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Chapter 1

The Garment District and the Early Days of Synthetic Fiber Insulation

In 1961, when I was 19 years old, I took a job working for a company called Walla Fabrics in New York City’s Garment District. I had no sales experience at the time, but my job was to sell various kinds of construction materials to garment makers. I was a serious-minded kid who was just starting out in the work world and my goal was simple: I wanted to make a fortune. If someone had told me then that I would spend the rest of my life making extreme-weather equipment for high-mountain hunters, Iditarod mushers, and the military, I would have laughed.

I really didn’t know what I was doing as a salesman, or know much about the products, and it took me three or four or five months until I made my first sale. My boss, Frank Hollander, seemed OK with that—maybe because I was mostly working on commission. Success, I would learn, was mostly a matter of forming relationships and building trust. One reason a lot of the buyers were reluctant to deal with me was because at that time I hadn’t been in the service. They were all World War II veterans, and some of them were pretty hard nosed about only wanting to work with others who had served. I couldn’t do much about that, although a few years later—1964 to 1966. I was a “pole climber,” meaning I specialized in being a field wireman, and became a pretty good marksman having not grown up with guns. I did not have bad habits to change. Eventually the veterans started buying from me anyway.

I lived in midtown Manhattan, on First Avenue and 65th Street, a few blocks from Central Park, in a small second-floor walk-up apartment. I was upstairs from a little bar, where I could go down and get a half-pound hamburger and fries for a buck.

A block and a half south of me was another neighborhood bar. A guy named Allen had recently bought it and called the place Friday’s. For six months it was just a typical neighborhood bar, but on Thursday nights he’d break out champagne and give it out to whoever was in there, in a little end-of-week party he call TGIF. I went off on vacation for a couple of weeks that summer and when I came back, Allen’s business was booming.The first Thursday evening back I was shocked to see a line of patrons that stretched from his front door down 63rd Street all the way to York Avenue—a quarter of a mile. All people waiting to get in. Now TGIF Friday’s is a huge national chain. Amazing what a little champagne can do.

I also met Ralph Lauren a few times when he was first getting started in the fashion business. I met him through my good friend Henry. Although Ralph lived with his wife out in the Bronx, Henry, who imported sweaters from Scotland, had his office in the same Manhattan building as Ralph. Ralph wanted Henry to go into business with him because Henry was doing very well, selling to Brooks Brothers and all these highfalutin places that Ralph wanted to sell to. Henry never did take him up on the offer. He’s kicking himself now! Henry pasted away but he was the best friend I ever had. Not many people get to have 50-year friendships.

The Garment District is down in the 30s, just past Times Square. If you had time, on a nice day it would be a pleasant walk from my apartment—but of course I took the subway, which was just two blocks away from my door and only cost a quarter. In fact it was 15 cents when I first started at Walla. When Lindsay was campaigning for mayor, he kept promising he’d never raise the subway fares. Every time my friend Eddie heard that promise, he’d stockpile some more tokens. Sure enough, as soon as Lindsay won the election the transit unions went on strike, and when the trains started running again a ride cost a quarter.

While I was at Walla I didn’t sell any of the fabrics you would actually see when you looked at a garment. Instead, I sold what the industry called interfacings and interlinings. Interfacings are materials hidden inside jackets and other apparel that give the piece structure, for example, the stiffeners in cuffs and collars. Interlinings are essentially the insulation. Few people realize that to make a typical jacket you need to cut and sew three near-complete copies of the garment: the outer jacket, the lining, and the complete interfacing/interlining. These must then be sewn together.

One of the interlining materials I sold was nylon fiberfill batting. Nylon fiberfill was already on the market when I started the job, so at first I didn’t realize that it was a very new and revolutionary material. Up until 1960, interlinings were made from what were called “floor sweepings,” scraps of cotton, wool, and anything else that was left over after garment patterns had been cut out from rolls of fabric. The scraps were run though garneting machines that would shred the fabric down into fibers, then that shredded material would be run through carding machines that combed the fibers into alignment. This carded interlining material was a bit like felt, but not as dense, and could then be layered into various garments.

The very first synthetic batting—called Ny-sul-loft—was made from nylon (polyamide) fibers that were repurposed from rejected automobile tire cords. Even though the fibers were not made specifically for garments, the material was cleaner, more uniform, and in every way superior to garneted floor sweepings. Within a year, the market for these synthetics exploded. Better fibers soon appeared from big East Coast companies like Celanese (in North Carolina), Eastman Chemical (Tennessee), and DuPont (Delaware). These next-generation battings were made of polyester fibers produced specifically for the garment industry, and repurposed nylon quickly disappeared from the market.

The big companies did a lot of basic R&D in the early 1960s to determine which fibers were best for various purposes, including mixing with cotton for polyester blends, making battings, and making carpet. Raw fibers were then sold to different companies to be made into all kinds of products, including fiberfill battings for outerwear.

Many of my outerwear clients made the typical jackets you saw in department stores, but I also sold to companies who specialized in skiwear. The early 1960s were a boom time in the ski industry, with major advances in the technology and a huge increase in the popularity of the sport. Kneissle marketed the first fiberglass ski in 1960, and the next year, the Ski Industries of America (SIA) and Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) were formed. In 1964, Lange came out with the first plastic boots—the same year Billy Kidd became the first American to win an Olympic medal in alpine skiing, which did a lot to get Americans more excited about skiing. An increasing number of my accounts were skiwear manufacturers, and I was one of thousands of Americans who took up the sport at this time.

I started skiing in 1960, and when I worked for Walla, most winter weekends I would go up to the Catskills, often to the now-defunct Concord Resort Hotel at Kiamesha Lake. I also liked Hunter Mountain, and Whiteface, which was a bigger area up in the Adirondacks. Once I’d learned how to ski a bit I started spending weekends at Mount Snow, Vermont, which was 225 miles from New York.

I worked hard at my skiing, and was inspired by the area’s Austrian ski instructors. They were just beautiful to watch. And back then we all wanted to carve turns like the famous Norwegian Stein Erikson. The wedel turn was also all the rage, a fast (sometimes three turns per second), weight-forward, short-swing parallel turn with the feet absolutely together. I still ski that way, skis almost clamped together, although with the new shaped skis you’re not supposed to do that. For some reason I had no fear on skis, and loved to go fast and to jump. Mind you, I was in my early 20s at that time.

We had a lot of fun back then. Some seasons a bunch of people would go in together and rent a house. Lift tickets were $6. Lots of friends from New York would come up to Mount Snow. Skiing would end at four, and there was plenty of après-ski partying. For a while, after the Beatles had come to New York, there were bars that played nothing but Beatles music, and there was a lot of dancing. Ski fashion was different then, too. Most people wore those stretch ski pants. Some of the girls would come up for a week of skiing with seven outfits. I mean just the ski outfits—nothing to do with what they wore at night.

The people in the ski industry were a lively group. There was no animosity, people weren’t uptight—the industry was booming and there was plenty of business to go around. At that time the Ski Industries of America tradeshow was held in Manhattan, so I’d often show my out-of-town friends around. There was a gal named Ruth West who had a snowsuit company called Swing West, and I remember driving down Fifth Avenue one night with her on the hood of my VW. She wasn’t even drunk. Later the SIA tradeshow moved to Las Vegas for over 35 years, and now it’s in Denver.

Of course I would buy various ski jackets to test out the insulations I was selling at the time, and I kept up on the trends. In 1963, a small company called Antics that made ladies sportswear decided to make a line of ski jackets. Instead of quilting the jackets, like everyone had up to that time, they did the shell with a smooth finish except for embroidery stitching in the shape of flowers—essentially a sparse form of quilting. These jackets were extremely popular—so popular, in fact that they sold strongly, well into the spring. That commercial success got everyone’s attention and it set off a wave of copycat designs. Soon most of the other skiwear companies were making non-quilted jackets of some sort.

Interestingly, this fashion trend had a big effect on the kind of insulation that would work best in the jacket. Quilting has the disadvantage of creating a lot of cold spots where the insulation gets pinched down flat by the stitching, but it also keeps the insulation from moving around inside the jacket. Un-quilted fiberfill batting will migrate. It can settle to the bottom of the garment and create thin spots, or break into clumps after laundering. Once you get rid of quilting, the garment becomes much warmer, but it won’t remain warm for long if the insulation doesn’t stay put. One way or another, a good jacket design must keep the insulation from migrating.

The Antics-style ladies ski jackets drove demand for a fiberfill batting that would stay in place without having to sew through it. This demand became an opportunity for the insulation companies, who vied to be the first to market a more stable batting. So with the rise of non-quilted skiwear came a lot of experimentation with how to produce better, more durable fiberfill battings.

One of the main techniques the mills used was to spray resins on the fibers to glue them together. They could spray on just a little to form a thin layer of bonded fibers on each side of the batting, or use more resin and bond the entire thickness of the batting. Too much resin, however, made the battings less thermally efficient for their weight, and made them stiff and boardie. Another bonding method was to blend in “low-melt” fibers with the main insulating fibers, then put the batting in an oven at an intermediate temperature. The main insulating fibers were unaffected, but the low-melt fibers melted, bonding the insulating fibers together. It was a big time for fiberfill innovation, and I had many conversations with textile engineers and skiwear makers about problems and solutions.

In about 1965 I first started paying attention to a construction method that had many advantages for working with synthetic fiber insulation: lamination. Up until that time, lamination was used only on fabrics. For example if you liked a certain print fabric but it was too lightweight for your purpose, it was common to laminate some tricot onto the original than to have the fabric made in a heavier weight. Just as there were quilting factories, there were many small factories around Manhattan and elsewhere that specialized in lamination.

No one had tried to laminate an insulating batting, but I was very interested in the process because of its potential to save time and labor costs when making garments.

It had been an eye-opener for me when I saw all the duplicate work that went into making a jacket. To make one finished jacket you first had to make three copies of the basic pattern, one for the shell, one for the insulation, and one for the lining. Each layer had to be cut out and put together, then attached to the other layers. The process took a lot of sewing time. If you could laminate the insulation to the lining, or to both the lining and the shell, you could save a huge amount of sewing time.

These were the days when you had to pay American workers to do this sewing, so lamination made a lot of financial sense. Now when a design requires a lot of handwork, instead of looking for more efficient methods, the companies just make the garment in Asia. Still, even in those days, I found the laminating idea to be a hard sell, not just to my clients, but my bosses as well.

I could understand this, to some extent. As a salesman, I could pitch a new insulating material in three different ways. Some products were simply a better replacement for an existing item. The original fiberfill batting was that kind of innovation. You used it just like the old floor-sweepings battings, but it was cleaner, more consistent, and more resilient. That kind of product was an easy sell. A second way to pitch a product was to show the client how a new item could save him money.That could be an easy sell, too. The most difficult kind of product to sell was one that might do something new that a company could try. A batting that could be used without quilting is one example of that kind of innovation. Sales pitches of that type were a lot harder. Laminated battings were that kind of product—a hard sell. They could save the client money, but only if he changing the way he manufactured an item.

Companies are very resistant to changing the way they do things, especially if it’s not their own idea. I learned this very early in my career, and I run into it again and again even today. I started in this business selling insulation, and that’s still what I consider my main contribution. I started making my own garments and sleeping bags because few manufacturers could be persuaded to change their ways when I proposed new and better methods of making these items, using superior insulations.

My boss at Walla didn’t like the lamination idea, but I was convinced that it was the wave of the future. I left Walla and tried to go into business with two gentlemen who owned a laminating company, with the goal of bringing lamination techniques into the world of insulation. The business venture didn’t work out, for various reasons, and after about four months I gave that up and took a job at a new company called Fiberfill Incorporated.

Fiberfill Inc. went into business in 1966, originally as a supplier to the bra industry, but they soon diversified into outerwear, which was my specialty. It was a fairly big company, with lots of smaller companies that were shareholders, including Camden Mills that made fiberfill battings, Plever industries that did lamination, Multistitch that did quilting, and Powernet that did a stretch fabric. (Much later I worked directly with Multistitch for a while, and Powernet makes the fabric for the fishnet underwear that Wiggy’s currently sells.) The original idea was that Fiberfill would become very big and successful, buy out all these smaller companies, and then go public. But that never happened.

Anyway, as Fiberfill’s national sales rep to the outdoor industry I made more money than I had at Walla, and I also had the opportunity to travel more. I worked with some of the same companies I’d served at Walla, but instead of mailing out samples and doing business by telephone, now I met some of these longtime clients in person for the first time.

The Walla offices were behind a modest storefront, but my office at Fiberfill was upstairs in a big, modern building. It was just what you’d imagine a New York City office building to be like, with a cavernous, marble-floored lobby, complete with a little cigarette and candy stand. (I later learned that the building was owned by the notorious Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos.) There was polished brass everywhere, including one thing you don’t see anymore, the ground-floor boxes for the mail chutes that collected letters dropped in from all the upper floors. Across from the entry doors were the elevators; Fiberfill rented the 14th floor. The elevators opened up into a long hallway, with an office for the bookkeepers and secretaries, a small one for each of the salesmen, including me, and a big central office for the two brothers, Danny and Irving, head of our division and two of the owners of the company. It was a very large room, probably 30 by 50 feet, with a beautiful parquet floor and windows hung with huge, dark drapes. Danny had his desk on one end of the office and Irving had his on the other end.

I’d never gone to college, and shortly after I started at Fiberfill I decided to further my education in my field. I enrolled in a night course at the Fashion Institute of Technology in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. FIT is ranked as one of the top five fashion schools in the world, but I really didn’t have any use for what they had to offer. The instructor of the course had been out of the business for 15 years, and what he was teaching seemed totally removed from the reality I understood as a modern salesman. I knew from experience that you’d go in and see the designers’ sample garments, and then see the actual finished products that went onto the market, and the two designs were not the same. You need to make the garment efficient to manufacture. If you’re Christian Dior, you make just one dress, for $9000, but real clothing companies need to change things quite a bit to make it cost-effective. The FIT instructor seemed to have no sense of this. I felt like I was wasting my time, and dropped the course after a few classes.

As Fiberfill Inc’s outerwear specialist, I frequently tested out garments that contained our insulation. When I did, I’d seek out the harshest conditions possible. I had started doing a lot of business with a company out of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, called Raven Industries, who made snow-machine suits. I went out one bitter-cold January day at Mount Snow, with a New York City photographer, to get some product shots and see how one of the new suits performed.

It was a beautiful, clear, breezy day, but with wind chill, the temperature on top was minus 60 degrees F. I’m not sure why they even had the lifts running, because we were the only ones out there. The photographer got off at mid station, and I told him to wait there for me so he could get some shots as I came down. As soon as I got off the lift, I wondered if I had made a mistake. The snowsuit was very warm, but my face was so cold I could only ski a short distance before I’d have to stop. I couldn’t ski slowly enough—it was like there was a cat behind my head, tearing at my cheeks with her claws. It took me quite a while to make it down to the photographer. By the time I got there, he was pretty much frozen stiff. I think that was the last time he ever dabbled in winter sports. He did get some shots, which ended up in the Raven catalog, along with a letter I wrote. (Wiggy’s now makes snow-machine suits, the best on the market, in my opinion.)

By this time I knew a lot about fiberfill insulation, the fibers that went into it, the treatment of those fibers, and construction methods used to turn that fiber into batting. Because of this knowledge, and my interest in the manufacturing, I sold substantially more than most of the other sales guys I met. A lot of these guys really didn’t keep up with the rapid advances in technology that were going on. In fact, they didn’t know a damned thing about the product. Of course, there were other reasons for their slack performance. This was around the time of the “Summer of Love,” late 1960s, early 1970s, so the sales culture was different than now. Some of those sales guys would smoke weed all day, and have two- and three-martini lunches. By now they all might be making more money than me, who knows? Those were interesting times.

One big difference between that time and today is that all the sewing and manufacturing was still being done in the U.S. There were big operations all over the greater New York area making everything from bathing suits to skiwear, as well as the plants that produced the raw materials. I visited many of the factories where battings were made. Those guys really knew what they were doing. Anything you asked for, they could make it. With all the textile production now moved overseas, it’s impossible for a person to get the kind of hands-on experience with fiberfill insulation that I had. The quality of Wiggy’s products today is partly due to this unique opportunity that I had in New York in the 1960s. I really came to understand how and why the products worked. I also saw that a lot of the successful products weren’t actually the best ones. Then, as now, success often had more to do with fashion and advertising than with function. Wiggy’s today is a company focused on function and durability, rather than fashion, and I had those same priorities back then.

As I mentioned, I traveled quite a bit to visit the outdoor companies of the day, many of which have grown into giants, as well as others that no longer exist. Obermeyer of Aspen is still around, and had factory in Denver. When in Colorado I’d also visit Alpine Designs, now an extinct brand as well as several other companies located in the area. I’d go to Seattle and Portland and call on Columbia Sportswear, back when they were doing $600,000 worth of business instead of $2 billion. Then I’d go down to the Bay Area and see some of the new outdoor companies that had grown up there, including North Face—which started out as a retail store—and Sierra Designs. I remember there was a guy at Sierra Designs, a carpenter, who came from New Jersey. They had hired him to build stuff inside the facility, but then they couldn’t pay him, so instead they gave him a one-third share of the business. Sierra Designs got pretty big after that, so I guess he got the better end of the deal!

In 1968, Celanese made a major innovation that would turn out to be very significant to the future Wiggy’s brand. Introduced under the name Comfort Fil 7, it was first produced as stuffing for pillows. The version intended for outerwear was trade-named Polarguard.

The major fiber companies were always experimenting with different polymers, fiber thickness, crimps in the fibers, and variables like that, but this time Celanese really didn’t do anything new with the fiber itself. The stuff was a fairly ordinary polyester fiber. The significance of Polarguard was that the polyester fibers were continuous across the insulating batting. This involved a completely new process for turning the raw fibers into battings, requiring new kinds of machines.

When first produced, all synthetic fibers start out as long, continuous filaments. Natural fibers like cotton or wool, on the other hand, are short—2 inches long at the most. In the textile world, the length of the fiber is called the staple, and up until 1968, synthetic insulation was all of the “chopped staple” style, meaning the long filaments were chopped into short staples so they could be handled by the same kinds of techniques and machines used with natural fibers. In fact, most modern synthetic-fiber insulation is still chopped-staple. Comfort Fil 7 and Polarguard were different: they left the long filaments long.

Camden Fiber Mills, in Philadelphia, was the company that actually manufactured the stuff for Celanese. The machine used to make the battings was called a tow spreader. You’d feed in a long bundle of thousands of fibers, and the machine would spread that bundle out into a thin layer, a two-foot-wide ribbon of thousands of fibers. A reciprocating arm would throw the ribbon back and forth across a conveyer belt, overlapping each pass, to build up a thick batting of fibers. The slower you moved the conveyor, the thicker the insulation. After the fibers were laid down and spry bonded then the fibers doubled back for the next pass, leaving a batting with numerous tiny filaments running the full width of the batting.

At the time, through Fiberfill Inc., I was sales director for Camden Mills, so I was thus the first salesman for continuous-fiber insulation. Unfortunately, I quickly found that the original Polarguard was not very popular. Even though it had superior resiliency and insulating power, garment makers found it difficult to work with.

Pillows posed no problem because the fill could simply be stuffed inside the fabric sack, which was then sewn shut. Sewing up a complete interfacing with the lofty, slippery material, however, was almost impossible. Quilting the material also caused problems. The sewing needles would inevitably catch a few fibers and pull small loops of them up through the fabric. With chopped staple fiber that’s no big deal—the pulled fibers work their way out the hole and fall out—but with continuous filament fiber, the fiber just keeps coming, forming long, annoying loops. Those were the two main reasons that Polarguard wasn’t a favorite with manufacturers.

I knew that the solution to these problems was lamination. If you laminated the Polarguard, you wouldn’t have to quilt it, so you wouldn’t have to worry about the long fibers coming out of the stitching. Also, by eliminating the flattening effects of quilting you would get a much warmer garment. And in the bargain, you would save money in the manufacturing process by making the slippery batting a lot easier to handle, and by not having to sew a garment in three separate layers.

There also was a financial reason for me to be enthusiastic about lamination. As a salesman working on commission, I stood to benefit significantly, since instead of selling raw batting at 30 or 40 cents a yard, I could sell a laminated package of batting and fabric for $3.50 a yard.

But just as Walla didn’t want to shift resources into lamination, neither did the guys at Fiberfill. I’m still not exactly sure why. Conflicts of interest were surely part of it: the company had seven or eight independent divisions, involved in different parts of the manufacturing, and we had a quilter in one division. Lamination was a threat to that. Even the company contracted by Celanese to make Polarguard, Camden Fiber Mills, had a lot of equipment dedicated to chopped-staple battings, so they were a bit conflicted about this new continuous-filament material they were making. They didn’t want it to make their other products obsolete. Basically, I couldn’t get laminated Polarguard into the marketplace because of politics, vested interests, and the fact that people are slow to change the ways they do things, especially if it isn’t their own idea.

I did manage to get some lamination done on my own, and sold some laminated packages, but the company didn’t view this very favorably. Yet I saw that the technique could work. In fact, it worked exceptionally well. One of my neighbors was head of product testing at Montgomery Ward, so I brought him all my samples for testing. I also worked with the labs at Sears and J.C. Penny. These guys had machines that would try to rip fabrics and battings this way and that, test for heat and flame resistance, things like that. I had the Sears guys test a lot of battings, including my early lamination experiments.

I finally left Fiberfill in October of 1973, went into a partnership with some friends in New York, and began independently producing and selling laminated packages. The business was immediately successful, and it was nice to be free from a big corporation telling me what to do all the time, but the truth was, after over 14 years of high-powered sales work, I was burned out.

I had a sailboat, which I’d sailed from NYC to Nantucket and every place in-between for 5 years.

The next chapter is about my sailing trip which lasted for 15 months.

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