Northern Story #4· Caterina Pérez, BAGS

The northern rucksack

Photography: Mónica Bedmar
Illustration: Carla Cascales

We had to meet Caterina Pérez. Not only because we coincide on many aspects and have lots of friends in common, but also because there’s no-one in the world with her talent, to do what she does and with the patience to explain it. If it´d been any other way we would never have made the northern rucksack.

A few weeks ago Caterina told us: “we have to meet so we can do some proofs. It might be a bit complicated”.


The workshop

We meet in the workshop in Caterina Pérez’s house in Sant Cugat. The space speaks reams about her: ribbons and tape are ordered, thread classified, materials gathered up and there are two large areas where light enters. Order, clarity of ideas.

We do a work plan based more than anything on concentrating and listening; and we communicate our doubts about what might happen when we try to make the rucksack. Caterina is in her role as instructor, teaching and motivating.
She selects two pieces of material and tells us we will be making a bag as practice. She gives us a couple of instructions and we begin to get to know each other.

“I think I was the first case of someone who studied acting at the Institut del Teatre (Theatre Institute) and who wanted to do set design … After a while I began to study in the Escola de la Dona (Women’s School). I learned to do fashion design there, and then I specialised in bags, rucksacks and handbags”.

We continue talking in a pleasant environment. The relaxed conversation contrasts with the tension I feel in my hands trying to manage the material. Surprisingly for me, after a short time we finish and we have the final product.

After this first contact with the work we agree to continue the next day, everything ready to make the rucksack.

The morning

We arrive at Caterina’s house slightly early. She is already with Monica who will be taking the photos. We have a quick breakfast and plan the day, although there´s not much to say because the two of them both know perfectly well what has to be done. On top of this, they know each other and their complicity is noticeable. Caterina tells us about her family and Monica explains things about her life in Galicia.
It feels good to be in Caterina’s house. Outside it begins to rain and as we talk I feel as if we have known each other for a long time, when in fact we’ve only met each of them a couple of times before.


We go up to the workshop, the rain bounces off the glass of the skylight. Dani and I take our place. Caterina extends an enormous roll of cloth. We use the pattern as a basic guide and with the tailor’s chalk for marking cloth, we draw the outline to then cut the material. We cut the front piece and the back part of the rucksack, and then we repeat the action with the cloth for the lining. We do the same thing with the pattern for the shoulder straps and the lower part of the rucksack.

We talk about the feeling of the cloth. We like the fact that it´s so resistant and at the same time so pleasant to touch. Caterina tells us about the importance she gives to her raw materials. “I look closely at the fibre: examine the feel of it, but also how its woven and how it behaves when I´m working with it. The fibre is my raw material; its characteristics and the way it is woven are basic”.

Immediately afterwards she places us in front of the machines. We have to sew the inner and outer pieces together while keeping the stitching 1 centimetre from the edge. Keep it steady, guide the cloth so that it doesn´t veer off. Prepare the needle, thread it and bind off. “Bind off to begin and bind off to end, don´t forget”. She refers to reinforcing the stitch so that it remains knotted, by sewing a couple of reverse stitches. There´s a lot to deal with and some nervousness, but her tranquillity helps to keep us calm.

In the meantime Monica floats with bare feet around Caterina and her two busy students. It´s not the first time Caterina’s taken on the teaching role, you can tell she has experience in giving classes and workshops.

We concentrate in order to ensure we do a good job in guiding the cloth under the needle. Total silence.

Bit by bit we become familiarised with the sewing machine’s pedal, and the cloth’s resistance to being guided. Sometimes the cloth veers off and Caterina helps me to undo the stitches and start again. It´s very demanding work, the rucksack has to be well-made.

We gradually are accelerating the rhythm of the pedal and begin to relax. Sense of control.
The first time I met Caterina she seemed timid, which could be true, but she enjoys talking and does so with passion.
“I like the part of the process in which I pull together everything I need to make the pieces. That’s why I like to get to know the suppliers, talk to whoever is providing me with the textiles so that they understand me and know exactly what I´m looking for. I need to be able to visit the factories where the materials I use are woven…”

She speaks while she works, or interrupts herself to correct and motivate us. We cut a new strip of material: the pocket from the front. We use the tailor’s chalk to mark out the separate pieces we will make: some smaller for pens, some larger for other things.

This part is very satisfying: We sew the separate pocket parts and then attach them to the front of the rucksack. After this we have to join the straps to the interior of the front piece. Dani irons the straps so that the hems don´t get folded in and we begin to sew them. Monica and Caterina egg us on: “Joan is out in front!”.
It starts to take shape. The skeleton of a rucksack.

The time to eat approaches.

Caterina goes down to the kitchen and we stay upstairs alone in the workshop. Suddenly something happens with the machine and we spent quite a while trying to fix it. Finally it appears to revive and we finish the remaining sewing. Down below, surprise! My brother has arrived -he´s also a friend of Caterina’s- and he stays to eat with us.

While we eat I realise how tired I am. The soup, the bread and the fruit recharge us with energy.

The afternoon
The sun comes out and we return to the workshop. Some music and we take up our positions again.

Now the only remaining piece of the rucksack is the lower part. And it’s the most complicated one because we have made it circular. Before sewing it we tack together the inner and outer pieces of cloth. This will stop the pieces from moving and will help us to guide the cloth under the needle. Caterina helps us, this part is complicated because if it’s not done well there will be too much cloth or not enough.
The sewing isn’t easy because pleats are formed and these have to be avoided by doing a good job of guiding the cloth. When the pleat is minor we can pass over it, but I come up against one like a mountain and once more I have to undo stitching.

After all these difficulties we have it: all the inner and outer pieces are joined; now we are going to put them all together to complete the structure.

First the front and back. Caterina insists that we turn the piece around when we get to the end and go over it the other way to reinforce the finished structure of the rucksack. We do this a lot.

The day is coming to a close and strong rays of light enter through the workshop windows.

The structure is almost ready, just the rivet studs to go. But it’s late and we leave it until the next day. Exhausted and excited.

The next day
We´re raring to go.
When we arrive at the house we get back into the work very quickly. We cut strips of leather to seal the rucksacks and we prepare the stud rivet setter tool to apply these last trimmings to the cloth. Caterina suffers for the cloth because before each stud is pressed closed, a hole must be made in the cloth: “the hole is irreversible”. It’s a delicate moment but we feel comfortable with the studs and we can see we´re about to finish.

And we do: the rucksacks are ready!
Just one last detail: we sew in a cloth label, mark it and give it a number. The first Northern Rucksacks of the collection.

A few days have gone by and our memories mix everything together.
About the precision and constancy, the frenetic physical and mental work with Caterina’s tranquil harmony: she doesn´t lose patience with us and stays serene in spite of our crises during the process.

Over a couple of days we learned something about how to use tools to make a rucksack. The previous technical part, the preparation of the pattern that Caterina did, requires a whole body of really complex knowledge. But what we learned during those days motivates us to keep learning.
And our most intense memories resurface when we see the rucksack. The Northern Rucksack.