Umpie Bags - handcrafted handbags from a family firm in Northallerton

PUBLISHED: 00:19 13 August 2013

Two of the founders of North Yorkshire based Umpie Bags, seated from left, Alison Booth and cousin Joanna Umpleby, with models with a selection of hand-made bags from their range

Two of the founders of North Yorkshire based Umpie Bags, seated from left, Alison Booth and cousin Joanna Umpleby, with models with a selection of hand-made bags from their range

Copyright - Doug Jackson Photography

Three North Yorkshire women tell Jo Haywood why they've got bags of style

Ruth Umpleby was a bit bored. While most of us would have reached for the remote control, a glossy magazine or the biscuit tin (or perhaps all three in quick succession), she decided to have a bash at making a bag. She’d been doing a soft furnishings course with her cousin Alison Booth, so she had some fabric and thread to hand. The end result was, in her own opinion, a bit rough and ready, but she was still undeniably pleased with what she had managed to produce.

Alison was also impressed and the duo set about making more bags in the hope that someone might buy them. And someone did. Lots of someones in fact.

‘We were initially a bit embarrassed and unsure of what people would make of them,’ said Alison. ‘We made Ruth’s daughter man the stall at our first show in case people hated them. But they didn’t; they were really rather taken with them.’

It was at this point that Ruth’s sister Joanna, former design director of luxury handbag company Jane Shilton, returned to the family’s home town of Northallerton to run a B&B after four years in Spain. She immediately saw the potential in her sister and cousin’s endeavours.

‘I’d wanted us to work together on something and this was the perfect fit,’ she said. ‘We grew up together, we were friends and we socialised together; it seemed the obvious next move to work together.’

And so the Umpie brand was born, so-called because of the Umpleby family name and because ‘our bags are great for ‘umping things about in’.

They started by raiding their own attics for fabric finds and making every bag themselves from scratch. Now, however, they buy small quantities of fabric wholesale, aiming to create no more than six to 10 bags per pattern, and employ a small army of Northallerton women who work from home to create up to 1,000 bags each year.

‘The ladies who work with us seem to enjoy the creative process and the fact that they can fit their work around their family,’ said Joanna. ‘They all also carry our bags around with them, so they’re walking advertisements.’

Umpie bags have a very defined look. Ruth, Alison and Joanna describe them as ‘very English, slightly chintzy and floral and, occasionally, a little tweedy’. But they are by no means stuck in a style rut. The collection is constantly growing and evolving in a bid to appeal to an ever-widening market.

‘We’ve got ourselves quite a following now,’ said Ruth. ‘People are on to their second, third or fourth bag. Although we do have customers who bought one of our first bags and are so attached to it they won’t buy another for fear of upsetting it.’

And the fan base is not exclusively Yorkshire-bound either. There are now Umpie fans in London, America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

‘It’s very important to us as a Yorkshire family that our bags are made in the county and are recognisable as a Yorkshire brand,’ said Alison. ‘But people from all over the place are starting to buy them. We can often trace an overseas sale back to a bag that a customer took on holiday and caught someone’s eye.’

The trio have now expanded their range into sarongs, ponchos (perfect for festivals and beach barbecues), belts and scarves and have roped in various family members to model their products, design their website and take publicity shots.

Business is undoubtedly booming, but they’re wary of becoming too big and losing the hand-crafted heritage feel that has won the hearts of so many loyal customers.

‘We certainly don’t want to end up working in a factory,’ said Joanna. ‘We want our bags to be made at home by people who care.’

This is all part of their mission to retain a good work-life balance and to remain busy while having fun. This doesn’t mean they don’t have moments of friction, but their close family ties mean they flare up quickly and burn out fast.

‘Ruth and I were roped into a Radio 4 programme about family businesses,’ said Alison, ‘but they found us absolutely infuriating because we only said good things.’

‘It’s true,’ Ruth added. ‘We’re a great team because we understand each other’s lives completely.

‘If something crops up, we know about it and we handle it. We’re also really straight with each other.

‘My husband once sat in on one of our meetings and described us as “a bit harsh”. But we think we’re just being honest.’

For more information about Umpie, visit umpie.co.uk.

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