Interview with Motley Goods founder Cleveland Motley

February 11, 2013

Interview with Motley Goods founder Cleveland Motley

Cleveland Motley

Owner of Motley Goods, at the Motley Goods Design Studio, San Francisco 

Hi Cleveland, can you give us an introduction to who you are and which path brought you to create these bags?

My name is Cleveland Motley and I am the owner/designer of Motley Goods. Motley Goods is a bag and backpack manufacturing company based in the Mission district of San Francisco. I strive to build bags that use a combination of modern and rugged materials to achieve a classic and durable design. Motley Goods are built to last. 

My background is in sculpture and mechanical engineering, so I came into this profession by my love of building things. I grew up doing a lot of backpacking in the sierras of California. In high school, I ended up teaching myself to sew in order to make simpler/lighter backpacks than I was able to buy. After moving to San Francisco after college I continued to make my own bags for bicycle commuting. Having worked for many artists and another small bag manufacturer I started to get the feeling for the market and what it took to have a cottage industry today, and decided I could do it! I saw a market for quality hand made goods that were simple, not over-designed, and durable, and that’s what I’ve been trying to make.

Do you design and make your bags all by yourself? 
What's your favorite part in making your bags?

I do! The best part of owning my own company is I get to make anything I want. I like to build things, sew the bags and cut the leather etc, but the exercise of designing new products is my favorite part. Not just combining new materials, or even coming up with a new concept for a bag, but I actually really enjoy the nitty-gritty part of designing. Pattern making and adjustment, thinking through an entire design in my head, unfolding 3-dimensional space is a lot of fun for me. I love it when I nail a prototype on the first try. Being able to take things from ideas to products quickly is a big advantage of having a small business. 

What object, tool or anything else you absolutely can't work without?

There were two things that I absolutely had to have to start my company. The first is a huge table. Working with 60” wide rolls of fabric can be really overwhelming if you don’t have a big enough table. It seems silly, but it’s really important! If I can’t lay stuff out to see it, I can’t work.

The other is my warhorse of a sewing machine. I was lucky enough to get a good deal on a used Juki LU-563. It's not the most technically advanced, most expensive, or largest machine out there, but it is built like a tank, and never gives me any fuss. I joke that anything that fits under the presser foot, it will sew, and so far that’s true! It is really great when I’m working hard to wrangle a bunch of layers of thick leather, Cordura, vinyl, and foam together under the foot, and the Juki sews them like it’s a piece of paper. One of the best purchases I’ve ever made.

How do you start your day?

Unless I’m running behind schedule when I would just jump right into sewing, I’ll eat breakfast, do some web work, updating cost sheets, listings, customer emails, order material, plan the day/week, then jump into production.

How do you manage to work in your home?

Working from home has actually been really great. I have an incredible view of the entire city from my machine so it’s going to be hard to leave, can’t beat the commute either! I’ve managed to build Motley Goods from the ground up with no outside financing or anything like that, so keeping the overhead low has been a big help.

The advantage cottage industry has these days over pre-industrial revolution times is that I might not be a big company but I have access to international markets. 90% of my business comes from the web and outside San Francisco. While I would like to say I’ve been able to keep work and home separate, that’s just not true. Work is everywhere in my house! That said at this stage in the development of the company, if I’m not sleeping I’m working! And I think in that regard working from home is great, it allows me more time, I work ridiculously long hours. If I have an idea in the middle of the night I can get right to it, it definitely has its advantages.

But yes as I expand and hire more people it is becoming necessary to find space. I would love to stay in SF, but the market isn’t exactly friendly to small manufacturing.

As you work in your home, I guess you sometimes need to take a break outside, what do you usually do?

I live at the base of Bernal Hill and Precita park, I love to walk to the café on the corner near the park, get a sandwich and walk to the top of the hill for lunch. You can see most of the bay from up there. It’s a good half hour diversion that gets me out of the house. Though I’d be lying if I said there aren’t days on end when it’s really busy with orders where I never leave the house and go into a work coma. It can get to point where I start running out of food and when I’m making salteen cracker pb&j’s I have to stop myself and say, lets go outside!

How long have you been in San Francisco and where do you originally come from?
-What do you love about living here?

I’ve been in SF since 2007 when I graduated from college. I love this town. I grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and SF has a lot of the same stuff that I love. It’s so easy to ride your bike for half an hour and be surrounded by trees, I love having the ocean on three sides. I’ve been sailing my whole life and Iove getting out on the bay. I really enjoy the mixing of international culture we get in SF. I like that people in SF care about the environment and I feel like everywhere you look successful smart people are working to change the world for the better. As an artist I also make kinetic sculptures so being around the birthplace of the “maker” movement is great. There are so many freaks in this city, there are endless opportunities to learn and interact with the cutting edge of anything you are interested in. There are a few other cities in the US that I like, but SF is the only one for me. SF is filled with winners, and I like that.

What is your favorite place to eat in San Francisco?

My lady friend and I go-to Pad Thai on Mission at Valencia more than any other restaurant combined! Get #31 pad ped.

What's your favorite spot to relax in San Francisco?


Golden Gate park is wonderful for a bike ride, I still find new places to explore. But it’s probably Delores park on a sunny day with every other 20-something from the mission. I love the freak show.

Describe San Francisco in 3 words.

Beautiful, fast, smart.

Do you listen to music while working, and what kind?

I bought a HUGE stereo system from off Craigslist, and I like to blast electro-funk while working. Breakbot is killing it, I’ve been listening to this on repeat for a few months now.

Grown Kids Radio is a group of locals who are also doing it right. One of them had a song featured in a video I made recently for Motley Goods.