When Peaks Island native Charles Friedman was 15 years old, he decided to look for the coolest summer job he could find. He lucked out, scoring a sweet gig working at Maine Sailing Partners then based in Yarmouth and now based in Freeport. For three summers, Friedman helped make high-tech custom sails for elite yachting teams, Maine Maritime Academy and other big name customers.
But Friedman, now 23, saw other potential for the durable, flexible, waterproof fibers used to make the sails. Before he went away to study civil engineering at the University of Maine in Orono, he began making wallets out of scrap pieces of the material, mainly for family and friends. The very first one was for his grandfather, whose old leather wallet fell apart and needed to be replaced.
By the time he graduated in 2010, that hobby had turned into a full-fledged business — and now Friedman’s Flowfold line of wallets, business card holders and iPad and iPod sleeves is available in more than 50 stores nationwide and internationally.
“I’ve had the same wallet for years now,” said Friedman, who carries a still-in-good-shape billfold wallet around with him always and still lives on Peaks Island. “It is really hard to destroy this stuff. You’d really have to work pretty hard to damage it.”
The material Friedman uses for his products is a combination of carbon fiber, Kevlar, Pentex, and-or polyester matrixes, sandwiched between Mylar films. He sources material from his old employer as well as a number of other sail makers throughout Maine. The fiber is extremely lightweight — a typical Flowfold wallet weighs barely half an ounce. It’s tougher than leather, making it extremely vegan friendly, and as it’s re-purposed material, it’s environmentally conscious. It also is available in just about any color you wish.
“It’s a really cool alternative to other materials, and nothing else looks like it,” said Friedman.
Friedman is certainly not the first person to reuse sailcloth for another purpose — Maine’s own Seabags make totes and travel bags out of sailing canvas. But Flowfold doesn’t look anything like the more maritime-themed Seabags. Instead, Friedman’s products have a sleek, high-tech appearance.
“It’s not really so much about having it be this thing that says ‘sailing’ as it is making a really high-quality product that you can really kind of beat on, and it won’t fail you,” said Friedman.
By the end of 2010, Friedman was overwhelmed by orders and had to expand quickly. To that end, he began making connections with seamstresses around the state. He now employs a small army of talented seamstresses, who he can intermittently call upon to create a few thousand new wallets or sleeves.
“With the death of the textiles industry in Maine, there’s still a huge amount of talented people who can sew in state,” said Friedman. “It’s really important to me to keep all of this as local as possible, and that’s one way we can really help employ local people.”
He also launched a Kickstarter campaign in the late fall, which by early December exceeded its $6,000 goal by more than $1,700. The campaign was specifically targeted to fund the creation of many more iPad sleeves — a new bestseller for Flowfold. It’s lined with a felt made from post-consumer waste and it will keep your shiny new Apple toy safe from the elements.
Looking toward the future, Friedman has lots of ideas for new products: laptop sleeves, backpacks and other kinds of bags. He may even expand into other materials — he’s experimenting with hemp-based fabrics, known for their durability and environmental friendliness.
“I’ve got a ton of ideas,” he said. “But really, I’m just kind of proud to be able to offer something that’s completely made in the U.S., using the best, most environmentally conscious material I can find. That’s pretty cool.”
Flowfold Wallets are available in 15 stores statewide; a partial list includes Nomads Adventure in Portland, Bull Moose Music in Portland and Brunswick, Horny Toad Activewear in Freeport, Lisa Marie’s Made in Maine in Bath, Archipelago in Rockland and 45 Main St. in Bar Harbor. They are also available online at flowfold.com.
Correction: An early version of this story of this story misspelled Charles Friedman's last name. It is not Freeman.