The path that led Wendy Downs to a wildly successful bag-making business called Moop began when she tried—and failed—to make a dress.

“In my mind it was going to be amazing and have these little pintucks and all these yokes,” says Downs. “And it just didn’t work.” She set the dress aside but kept returning to it. “I played around with it and ended up stitching up the side and turning it in on itself and putting a handle on it. It became my first bag.”

Several friends encouraged Downs to list the bag for sale on Etsy. Late one evening in March of 2007, she set up an account and three days later sold a bag to a buyer in Australia.

“That was mind-blowing,” she says. “Somebody who is completely across the world from me, totally disconnected, knows nothing about me, saw this and wants it and bought it from me.” She relisted the same item and sold it two days later.

For most of the first year, Downs created bags as customers ordered them, averaging one per day. After the first 100 sales, she began to create patterns and lay the foundation for a business that would allow her to quit her low-paying full-time job, giving her the freedom to care for her young daughter.

Then came Cyber Monday, 2007, when Etsy featured Downs and her bags on their homepage.

Wendy Downs of Moop. Photo by Rob Larson.
Wendy Downs of Moop. Photo by Rob Larson.

“We went from one bag a day to 30 a day. I was like ‘Oh my goodness. I have to sew all of these!’ I really had this struggle of figuring out what it meant to actually manufacture something. E-commerce changes everything,” she says.

She went from 40-hour work weeks to 100-hour work weeks.

“You have to inevitably figure out are you only going to sell what you can make or are you going to expand and make more than that,” she says.

Downs figured that if she could find an outside manufacturer—with the same ethics and business practices—it would result in a good relationship that would allow her to focus on other aspects of her business. But the person she found wasn’t right, she says, sitting outside the Lawrenceville studio where she continues to produce all Moop products with a staff of four. “It didn’t work for a lot of reasons.”

Downs was left with a realization: she could offer manufacturing services for other private labels.

“The next stage of growth that I am building is to do private-label manufacturing for people,” explains Downs, who said she has the sourcing capabilities, small batch manufacturing experience, and transparent business model that would let her succeed.

Downs attended Etsy Manufacturing Day on March 8 in Pittsburgh, an event wth a mission to connect regional manufacturers with the online site’s 1.5 million designers. More than 150 designers, manufacturers and others participated at event held at the Energy Innovation Center. They heard from Etsy how to build successful partnerships and learned from others in Pittsburgh who were building partnerships in interesting ways.

“There is the very real history of manufacturing in Pittsburgh,” Downs notes. “That puts us in a good place to help make that happen on a smaller scale. This is an area where we can respond to this very contemporary culture of e-commerce that gives people a place to sell their product, most of whom are not doing massive volumes, and they need a smaller manufacturer.”

Kelly Simpson-Scupelli of Kelly Lane
Kelly Simpson-Scupelli of Kelly Lane

Kelly Simpson-Scupelli
Kelly Lane

At her Lawrenceville studio, Kelly Simpson-Scupelli, whose organic line of clothing is known as Kelly Lane, spent a late winter afternoon seeing to the many details involved in the upcoming relaunch of her successful women’s clothing line. Prior to taking a hiatus after the birth of her son, Simpson-Scupelli’s designs were sold at 50 stores across North America and in Europe.

As she spreads a bolt of fabric across a table for measuring and cutting, she explains that right now all of her dresses are being made here in Pittsburgh since locally-sourced labor and resources, coupled with a focus on sustainability, is in keeping with her business model.

They are now using a “beautiful organic cotton that is milled in the Carolinas,” says the North Carolina native whose family was deeply affected when many of the mills were closed and the work shipped overseas. “It’s important that our cotton is from the U.S.,” she notes.

Heidi Brayer

Heidi Brayer is a writer and editor at Carnegie Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute. One of her favorite pastimes is sneaking D's hotdogs into Sunday night movies at the Regent.