Giving New Meaning To ‘Bag Lady’

Alana Folen
Wednesday - June 23, 2010
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Ruth Shiroma Foster and a sampling of her bags

What began as an obsession for purchasing hand-made clutches online quickly turned into a business for Makiki handbag designer Ruth Shiroma Foster, who recently launched an online store - There you’ll find one-of-a-kind, eco-friendly handbags, featuring vintage, reclaimed and specialty fabrics.

“Each handbag has a beginning. Say I’m in a thrift store, and nestled on a crowded garment rack is a print that catches my eye. I fall madly in love with it and can see into its future,” says Foster, who runs her business from her home and also works as a full-time writer and project manager for a local technology firm. She graduated from the University of Hawaii in 1995 with a journalism degree.

“I see each handbag as a tangible expression of that very moment when I was captured by what I saw. In that regard, each handbag is pure expression. There is so much variety on the Web site because the human expression is so varied.”


For instance, what some may think of as a costume for a ‘70s-theme party Foster will view as a treasure and part of a future handbag. She began producing the handbags on her own last December, and says she hasn’t stopped sewing since.

“I usually can make anywhere from one to three handbags per fabric print, so in many cases, the handbag is one-of-a-kind or a very limited edition,” she says of her designs that sell for $60 (some on sale for $50) at her online store. “On some rare occasions, I luck out and can make up to seven or eight handbags from a single garment.

“I did a fair amount of trial and error before establishing a pattern that could be used as the template for the bags on the Web site.”

Constructing the bags, she says, involves seeking out interesting fabric, pre-treating the fabric, cutting specific pieces such as lining, pockets and handles, machine stitching and ironing.

“If I work on a single bag from start to finish it may take up to two hours,” Foster explains. “But my process isn’t that way - I sew multiple parts and multiple bags at once. For example, I might sew 20 handles one evening, then on another night sew linings.”

While sewing is a relatively new hobby for Foster, she’s already using her skill to make a difference. One of her handbag designs, the Pop Series, is a fundraiser for the Honolulu Symphony musicians - including her husband Norman, a clarinetist. All profits from the sale of these handbags go to the Symphony’s Live Music Awareness fund.

“My husband was cleaning out his closet one day when he found an old Honolulu Symphony Pops aloha shirt with a loud red hibiscus print. I told him to send it to Goodwill, but he insisted the material was of good quality and could be used for something,” Foster explains. Hence the first Pop Series handbag.

“After Norm showed his colleagues the bag, they loved it and started sending me their aloha shirts to transform into more bags,” she adds. As a Jane-of-all-trades, Foster also is a singer-songwriter, pianist and vocalist. Together, she and her husband write and perform original songs at showcases around town with the Oahu Songwriters Group.

While Foster’s passions stem from many things in life, she admits that sewing is the perfect complement to a long workday, adding that it is meditative and allows her to unwind.

“My adventures in sewing have taught me that you don’t have to fall into the molds set forth by the market around you,” she says. “If you think of something, consider constructing it yourself. Sewing is an exercise in free will and has been one of the most liberating skills I’ve taken up.”


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