Road Tests :: BEDOUIN Barbary Messenger Bag
I’ve been testing Bedouin’s Barbary messenger bag now for 5 months.
This bag has hauled more groceries than the first wife of Feodor Vassilyev.
This bag has transported more beers than all four Bernstein brothers, combined.
This bag has been to more outdoor concerts than Ben Dorsey.
And it’s only just starting to get broken in.
I love this bag.
Upon my initial discovery of Bedouin, I was immediately pulled in. Their story, their craft, and the style of their products had me wanting to learn more. I know it’s wordy, and taken directly from their site, but I’m posting it here as an introduction to Bedouin, as I couldn’t describe their brand any better than they can themselves…
“Inspired by traditional craft, geometric art, the macabre and surrealism. Designed for comfort and durability.
At Bedouin we believe in quality. We believe you should buy a bag that lasts a lifetime. We do not believe in disposable fashion and an endless replacement cycle; buy quality and buy it once. We are extremely confident of the quality and workmanship of our bags, that is why we offer a lifetime guarantee on materials and workmanship from normal wear and tear.”
They then go on to talk about sourcing the finest ingredients, the best English craft, being inspired by the Bedouin tent, and all that sort of vibe. You can read the full blurb here.
Products inspired by craft, geometric art, the macabre, surrealism, and the metaphor of a Bedouin tent? Handmade, durable, quality? Not only do they have my curiosity, they have my full attention. Take a look at their site and the wild imagery on it (some selected images shown above). I’m a fan. So I got in touch with the owner and founder of Bedouin, Silas Grant, based out of London.
Silas is an ex-bicycle courier himself, so you can see how the idea for the Barbary messenger and their additional carry products were inspired. Instead of sending me a Barbary messenger with tentative warnings, Silas suggested that “these bags need to be broken in, ideally for 6 months, and treated extremely roughly“.
I was asked to give it a “thorough review, and it needs heavy usage to get to its best (mine is in that old leather jacket stage now, extremely comfortable and like an old friend)“. Mission accepted.
The unboxing of the Barbary was a serious treat. So much so that I included an “unboxing” section. Inside the cardboard box, the messenger comes in its own protective Bedouin custom cotton printed drawstring bag. Not some low quality bag. Its so nice it could probably be sold on its own. I’m quickly starting to realize they take their products very seriously.
Even the hang tags are impeccable. The detailed quality of the printing (and beautiful artwork), light-brown super-heavyweight cardstock, rich red cotton hang cord… and the hand pressed Bedouin red wax seal. Oozes quality. One card has the description of the brand and products, the other card has the care instructions for the British Millerain waxed canvas. The second card notes that there is a tin of British Millerain wax dressing inside the package, which I didn’t spot during the unboxing. I look around my desk to see if it had fallen, as well as inside the empty cardboard box, and it appears as if it were left out. I reread the card, it states, “there is a tin inside your bag”. Sure enough, there it is, stored neatly inside one of the interior pockets. This is easily the best branding and packaging I’ve seen for any bag or pack, without question. These are the details that I pay attention to, and Bedouin has executed every single one of them perfectly. Serious credit is due.
If you’ve been paying attention to my personal Road Test reviews, you’ll recall I make quite a fuss about always choosing black color options for my personal collection. Not this time (even though the black on black on black looked so incredibly fine). This time, I opted for the unique and handsome Olive color option. I’ll admit, I did almost sway back to the black color option right before it was final decision time, but I’m extremely satisfied with my color choice for this particular product.
The Barbary is also available in Black+Natural, Tan+Natural, and Navy+Natural.
For the Barbary I’m testing, the olive color is deep and rich within the 100% cotton British Millerain waxed cotton canvas (10 ounce Rhinowax… the thickest they make at 500 g/m2), sourced from Lancashire, England. This stuff is super durable and extremely water resistant.
Though I have heard plenty of first-hand stories from many who use this material on their bags and outwear, and the fact that fishermen have being relying on it’s waterproof / water resistant properties for over a century, I haven’t personally had to opportunity to experience the battle of H2O and Rhinowax… because it simply never rains in Austin.
From all accounts, it should repel rain like no other, but I haven’t seen it, and I look forward to that day that I will put it to the test (I will post an update here in the comments). However, there is a reason they’ve been making this material in the same way since the 1880′s… it works really well. Below, you can see some of the British Millerain waxed cotton canvas cut into patterns (left side), ready to meet the beast of a sewing machine (right side). The feel of this thick waxed cotton canvas is buttery, almost leathery. While we’re talking about leather, lets talk about leather.
The leather panel is thick top grain European vegetable tanned leather, which is going to age beautifully. Their leather is sourced from a few different places… “the Grey leather is from Italy, The Tan Veg leather is what Louis Vuitton (doesn’t use), (but an extremely high grade), The black leather is either Italian or English (we refuse to use leather that is not from Europe for quality and animal welfare, and is a by product of the food industry). All the leather is Veg Tanned (this is the old method using tree bark and acorns etc) NOT using such nasty chemicals as most leather (Chromium)“. Additionally, they’re using matching leather edge binding throughout the bag. The reason most brands don’t use leather for edge binding is because it is extremely difficult and takes a talented craftsman many years to learn properly.
My favorite. As I said about them before… Military-grade AustriAlpin Cobra buckles, imported from Austria. This bag uses 3 in total; two in the 28mm size used at the front flap and the other is 50mm wide for the shoulder strap closure/adjustment. They can each support up to around 2,000 lbs and they have an amazing resilient clear coat finish to show off the raw forged metal (all three still appear as new, after several thousand airline, bicycle, and car miles).
Made from steel, brass, and aluminum, these buckles will probably outlast you and probably a couple more generations after you. The experience of opening them feels like you’re reloading an AR15 rifle each time you open up the bag. I like the feeling that I’m reloading an AR15 when I’m grabbing some chewing gum from my bag.
Side note: in our previous Buckle Analysis writeup I ignorantly leaned toward the Raptor buckles, but now after having serious firsthand experience and doing much more research on the issue, the Cobra buckles have proven to be a far superior product. Test after test and user experience proves it. Cobra buckles are without question the best buckles on the planet, 100%, no doubt. Anything else is a far 2nd.
The light blue and olive green Velcro is a great touch for the shoulder strap. It does its job well, and creates some refined visual contrast. There is additional Velcro used in conjunction with the AustriAlpin Cobra buckles to keep the main messenger flap closed. The legit seatbelt webbing has an extremely high tensile strength and also creates the same aesthetic effect as the Velcro on the shoulder strap. The single Riri metal grid zipper adds additional value to an already great combination of materials and hardware. If there is any other brand of zipper that I personally prefer over YKK, it would be Riri (they’re from Switzerland, a country known for quality technical products). The zipper has a different feel, performs equally or better than YKK, and its more difficult and more expensive to source. In this case, it’s also nice that there is just one zipper. There is a nice matching leather puller on the metal zipper slider, making it easy to grab hold of and give a good tug on.
I saved the lining for the last material to discuss. This stuff is eye-popping and beautifully done. All going back to their metaphor of the Bedouin tent; weatherproof on the outside, comforting and pleasing on the inside, with just enough places to store your stuff.
The lining is natural mild-weight 100% cotton drill lining sourced from Manchester, England. It is all hand-printed, using only water based ink, by a print master on a 25m/75ft long (!!!) print table at his shop located in a railway arch in South London. All the illustrations used for the lining (as well as the website, hang tags, and more) are created by a super talented artist named Zeke Wade, who is heavily inspired by Islamic geometric patterns (among other inspirational sources as well, I’m sure).
Every time you open the bag, its a stunning visual treat. The print that came with the olive color option Barbary is the “Crank” option, in white and black, a mix of bicycle cranks, cogs, wrenches, chains, feathers, chainrings, vines, flowers, with a geometric background to pull it all together. I’m into it.
I don’t know of any other carry brand HAND-printing artwork on their own lining. Especially lining, of all things. Usually this is where companies try to save money to increase profit, by using the cheapest possible nylon or polyester lining directly off of the shelf of a Taiwanese supplier who made too much for a previous client. Not here. I would bet that the lining of the Barbary (taking into account the cotton drill fabric cost, the artist’s costs, and printmaker’s labor costs) is more expensive per yard than the exterior fabrics of most high performance bags. Its the details that count.
The Barbary messenger (150 x 370 x 640mm / 5.9 x 14.6 x 25.2″) isn’t heavily compartmentalized for all sorts of tech gear and little items, though it still can store them if you implement some Inception Packing. The messenger is actually described as “a large capacity professional Courier Bag designed to fit the body, contract and expand depending on the load being carried.”
The organization of this bag was heavily inspired by Silas’s past as a professional bicycle courier, designed for bicycle couriers in mind, with additional organization and details for non-pro’s in mind. Inside, there is one large main compartment, with no laptop area. If you want to carry a laptop, pop it in a sleeve and then into the main compartment. Bicycle couriers don’t carry laptops, hence the lack of the dedicated compartment. (Below: a photo of Silas’s 3+ year old Barbary, “Transporting 3 shoulders of Belgian Veg tanned leather with my Barbary bag. Damn heavy!“)
Inside this main compartment, there are three drop pockets against the wall of the organizer panel… in other words, these pockets are located on the opposite wall that of the one that is against the wearer’s body. (Below: the three drop pockets inside the main compartment).
Outside the main compartment, on the organizer panel, you have one Riri zipper pocket and two matching drop pockets (without zippers) behind that. Pocket grand total is six, plus one large main compartment.
At first I was a bit concerned about the lack of organization. But I’ve found, through extended use, that 6 pockets is nice. Things are simpler this way. There is just enough organization, where I think if I had even one or two additional pockets, I’d forget where I stored an item. In fact, maybe the Barbary could even go down to 5 pockets, but people do like pockets when they’re about to make a purchase.
As mentioned before, this is a large capacity professional Courier Bag. This bag eats up large, heavy, odd-shaped items, which is common for couriers. 24 beers (whether inside their cardboard case or whether shoved in loose), no problem. A samurai sword (don’t ask), one heavy wool winter jacket, some fresh produce from Whole Foods, several miles across the city, on my bike… sure, no problem.
The big items stay inside the cavernous main compartment, keeping my small accessories (bike tools, portable hard drive, keys, glasses case, etc) in one of the six respective pockets. There have been more than a few occasions where I’ve been surprised by the depth of the main compartment when carrying a large object from point A to B. Now its gone from being surprised, to confidence. I don’t have to worry about not being able to carry it all. With the Barbary, I’m almost certain any reasonable object (or even slightly unreasonable object) will fit just fine.
It should also be noted, for those looking for a smaller option, Bedouin offers a “Genghis” messenger (150 x 350 x 500mm / 5.9 x 13.8 x 19.7″) and has nearly identical internal organization. Note the previous link may change, as the “Saracen” was just recently reintroduced under the name “Genghis”. Bedouin also has a few other carry and non-carry products, all worth taking a careful look at.
This could quite possibly be the best looking bag that I own (I own lots). This bag always gets a comment. Always. More so than any other carry product I own. The DEFY BAGS Recon Messenger starts a lot of conversations, but the Barbary takes it to a new level. The comments are always positive, questions regard the waxed cotton, the leather, and/or the buckles. Again, not something I really planned on. I talk about carry all day, so I don’t mind the topic of conversation and meeting a stranger. There is plenty to talk about with this particular bag. Look at the photos, let them speak for themselves. Leave a comment below to share your thoughts on how you think it looks. I think it looks amazing. (Below: photo to illustrate a better idea of scale of the Barbary / I’m 6’0″)
Branding is minimal, at best. You won’t see any giant colorful names across the front messenger panel. Just a simple fabric label with “BEDOUIN” in a nice typeface, located on the shoulder strap. Other than that, there is one other highly-detailed Zeke-Wade-designed fabric label located in the main compartment, which looks great.
Additionally, since this bag is made of natural materials, its going to age and patina with much greater character than any similar bags constructed from synthetics. You’ll see some photos below of Silas’s personal Barbary, after 3+ years of hard use, cycling through the rough streets of London, international trips, a two-year-long adventure around India by motorbike, and more (left side image shows a brand new Barbary compared to Silas’s Barbary). He admits to being extremely tough on everything he owns, and to never once washing it, waxing the cotton, or conditioning the leather. Looks great. Silas says, “The buckles scratch up and age pretty good, the leather is the raw Veg leather, and is very well broken in…. This bag is so comfortable now.“ Which leads to our next topic.
Comfort and Function
Right out of the box, the single shoulder pad is heavily padded and super comfortable… even when carrying 30+ lbs on my back for extended periods of time, walking and cycling. I’ve been worried about the weight of some of the loads I was about to carry on several occasions. Especially because this is a larger sized messenger, it can really store a lot of mass and volume. But then once its loaded up, it never caused pain, where all other messengers I’ve used would have been painful in this situation.
The shoulder strap can’t be switched from right shoulder to left shoulder. This single-sided construction sucks for some people, but a benefit is that it keeps the bag simpler/more streamlined and keeps the cost/weight/complexity down.
There is also a strip of Velcro webbing which allows you to add accessories (pouches or other objects) to the shoulder strap in order to customize your pack to you.
I’m not an ambi-turner
Now, about the shoulder orientation. The Barbary slings over your left shoulder, and down your back, toward your right hip. In the UK, they drive on the left side of the road. In the US, we drive on the right side, and subsequently, we bike on the right side as well. So when you’re riding your bike in the US, when you go to look over your left shoulder to check for vehicles approaching you from the rear, the shoulder strap is there at your shoulder. Normally, even with moderate loads, the shoulder strap doesn’t block your line of sight whatsoever (Below: Vision is no problem for a small load / photo taken at speed, looking back and over left shoulder). But if you’re carrying a huge volume load, your sight line can be mildly blocked. In the UK, this obviously isn’t an issue at all, as when you look over your right shoulder to check for vehicles approaching from the rear, you have no shoulder strap. This has only been an issue once, when I was carrying some ridiculously huge object that was sticking out from under the flap on both sides, but I probably should’ve been using a “Wide Load” sign on the messenger at that point.
Additionally, the male/hook Velcro is exposed at your shoulder. For 99.99% of you, this won’t be an issue. If your moustache is somewhere over 12″ long from tip to tip, like mine is, sometimes it can get stuck in the Velcro. Not really something that needed to be addressed, but a funny thing to realize during the process of my testing. Now that summer is here, this bag can make things a little warm while cycling. The waxed cotton canvas doesn’t breathe too well up against a sweaty tshirt in high heat. Then again, the Barbary was designed in London, where it doesn’t get the crazy heat like we experience here. Austin is a bit of an extreme example, so maybe it is a bit unfair to mention it at all (in 2011 we had 90+ days of 100+F degree weather / hottest summer anywhere in the USA since they started recording it). Anything I put on my body here will make me sweat, even the most streamlined of high-tech hiking breathable suspension systems. Either way, I thought it should be noted. An addition of a top grab handle could be nice feature for quick grabbing, but I could see how bicycle couriers wouldn’t require this, simply thinking out loud. Bottom line, this bag is extremely comfortable, even under the heaviest loads.
Construction and Craft
This is a handmade functional piece of artwork. The lining, mentioned earlier, printed by a master print maker in South London. The artwork for the lining, created by a talented artist in London. All the finest and most expensive fabrics and hardware (all sourced from England, Italy, Switzerland, and Austria). These all come together, stitch by stitch, by the skillful hands of a master craftsmen, Paul and his wife Cynthia. Paul and Cynthia own their own handmade bag/luggage crafting workshop located in Lincolnshire, England.
It is a great material and craft story how these different parts traveling in from all of Europe, meet together in this old school workshop, and then become hand sewn together to make a product as nice as the Barbary. Stitch for stitch, everything is perfect. I have an eye for quality control, and there isn’t one mistake on this entire product. Trust me, I’ve looked and tried to find one. This is craft. This is quality. This is handmade. This is why this product costs £390 (around $600 US).
Yep, that’s a bit of money, but I actually think the price is fair, considering what goes into each product. Each of these materials and bits of hardware have a very high price on it. Plus, the high hourly rate of multiple skilled UK artisan craftsmen, renowned for their attention to detail… that is what you’re paying for. That is the type of brand and process I like to support with my money. Plus, they offer a lifetime guarantee “on materials and workmanship from normal wear and tear”, which is a nice bit of insurance. All of their products, the Barbary especially, as well as the Bedouin brand itself, scream quality.
What else should you be checking out in a similar space? You should probably have a look at Teddyfish, Porter, KILLSPENCER, Defy, Millican and Bagjack. Each of these is either a little more fashion, or a little more tech than the Bedouin, with none hitting that exact vibe of the Bedouin (which is really quite distinctive).
This is an expensive bag, yes. But for the materials, hardware, skilled artisan craftsmanship and attention to detail that goes into its construction, I firmly believe the price is right. For all the other bags you’ll buy and destroy, you could make this purchase once and forget about it. Keeping one great bag, rather than owning several “OK” bags (quality only hurts once).
Though it may not be a perfect all around bag for some individuals (only OK as a business bag, for example), it has become my favorite all-purpose grab-and-go bag in my life. If I’m running to the grocery store, or grabbing some beers for some friends and I to meet at an outside concert, this is the bag I will grab off the wall and rush out the door with. It’s almost second nature now. Its extremely comfortable, durable, uncomplicated/simple to use, superb-looking, highly-commented-on, and well made by people whose expert craftsmanship I am proud to support.
If you like these attributes and features as much as I do, I highly recommend you considering the Barbary
messenger bag large capacity professional courier bag from Bedouin. I’m looking forward to letting in break in and show its developing character over decades to come.