I’m sitting in the sprawling loft that is Charlotte McKeough’s Hespeler studio – an industrial backdrop to the minimalist fabrics and pastel-coloured equipment that fill the space – studying a photo in an old issue of House & Garden. It’s a scene of Marc Jacobs’ Paris apartment: his beloved Dalmatian sitting next to a mod red chaise longue, and Charlotte’s flagship Brave Brown Bag perched atop the chaise. ‘They talk about the dog,’ notes Charlotte from across the room – upon realizing that I’m studying the photo – ‘and they talk about the sofa.’ I look up from the page and meet Charlotte’s gaze – a cheeky grin spreading across her face. ‘But they don’t mention the bag – because they probably thought it was paper.’ We chuckle together. 

Honestly, I can understand the oversight to which she refers. From afar, Charlotte’s bags are nearly indistinguishable from the paper bags one finds in boutiques, grocers, and flower shops. Even her richly-hued bags look like paper. A turquoise number draws me in – its crinkled fabric putting me in mind of a watercolour. I lift it from the shelf and admire its details. The bag is seamless, no stitching in sight, the bottom folded with crisp pleats like a perfectly-wrapped gift. Even the edge has been pinked (or ‘crinkle-cut’ – a simple but delightful feature). Like all of Charlotte’s bags, it’s sturdy but softened, gently wrinkled as if it’s been toted from a favourite shop and taken the long way home on a Saturday afternoon excursion. 

To be sure, this is no paper bag – but something much more elevated, imagined, reinvented. A fashion product that’s struck a chord with curators of distinguished boutiques across the globe. Indeed, Charlotte’s bags have been made available in design and fashion establishments from London to Milan, Toronto to San Francisco, Paris to Tokyo. Even the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) gift shop in New York City has carried Charlotte’s Brave Brown Bags. When I mention this to her, she seems to think almost nothing of it. ‘I’m quite pleased with their popularity,’ she remarks. ‘But honestly, I’m just happy to be doing what I’m doing – making things that I find both beautiful and useful.’

But what about the material Charlotte uses for her Brave Brown Bags, then? It’s actually waxed cotton – the product of a technique borrowed from sail-making methods of a century ago. ‘Before plastics,’ Charlotte explains, ‘sailmakers applied wax to linen
to create a waterproof material suitable for sails.’ Suitable too, it turns out, for securing
a pile of books, a multi-course packed lunch, or whatever else you might want to assemble and carry on an average day. 

Some of Charlotte’s newest designs are made from modern-day sailcloth, and the distinct patterns of the fabric – the sophisticated black stripes and somehow-subtle neon yellow crosshatch – are in fact carbon fibre and kevlar, technical materials used because they are both strong and lightweight. Nowadays, Charlotte and her small team craft between sixty and one hundred bags each month. All in this Cambridge studio. And all by hand. ‘It’s what seems to be working for us right now,’ she notes – a twinkle in her eye. 

Charlotte’s journey from sailcloth to handbag began the way any great origin story might: with a two-year stint sailing the East coast, in pursuit of a Coast Guard certification. Years later, while the sail-making loft that employed Charlotte was moving their drafting process to computers, massive sheets of stiff sail pattern material (used as life-size templates for the sails) were destined for the trash. Charlotte, already experimenting with waxing cotton, found that this material was the missing piece in the bag taking shape in her imagination. Its characteristics allowed her to bond handles to the bag’s base without stitching, giving her bags their seamless finish. ‘The material worked,’ Charlotte notes, ‘and it just happened to be there.’ 

That idea of ‘working with what you’ve got’
is a big part of the Brave Brown Bag’s story. Charlotte’s first heat press, for example – which uses simple pressure and heat to fuse the waxed cotton – was originally a laminating machine borrowed from a friend who ran
a print shop. ‘A lot of the equipment here,’ remarks Charlotte, motioning her arms around the spacious studio, ‘I designed it, I created it.’ She continues: ‘I took a bit of this and a bit of that and put it together because what I wanted didn’t exist.’ Nodding towards a hand-operated press painted flamingo pink, she goes on: ‘I would make it myself until I could find someone who could do it a little better.’ She pauses to reflect before adding, philosophically, ‘and that’s kind of how it goes.’ 

As for the bag itself, it seems to have evolved into its simplest version through the many trials of gluing, sewing, and – Charlotte is exasperated at the thought – magnets. Since the original design nearly a quarter century ago, it is the magical, self-sealing quality of the waxed cotton that prevails. Despite its utilitarian function and oh-so-simple  craftsmanship, this seemingly recyclable bag never fails to lend a bit of whimsy to the act of carrying around the bits and pieces that make up one’s daily essentials. 

Leaning against an improvised bag rack that was once a machine used to roll piping, Charlotte tells me earnestly: ‘Whatever’s at hand, you’ve gotta make something out of it.’ As if to make sure I understand what she means, she adds, with apparent pleasure: ‘Making things. It’s just part of my character.’