‘It all began because I was a very poor student who was into riding bikes and needed some pedal straps,’ says Restrap founder Nathan Hughes as he and mum Helen Griffiths show Cyclist around the company headquarters in Leeds. ‘I decided to try to make some for myself out of old car seat belts, and then I sold a few to mates. It was only supposed to be a stopgap while I figured out what I wanted to do with my life but it evolved from there.’
‘Me and Nathan – well mostly me – used to make everything,’ chimes in Griffiths, who now sits as head of human resources. ‘We had an end-terrace house with a cellar, so Nathan would be down there cutting the seatbelts and sealing them on a heated chisel while I’d be upstairs on a sewing machine borrowed from my uncle. At a push I could sew three pairs of pedal straps in an evening.
‘Even six years ago we were still scissor-cutting around cardboard cut-outs to make bags. Makes me go cold just thinking about it.’ And no wonder, because today Restrap produces some 10,000 items per month, from bikepacking luggage to Brompton handles to, of course, the inimitable pedal strap.
It’s a meteoric rise, but as we weave our way between the huge computer-controlled cutters and banks of sewing machines and employees sifting through swatches, Hughes begins to reveal there’s more to the company’s success than just an idea and hard graft.
‘Out of the first 20 people who joined the company, probably half of them were cycling mates of mine,’ says Hughes. ‘It’s probably why we work so well together. When we’re in work, it’s work, but when we go to the pub it’s fine if someone has a few too many – it doesn’t get taken back to work on Monday morning. It also helps that we’re all into cycling. We sit in the pub and talk about bikes, and then go ride our bikes. Still, I don’t think I ever envisioned it being this big. I remember at one point saying five people is all we need, so it’s amazing to think at our peak we had 75 employees.’
Like a lot of bike companies, that peak came during Covid. Gravel was already booming, with bikepacking coming up alongside it – two pursuits very geared up to needing bike luggage. But it’s where Restrap’s gear is made that affects its headcount so dramatically.
‘We make 95% of our products in-house so we need people, but the number will fluctuate with demand. Right now we’re around 55 but that will go up as we hit the season.
‘We are a real mishmash, from all walks of life, ages, social backgrounds and countries,’ adds Griffiths. ‘But we all just work well together, and everyone becomes part of the Restrap family. Once you’re part of the family there’s really not a lot of escape from it.’ It might sound a bit Hotel California, yet according to Griffiths employees really don’t seem to mind.
‘A lot people have side hustles,’ she adds. ‘Staff can take scraps home to do whatever they like with. Some people make cushions; one lady makes hair clips and birthday cards. Another guy has a clothing company. There are a lot of people doing a lot of bits and bobs on the side.’
All this by hand
The factory floor is a whir of activity. On one side are the massive machines that laser cut material, on the other banks of sewing machines are running off frame bags ready to carry yet another person’s gear around the world, or at least across the Yorkshire Dales. It’s the kind of heavy machinery needed to produce the volumes Restrap now deals in, yet the real stars of the show are still the hands of those at the chattering sewing machines.
‘We have 16 machinists who sew and put together the products,’ says Griffiths. ‘Everything is timed from start to finish and each product has a specific time in which it needs to be sewn. There is a big competition between the machinists on who can sew the fastest.
‘The quickest product we ever brought out was the saddle pack. Nathan designed it, the machinists made it and 24 hours later we had a new product. This is only possible because we’re all in-house so we’re flexible and have complete control over what we do. We can make changes to the design, the colours and the fabric or change the complete product in a matter of hours.’
To that end, Restrap once made a custom holster that could carry ten beers.
‘It was like a cartridge belt but for beer,’ says Hughes. ‘We did consider it as a product for a bit but decided perhaps not. Some messenger is now riding around London with that belt.’
Still, despite the nimble, handmade ethos, there is no getting away from a high-volume company such as Restrap’s reliance on automated processes. So what does Hughes think automation will do to his workforce?
‘In one sense it won’t make a difference because sewing is too hard to automate. The problem with sewing is that it’s about feel. You’ll find even in the most advanced factory there will be someone sat on a sewing machine, simply because it is the only way to do it.’
However the inability to automate such processes – to need so many hands – is far from being a manufacturing drawback.
‘The reason our quality is so high is because we’ve got people at every stage of it. I think it says a lot that our return rate is 0.3%. There will be more automation in certain areas but even then I don’t see this as detrimental to our workforce. As a growing business, if we’ve got a machine that can do three people’s jobs it means those people can be upskilled to do other things. So if we keep growing I can see we’ll only need more people, and that actually automation will bring a lot more opportunity for them.’
Explosions in cycling niches, pandemics and skilled workers might have helped Restrap grow, but it has still taken the family duo to steer the ship. So how did they learn how to run a factory that facilitates an international business?
‘About seven years ago I contacted a load of local factories and asked if I could visit and basically steal their ideas,’ says Hughes. ‘A lot of people running manufacturing factories tend to be old so they’re quite happy to show someone who’s interested around. Then there was a lot of Googling and watching YouTube videos, and some trial and error as well.’ Yet for all this, there is one thing Restrap couldn’t have planned for.
‘Brexit has been a big pain in my life,’ says Hughes. ‘It’s very hard to say anything good about it. I usually try to stay positive but Brexit has cost us loads of money to get our materials here and to ship our products anywhere beyond the UK. I think Brexit alone costs us £150,000 to £200,000 a year, because we now have someone employed full time to deal with the shipments, we have to have a separate warehouse for the stock in Europe and we have to pay import duties. We pretty much doubled our output year on year for the last five years, but I don’t think we’ll be doubling this year. It will be a slower growth year, but I think everyone will see that.’
Interrogate the process
Despite the still-lingering economic cloud, Restrap has lots to be excited about and indeed to champion. Life began with recycled pedal straps, and so the company continues to champion an ethos of conscious consumerism.
‘A big part of what we do is trying to build something that lasts,’ says Hughes. ‘We offer a lifetime guarantee so if a product needs to be repaired we’ll fix it and send it back to you.
‘Sustainability is probably our number one selling point. We’re going through the B Corp Certification process at the moment [a company is assessed on things such as working standards and supply chain practices and given a score out of 200 – they must score at least 80]. Hopefully we’ll get it this year, partly as we’ve sort of been doing it all already. When you produce everything in-house you want to look after your staff and don’t want to be wasteful and throw things away.’
So what does this look like in terms of the overall supply chain and material sourcing?
‘Our fabrics come from the Far East, Belgium, America, UK… it’s a big mixture,’ says Hughes. ‘If I could get it all from next door I would, but unfortunately there aren’t many options for material manufacturers in the UK anymore.’
Given this, Hughes is keen to reintroduce sustainability wherever the company can, which is why although a lot of the plastics used come from Germany, Restrap’s offcuts and surplus material gets sent back to the same factory to be recycled back into new plastics.
Nevertheless, he is mindful of finding genuinely sustainable solutions rather than just taking what companies say as gospel. ‘It’s great saying something’s recyclable, but if it’s more damaging recycling it than getting it brand new then there’s no point doing it.’
So what does do it for Hughes? What makes him get out of bed every morning?
‘It depends what day it is but on a good day I do feel proud. This is an interesting place to work and there’s lots going on, but one of the nicest things is seeing the bags out there. Everywhere I have been in the last five years, apart from Turkey, I’ve seen a Restrap bag. And Turkey was only because I didn’t see any other cyclists. Even when we went to Tokyo, someone rode past with one of our frame bags. That’s cool.’
• This article originally appeared in issue 140 of Cyclist magazine. Click here to subscribe