At the top of the escalators across from the Salt Palace business center at ORSM, many attendees may not have noticed the unassuming Ramtect booth, one of the unsung innovations entering the apparel market this fall.
The company, which has been in the incubator stage for a couple of years now, launched a “Wool Demonstration Development” project at ORSM, along with a limited line of garments produced by Canada’s Spirit West, whose Owner Steve Bommer was on hand from Calgary, Alberta, to speak with international retailers. Ramtect USA has attended previous OR markets with its ecological-minded wool insulation product, but this was the first time craft jackets, vests and pants were ready for immediate order.
Doug Hoschek is Ramtect’s outdoor director and one of the original co-inventors of Polarfleece in 1981. “Whatever the customer wants, the retailer will soon be told and asked to find it,” he said of the company’s come-to-market philosophy. Its development program focused on “average human beings” from three generations wear-testing the first line of “Essential” styles, primarily in high elevation forests and deserts surrounding Bend, OR.
Both Polarfleece and Spirit West wool insulated garments stem from being ecologically minded. Their creeds are also concerned with the relation of living organisms to one another and, in turn, to their physical surroundings. Bommer and Hoschek both believe that the “locavore outdoorist” movement is increasingly important in the outdoor industry, and more specifically with Millennial consumers. This movement acts under the principle that the byproduct of wool is “as close to a food as possible,” and should, “be raised on a sheep that is allowed to live a very long animal life, properly cared for by human beings (ranchers),” said Bommer and Hoscheck.
Hoschek said back in 1981 he developed Polarfleece with the same “locavore outdoorist” spirit only today Polarfleece is made with a physically more ecologically favorable material. He explained the process to SGB in an exclusive interview saying, “In 1966, I began developing polyester fiber for outdoor insulation as marketing director of Celanese (the largest producer of polyester fibers globally, at the time), thus creating a non-woven batting that became known in outdoor garments and sleeping bags as fiberfill, including the branded Polarguard patented insulations.”
He continued to explain that batting soon expanded into his developing and marketing nylon fabrics for outdoor insulated products including down-proof fabric technologies for garments and sleeping bags. “The focus was on cloth for warmth with no development of polyester fibers managing moisture during that time. The technology of Polarfleeece moved into a three-layer system, Polartec 100, 200, 300, with the development of using recycled bottles in the knit in the mid-1990s. This was branded as Polartec,” Hoschek said.
“Whatever the customer wants, the retailer will soon be told and asked to find it.”
Approaching his 50th year in the industry, Hoschek said his experience with polyester synthetics has given him key insights working with some of the best product makers in the country, who are now following suit and turning exclusively to natural fibers, specifically for the moisture managing wicking technology associated with polyester fibers.
“A common benefit of wool fiber is absorbing moisture, up to 35 percent of its weight, and then desorbing it through natural evaporation within the wool fiber itself. The process naturally happens in a wool fiber to keep the sheep warm and cool during both cold and warm climate changes. Shearing the wool preserves its ability to work naturally in a machine made insulation,” Hoschek said. He continued by expressing great excitement with the trajectory of today’s wool insulation. “A new natural moisture management is being created without oil-based synthetics and chemicals that use extensive amounts of energy and water now matter how green the chemicals.”
The end product – Ramtect – is a thin, compressed, bonded batting of merino wool, made exclusively from U.S.-milled fabrics, designed and manufactured in Calgary, the inventors say. As part of their “locavore” inspiration, Bommer explained that his Spirit West brand could deliver booking orders in four weeks and fill-in orders within two. And furthermore, that the product is landing home for buyers. “Consumers rave about the increased temperature range and overall comfort this natural insulation provides,” said Bommer. “Sustainable economics allow for shorter order windows, year-round fill-ins and good margins with unique product that is sure to drive sales in the already-proven wool marketplace.”
Comparing his company to the craft brewing movement, Hoschek said, “The major difference between craft and factory is simply the purpose of craft is to build at the pace of the workers assembling it, not the speed of the factory machine production line. This allows for a truly healthy environment for workers to not get stressed and become highly skilled and work for decades, instead of burning out trying to keep up with the factory-driven assembly line that asks more than any human can endure.”
However, Hoscheck does not foresee craft altogether replacing the faster machine-paced assembly line production. “Although,” he said, “it will allow more creative designs with smaller production runs and faster turns in retailer inventory, giving designs more freedom and retailers fresh new garments several times a year for decades to come.”
Sitting down with Hoscheck at ORSM, he said, “Retailers are the pipeline to the consumers, and as a supply partner we respect the brands being the focus of the finished product. Many of the major brands and the most exciting retailers were impressed to see the wool insulation in actual garments along with wool insulation swatches and sample yards for testing.”
But Ramtect is not finished yet. Hoscheck shared that consumer wear-testing has helped, but they will continue testing until the end of 2015.