orders are made from the Western side of the country; a small percentage of sales come from the Midwest and East Coast.
“I’m absolutely making a living,” she said emphatically. “I’ve been making a living through the coronavirus. I thought, with COVID-19 coming, I’d see a nosedive in sales. But, because my business had already started making sales online, I began to make masks and tried to keep coming up with new things.
“Typically, I had been making handbags and aprons. I started designing things for the home, like the valet trays. It has done really well. I’m doing better than I did last year! People are home more, so they’re shopping online more.”
However, even though her online sales increased with the COVID crisis, as compared to last year, she had retailers postpone orders due to store closures. And, a local art fair that she typically does in summer was also cancelled.
Johnson prefers to limit custom orders. “I don’t do a lot of that. I’ll do custom color combos, but I don’t have time to do custom work,” she explained. Items ordered usually ship within a week.
Businesses in Bozeman have been steadily opening this past spring in preparation to receive visitors. “We had a 14-day quarantine (for out-of-state travelers). Now, we’re in phase two,” she said, of the transition to the state’s reopening plan.
Johnson’s handbags are crafted mostly of waxed canvas, sourced from Fairfield Textile in Bridgeton, New Jersey. She orders the decorative wool fabric from Pendleton Woolen Mill Store in Portland, Oregon.
“You can’t order from their website, but you can call and order. You can see their fabrics at their website. They add new patterns, like Tucson Aqua,” a design she used in one of her new bag designs. “Pendleton wool is a classic product, like the leather and waxed canvas,” she said.
Leather accents provide attractive reinforcement for the softer handbag materials. She orders leather from The Hide House, based in Napa, California.
“I use different leathers, mostly veg-tanned cowhide, English bridle leather from Wickett & Craig,” she said, of the manufacturer based in Curwensville, Pennsylvania. “It has a thicker, heavier weight, which I use for strappings on the backpacks.”
Johnson also uses latigo, a lighter chrome-and-veg-tanned leather, for the straps that she sews onto her weekender bag and some smaller bags.
Her stitching is done with a Juki DNU-1541S, a single-needle, straight stitch, walking foot industrial sewing machine. “It’s a great machine. A lot of bag makers have it. I can do top stitching on the canvas and linings.”
To attach the heavier English bridle leather, she uses rivets. “I get all my handbag hardware from the Buckleguy,” she said. The retailer, located in Newburyport, Massachusetts, also carries buckles, zippers, threads and more.
Her product prices range from $39, for small home goods, to $325, for a weekender bag. For small handbags, she asks from $129 to $139; larger bags are tagged at around $200. “I try to have a range of prices. I do calculate out the material and time, and I have a price formula.”
Initially, Etsy.com, the well-known e-commerce website for handmade or vintage items and craft supplies, proved to be a great tool for marketing her wares. “Etsy provides you with a customer base. It’s a great starting point,” she said.
Another tip – “Paying people to do professional photos of your work pays off. My business is primarily online. Good photography is worth it. I took a photo class and got a better understanding of photography — of taking professional shots that use models.”
Also, she doesn’t set up her wares at trade shows, but instead has focused on art shows. “Art show customers buy directly — like at an art fair,” she said.
The pandemic, however, changed that strategy, at least for now. “This is the first year that I decided not to travel and to do a lot of art shows. It takes time and energy to set up a traveling booth. A lot of shows got cancelled because of COVID, but that wasn’t the reason why I decided not to go to them. Traveling out of state led to a lot of burnout.”
What’s ahead? Does she plan to keep her shop small, or to expand?
“The home goods are a new product line. I’m trying to figure out more products for that section. And, I want to add more leather to the handbags, like leather bottoms. I’m also playing around with creating color through a hand-dyeing process. I’m always thinking of different materials.” Every year, she adds new handbag styles. “I’m refreshing inventory with new products,” she explained.
To get info on new items, interested browsers can sign up for her e-letter, published once or twice a month.
“It’s a good way to keep in touch with people. I do notice responses. A little sale, or a new Pendleton pattern, does increase sales. As a designer, I want to keep growing and creating new things,” she said.
FROM CLINICAL COUNSELOR TO CREATIVE ENTREPRENEUR
It’s not uncommon for a highly creative artisan to drop their demanding, roller coaster, artistic lifestyle and to opt for the steady salary and likely benefits of a 9-to-5 job.
However, Jill Johnson, owner and operator of Western Bound Goods in Bozeman, Montana, did just the opposite. Before she began to handcraft colorful handbags and other fabric-leather products in her workshop studio, she worked full time as a mental health counselor in Portland, Oregon.
Johnson was raised in Billings, Montana, located about two hours from Bozeman. Her parents live in Billings. Her mom, Betina Johnson, is an artist and works in mixed media. Her dad, John Johnson, retired from a Montana phone company, formerly called U.S. West. Her older sister, Christal, works in retail.
In 2007, Johnson earned a master’s degree in counseling at Portland State University. “I worked and lived in Portland for about 10 years, doing a lot of counseling with kids and young adults, one on one. Portland is a very creative city. Everybody around you seemed like they were doing something creative,” she recalled.
The artistic energy in that city jumpstarted her interest in creating clothes. “I took a couple of classes on making jeans and shirts at what is now called Portland Fashion Institute. And, I took a class on industrial sewing. I thought I would never use that — do industrial sewing.” Later, the know-how she picked up from that course turned out to be providential.
In 2012, she quit her Portland counseling job. “I was ready to leave the Portland position and debated about opening a private practice. I started to think about going back to Montana.” She soon moved back to her home state, and for a while lived with her parents. It took several months to get her Montana counseling license.
In the meantime, she set up a sewing machine in her mom’s finished basement art studio. “I started playing around with sewing and started researching materials. I had space and time to focus.”
She began fabricating small zipper pouches — “little clutches and a couple of crossbody bags, that I still sell, called the Mini Satchel, a smaller, everyday use bag.” Next, she opened up a virtual shop on Etsy.com.
“I started to get some sales and momentum. I was excited about crafting bags. All that wouldn’t have happened, if I didn’t take that little break. I was in my early 30s. When I first started sewing, I didn’t know how to thread a sewing machine. That was about eight years ago.”
For a while, she worked as a counselor in Bozeman and created products for her recent enterprise, Western Bound Goods, on the side. “That released a lot of financial pressure, like how to cover the mortgage. I already had a base. I was making a living with my other job. I had the freedom to make a living with my art form.”
Two years ago, she closed her counseling practice in Bozeman. Since then, she has been working full time with Western Bound Goods.
But she keeps an ace up her sleeve, just in case. “I keep my counseling license active through continuing education courses,” she said.
FOR MORE INFO
Western Bound Goods
Emerson Center for the Arts & Culture
111 South Grand Avenue
Bozeman, MT 59715
Jill Johnson, founder, designer