Tuesday, December 19, 2006

How To Profit From Used Seatbelts


Betty Funk's purses, made from used seatbelts, are so strong you can pull a truck with one, as a customer found out when a tow rope proved too short.

The purses are so strong, you could whack a purse snatcher into next Tuesday. The strap won't rip, either, if you get into a tug-of-war with a pilferer.

After all, the purses are made from material designed to save your life.

"They are indestructible except for burning and cutting," said Funk, co-entrepreneur with her son, Trevor Kehler, of Unlimited Supplies from Everyone's Discards (USED). "I tell ladies they'll have to will their handbag to somebody."

Funk has had to buckle up for the ride -- and buckle down for the sewing -- since USED was launched two years ago. The bags sell as quickly as she makes them in Morden, about 100 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg.

You can also lengthen the strap so purses can be worn in front like a crossbow while shopping. "A lot of women leave their bags in their carts when shopping and guys just steal them," Funk said. Handbags can be converted into shoulder bags, too.

Handbags are USED's most popular product, but she and Trevor also make school bags, sports bags, diaper bags, belts, money belts, guitar straps and hammock hangers.

Maybe because the bags have something to do with cars, guys buy them, too. The bigger bags come with seatbelt buckles -- GM has its logo on its buckle, and Ford has a sunburst pattern. "A lot of guys I've sold to, they just love their bag," said Funk.

Production is very labour-intensive. It starts with going out to wrecking yards and cutting out the nylon seatbelts. The average car provides about two pounds of nylon belt, not including the buckles.

They sew the belts into sheets using ultra-strong fish line before making them into bags.

Some people balk at the prices, which range from $40 to $130, depending on the size of the bag, and can rise to $160 for custom-made bags. "People will ask why I don't send the concept to China and have it sewed there," Betty said.

But that runs counter to USED's raison d'être: to be a small voice against a throwaway society. Cheap goods compound in landfills. Funk believes the chickens will come home to roost one day. "I think it's just awful. One day that cheap foreign labour won't be there, and we'll be lost," she said.

Trevor operates out of Revelstoke, B.C., but was working in the oil fields in northern Alberta at the time of the interview, trying to raise money for two more sewing machines and to hire staff.

Initially, Trevor made sandals out of old tires and seatbelts, but it didn't work out. "My son has always been into world recycling," said Funk.

While having a few beers with friends, and pondering what to do with all his leftover seatbelts, a friend suggested he make him a chalk bag for mountain climbing (containing chalk to keep hands dry). One thing led to another.

"All the colours of the seatbelts got me thinking about bags, and how girls like bags, and how all the stripes (of the seatbelts) looked kind of retro," said Trevor, interviewed on his cellphone near Grand Prairie, Alta. He's also made seatbelts into saddle bags for horses and motorcycles, and lawn chairs.

Funk describes Trevor, 32, as a free spirit who's into mountain climbing and back-country skiing. "I have tried so hard to get this son of mine to get a regular job," she said. So when he approached her about helping him make the purses, she agreed only because she was certain the venture would fail and then she would nag him into getting a real job.

His plan worked, hers didn't. Funk quit her job as driver of the Modern Community Handivan earlier this year to work full-time sewing seatbelt bags. Leading up to Christmas, she is sewing until 9 p.m. many nights.

"I've never regretted it. I'm having a blast," she said, adding she also gets help from her husband, dad, sister and a neighbour across the street.

The seatbelts come caked with grime. Funk soaks the belts in a concentration of bleach for close to a day, then washes them on high heat in the washing machine. Lengths for various types of bags are marked out in felt marker on top of the white chest freezer, where she makes her measurements before cutting. USED has sold close to 1,000 bags so far.

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