Before Georgia Wetmore was a backpacker, she was an All-American collegiate rower. Her middle name, Housatonic, in reference to the river flowing through her home state of Connecticut, proves how influential the water was for her growing up.
“But after competing at such a high level, I struggled to find something as intense and fulfilling. When I discovered ultralight backpacking, I found I was able to tap into that same physical and mental intensity I had been craving,” said Georgia, who would go on to launch the cottage brand, Hartford Gear Co.
After college, and in between backpacking, Georgia worked for a local nonprofit. When the pandemic forced her to work remotely, the absence of commuting meant a couple extra hours in the day.
She’d spend this bonus time sewing, a hobby she picked up only about five years previous. Georgia made her own clothes, dabbled in quilting, and eventually started modifying and making her own backpacking gear.
“For anyone who backpacks, there’s always something that can be improved upon or made better,” she said. Before long, she purchased some high-end fabric from Ripstop by the Roll and soon had more bags and wallets than she knew what to do with.
“I just really enjoy sewing! I kind of feel bad for my family. For the past three Christmases all they got was homemade stuff!”
Before long, Georgia started an Etsy page to help manage the surplus. “Strangers bought things from me! And that just blew my mind!” she laughed.
“It just snowballed. I did not intend for this to ever be a business. But there’s a demand for these things! It still blows my mind,” she said. “Doesn’t everyone have a bag yet?!”
Turns out, they don’t. The toughest part of running Hartford Gear Co. is keeping up with orders. “I want to say ‘yes’ to everyone, but I can only sew so quickly,” she laughed.
The incoming sales got Georgia reassessing how she wanted to spend her days. While she enjoyed her nonprofit job, she didn’t enjoy working remotely. “I was making enough money selling bags, so I made it an LLC, got a website, and gave my two weeks notice.”
“I was confident even if I failed, whatever that means, that this would be such a great learning experience. And it has,” she said.
Since the very beginning, Hartford Gear Co. branded itself as “no frills backpacking gear.” Georgia spent a lot of time contemplating what that really means. “To me, it means not having things that aren’t useful, and always making use of what you have.”
One way she does this is by using every single little scrap of fabric. She has buckets of scraps for “scrappy packs”, and she takes it a step further, too. Scraps are turned into seam sealing tape. “So, every Dyneema pouch is sealed by using its own scrap.”
The pouches, which she dubs “rectangles”, are basic, single-zippered and extremely versatile. “But people can’t get enough of them! Simplicity is important, and the rectangles definitely keep the business going.”
In addition to simplicity, Hartford Gear Co. is known for durability. “I make things that last,” Georgia said. “I know this because I use the same things I make when I go backpacking or in everyday life. If it’s not working, I change it.”
Georgia’s first custom order, not from a relative, was from a man in Germany. He supplied her with a multi-page PDF with all the specifications for a 10-piece bikepacking kit. “It was wild, it was fun, it was cool, and he loved it.” The particular and somewhat peculiar requests haven’t stopped.
“People ask for the wildest things.” Whether someone needs a wallet for a uniquely sized key, a pouch for a specific phone charger, or even a bag for a mini backpacking-sized keyboard, Georgia happily takes on the projects.
And, if the customer desires, Hartford Gear Co’s custom ultralight accessories can be made in colorful combinations, too. “I just love color,” Georgia said.
When asked about the evolution of her sewing shop, Georgia joked, “Well, it’s a very short story. It started in my bedroom, and it’s still in my bedroom.”
She shares a house with four others in Hartford. “Everything in my bedroom I either made myself or found on the side of the street and refurbished,” she laughed. “I love tinkering and making stuff. It’s basically engineering, but with fabric. There’s fabric coming out of every corner, and everything needs to be in bins because I have a cat…with claws.”
Besides Paco, the Chief Feline Officer, Georgia is the brand’s sole employee.
After months of scouring the interwebs, Georgia recently scored a computerized Juki sewing machine, which has revolutionized her business. “I got really, really lucky,” she said of the find. “It has changed the business with speed and consistency. Before, it was a hit or miss. I don’t have to question if my machine is going to act up today!”
Georgia believes her willingness to take on custom projects attracts repeat customers. Want a particular zipper color, a funky dimension, or an extra pocket here or there? “Even if it’s a simple request, people can really make it their own. Folks like that.”
She added, “Retail these days can be very impersonal. We’re used to a lot of automation. Even a little bit of communication goes a long way.”
Naming the brand after her adopted hometown of Hartford was a no brainer. “I absolutely love living here. It’s one of Connecticut’s poorest cities and we get a bad rap for being very dangerous. But after I moved here, I had never experienced such a sense of community. There is a vibrant entrepreneurial spirit here that is supportive and collaborative. I love the camaraderie among makers and artists.”
“When someone has a specific need and I do these custom orders, I am almost always learning a new skill in sewing. I get better at what I’m doing every single day, and people are paying me to do it!”
“I love tinkering and designing and having that freedom. I didn’t dislike my day job, but I wasn’t enamored. Now I wake up and I get to sew things, I feel so fulfilled.”