One at a Time

Collected around the world, Rough and Tumble’s iconic handbags are handmade in Maine

Tools of the trade and a swatch of Emerald Fawn nubuck leather.
Clutches in a range of colors.
Swatches on a board in Durham’s office.
Racks of leather straps.
A stack of lining fabrics.
Caroline Guillaume, who manages Rough and Tumble’s finishing department, models a bag.
Rough and Tumble's flagship shop on Middle Street in Portland
Displayed in the Portland store, Rough and Tumble’s best-selling Hobo Pack (above) can be worn as a cross-body bag, shoulder bag, or backpack.

Before founder and creative director Natasha Durham opened a Rough and Tumble retail store in Portland in late 2015, you would have been more likely to spot one of her handbags on the streets of Tokyo or Melbourne than in the state where they have been designed and made for nearly a decade. Collected and coveted by customers from all over the world, the bags are all hand stitched by Maine artisans and shipped from the company’s spacious headquarters at the Fort Andross Mill in Brunswick, where Durham moved her thriving business from Norway in 2017. With large windows overlooking the Androscoggin River, Rough and Tumble’s workshop and offices are flooded with light, except for a cavernous room at the back, where tables and shelves hold piles of leather in myriad colors and stacks of shipping boxes stand ready, each printed with a message from Durham: “There is an inherent beauty in something made one at a time. Here at Rough and Tumble, there is a commitment to the extra effort that this entails.”

Like many success stories, Durham’s began serendipitously. Having studied at the Maine College of Art in Portland, her first hands-on enterprise was in professional kitchens. She owned three restaurants in the city: first Bintliff’s American Cafe (now Bayside American Cafe), followed by Natasha’s (now the Grill Room) and Mims Brasserie (now Elevation Burger). After 17 successful but exhausting years, Durham was ready for a change. She first imagined Rough and Tumble as a children’s clothing line. With an old sewing machine on the kitchen table of her former home in Hebron, Durham made a cloth bag to take on a trip to Italy. “I was very excited that I had made a three-dimensional object,” she says. Durham stitched some vintage linens from her longtime collection into bags, and sent 12 of them to her sister in San Francisco, who promptly sold them all at a wine and cheese party. An Etsy shop soon followed, as did the introduction of Italian leather as Durham’s material of choice. “I had never carried a bag—I had a lipstick and a credit card in my pocket—so I was really starting from zero and reimaging what a handbag might be like,” she says.

Soft, unstructured, and deliberately slouchy, a Rough and Tumble bag immediately feels like a favorite pair of slippers you’ve had for years—if those slippers happen to be lovingly hand stitched from buttery premium leather. “We give every waking moment to considering how to make a better bag and how to get the better leather,” says Durham. “I’ve wanted every ounce of my energy to go into the product and not into marketing.” That the bags are both luxurious and functional is a large part of the brand’s appeal, as is the bootstrapping nature of Durham’s story. The enterprise she started at her kitchen table in 2008 has grown largely through online sales and a fan base “that loves our product and collects it,” she says. “We trust that, if we make something irresistible to us, something with the balance, simplicity, and functionality we love, that someone’s bound to notice—and they do.”

Although she had never sewn leather before she began making her bags, Durham taught herself how to work with it, and for the first few years designed and stitched everything herself. Six years ago, she moved the business out of her home to a storefront in Norway and hired her first employee. Rough and Tumble now has a staff of 35, including director of wholesale and product development Louise Gartland (who also holds an equity interest) and 18 highly skilled stitchers. Each stitcher (many of whom are also quilters) specializes in about 3 of more than 50 different bags, picking up the precut leather and other materials in Brunswick and then returning the bags to the workshop for finishing elements such as straps and hardware. “I call it studio manufacturing, and the stitchers are our design engineers,” says Durham. “If there were a pyramid at this company they would be at the top. When a bag gets changed, they’re a part of that change.” Last summer, Rough and Tumble introduced completely customizable bags, available in 11 different styles, which customers can design online or in the Portland store. Body, base, strap, zipper, and lining can all be selected from a wide variety of options to create a one-of-a-kind bag “that they can hand down,” says Durham.

Her customers can also opt to have a bag lined with or made entirely from Durham’s own recently introduced fabric, chocolate-brown linen with a white design inspired by a peacock feather. This long-awaited project was led by Rough and Tumble photographer and graphic artist Phoebe Pope. “I’ve wanted to have my own fabric since I was in high school,” she says. Last summer, she launched a small clothing line focusing on cotton and linen dresses made one at a time in Scarborough and sold online and in the Portland store. Like her bags, the dresses are unstructured but purposefully designed. “Just because you want comfortable clothing doesn’t mean you don’t want a gorgeous neckline that lies perfectly and deep, and useful pockets,” Durham says.

Rough and Tumble’s website also offers a collection of contemporary jewelry (including Gartland’s designs, Blue Heron) and boots and shoes, as well as the company’s line of waxed cotton and beeswax linen totes and duffle bags. The Portland store carries pottery pieces, candles, and jewelry, too. But, while Durham says she is drawn to good design of all kinds, she doesn’t permit the latest shiny object to distract from her laser focus on her core products. “We’re in the Garnet Hill catalog, we’re in the latest Liam Neeson movie; we’re so much bigger than we think we are because we do everything incrementally,” she says. “We have no lofty goals. It’s just about every day looking for the better way, looking how to make the better bag.”