Local couple’s creativity results in Chico’s most environmentally friendly accessory
ZeekoBag. It rhymes with “eco-bag,” which it is, and with “ChicoBag,” but it isn’t manufactured in China.
The highly durable, fashionable ZeekoBag is made of all recycled materials—such as Army-surplus canvas; used fisherman’s netting; old fire hoses, bicycle inner tubes and belts; and empty beer cans and chicken-feed sacks—except for maybe some necessary, new Velcro attachments or rivets. It comes in several varieties—bicycle-messenger bag, purse, water-bottle bag, construction tool-belt bag and “bike-purse,” a medium-sized cross between a purse and a bike-messenger bag.
ZeekoBags are made in an east Chico garage/studio by Zeke Lunder, a 35-year-old local firefighter and forest-fire mapmaker, and his wife, Erika. Collectively they go by the name Zeeko Salvage.
“I started sewing in junior high, and I just kind of played around a lot,” offered Lunder recently, sitting before an ultra-heavy-duty Seiko sewing machine amid piles of woven-plastic feed sacks, rolls of cast-off fire hose of various widths and colors, and completed bags and purses hanging from hooks around the room.
Nearby stood a dressmaker’s mannequin clothed in a micro-mini skirt made from salvaged German military canvas and a thrift-store belt accented by a rugged, recycled fire-hose-and-textile sash.
The Seiko—able to sew through a whopping thickness of 5/8 of an inch—is Lunder’s machine of choice out of the six machines the couple own. (Their oldest sewing machine is a “cobbler’s machine”—or “patcher”—made in 1892 and used to get “way up inside the arm of a jacket or the toe of a boot.”)
Lunder acquired his first industrial-strength sewing machine (not the Seiko) at a junk store five years ago, during a stint living in the Monterey area, before moving back to Chico in 2006. An avid raiser of chickens, Lunder began making farmers’-market-style grocery bags with the machine from chicken-feed sacks.
“It was never really a commercial prospect,” said Lunder. “I just made them for friends. Feed sacks are inexpensive, strong and abundant. If you go to the Third World, you see it everywhere. People use feed sacks for everything—bringing wares to market, making huge bags by stitching bags together, making sandbags; they use them for trash, they ship wool in them.
“In my travels [in Ecuador, Chile, Argentina and Mexico during fire ‘off-season’], I started seeing people using recycled materials for everything,” he continued. “What we would consider trash here gets used and used.”
Lunder and his wife—a seamstress, painter and social worker whom he met three years ago and married last year—moved in together two years ago and promptly turned the garage of their home into a sewing shop. Their 8-month-old son, Ezra, said Lunder, has become “kind of trained up to not scream anymore when we sew with him on our backs.”
Since joining forces, the couple have forayed into clothing design, in addition to their extensive line of colorful bags. Their clothing was featured locally at the 2008 “Bizarre Bazaar” hosted by pioneering local fashion collective Chikoko. More recently, Zeeko Salvage’s creative recycled wear hit the stage in July at the funky, fun, pre-Burning Man artisan’s fair—“Prepare for the Playa”—at Café Cocomo in San Francisco.
“We went on a big creation binge … to get ready for [the Chikoko and the San Francisco shows],” Lunder said. “And that’s kind of how we operate. We’ll get a show and sew like crazy every night for a couple of months.”
The Seiko machine, which they acquired last year, is what has enabled them to make creative use of the yards of cast-off, unrepairable fire hose that Lunder, who works for private-sector fire contractor NorthTree Fire International in Marysville, has access to.
Lunder admiringly laid out several samples of the different kinds of fire hose he had on hand.
“Fire hose has this rubber lining, and there are different color linings,” he pointed out, cutting a section of fabric-covered hose down the center with a pair of extra-heavy-duty shears, exposing a pretty, translucent-green lining. “There’s really wide variety in the hoses.” Other lengths of hose were made of black rubber, or a thick, brown, webbed material (Lunder’s favorite), or heavy yellow canvas with the words “fire hose” printed in capital letters along it.
“There’s a link between firefighting and sewing that goes way back,” Lunder said, referring to the profession’s rugged, outdoor, “gear culture.”
“I have worked with smokejumpers that know a lot about sewing,” he continued. “They have their sewing machines with them at the station or smokejumper bases, and build their own custom personal-gear bags to airdrop their chain saw in into fires. And they … repair a lot of their own gear. I’ve had a few mentors at work—we talk a lot about sewing.”
Since the economy worsened, Lunder said NorthTree has paid him to repair gear, such as worn backpacks.
“We’re seeing a change in the culture,” he observed. “We’re seeing wasteful industries becoming more thrifty with the bad economy. I think it’s great.
“We’re total thrift-store junkies,” said Lunder of his and Erika’s scavenging tactics. “We’ll look in Dumpsters. … I’ll [even] pull over on the side of the road for a truck tarp. … The [Habitat for Humanity] ReStore is also an incredible resource. There are just so many used materials out there, so many alternatives to using new materials.
“And—this is the future. We have so much to learn from the Third World.”