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Chapter 3

Olam and My First Bags

After arriving back in Miami, I wasn’t sure exactly what my next move would be, but as a new husband, raised the way I was, I felt a strong obligation to work. I’d certainly had plenty of time to think about what I wanted to do. Getting out of New York had given me some perspective, and living on the water for a year plus had made me a much more relaxed person than when I was selling every day.

At this point I knew insulation better than anyone in the world. I wanted to capitalize on that somehow. There were a lot of people already established in the business, of course, and I needed to find my niche. I knew that there was one product—laminated continuous-fiber insulation—that had a huge untapped market potential. Yet for a variety of reasons, I’d been unsuccessful at getting anyone in the industry to seize the opportunity. If it was going to be done, I’d have to do it myself.

We sailed the boat back up to North Carolina and left it at a friend’s marina in Oriental, near the south end of Pamlico Sound. Then we got a car and drove up to Susanna’s parents’ house in Chappaqua, not far from New York City. I looked around to see what kind of jobs were out there, and sniffed around for other opportunities. There was a laminating operation in Peace Dale, Rhode Island that was looking for a salesman. I went over for an interview, but my sense was that they didn’t think I would fit in with the company’s New England image. Maybe I looked a bit to them like a Caribbean pirate, with my full beard. That area—Newport, where they ran the America’s Cup races—would have been a good place to keep the boat, though, so at least I wanted to check it out.

Finally I called my friend Oscar in New York, who knew more people in the industry than anyone else in my acquaintance. By then I’d made some more decisions. I told him that I wanted to get into the sleeping-bag business and needed to find a factory.

Oscar thought about this for a while then referred me to a guy named Roger Sload. Roger had a sewing operation down in Spring Hope, North Carolina, the “Pumpkin Capitol of the South,” or something like that. It was about 40 minutes east of Raleigh. Roger worked on contracts of various kinds, and at that time he was making a lot of children's snowsuits. On my way down to Florida to pick up the boat, I stopped by Roger’s shop to meet him.

Spring Hope itself was a small town, with a downtown consisting of one main street. The total population was less than 1500. Roger’s shop was located in a rural area about a mile outside of town, a modest-sized, relatively new steel building that stood by itself in a field. There was a tomato farm next door, and during the summer months the sewing operators would sometimes go out and pick fresh tomatoes for lunch. The daughter of the farmer worked for Roger, so they had some privileges.

Anyway, Roger himself was in his mid 40s, neat in appearance, a little guy, maybe five-foot-six or -seven. It was clear from the beginning—and even more clear when I got to know him better—that he really knew his stuff when it came to manufacturing soft goods. He’d done all kinds of things, graduation gowns, airplane seats, outerwear, you name it. Roger understood the best sewing practices for any particular construction detail, and just as important he knew how to get things done efficiently (and therefore inexpensively). All his work was on a contract basis, so he had become a master at accurately bidding for projects.

For example, I mentioned airplane seats. Roger had a set of seats in his sample room, three in a row like you’d see in the coach section. I asked about them, and he told me they were left over from a project he did for Ozark Airlines. He told me that the airline had called him for a quote to reupholster seats for their fleet. Labor only, the company would supply the materials. So Roger went to the Ozark offices, looked at the sample seats, took some measurements, and on the spot, after just a few minutes of sketching and figuring, gave them a price. So they said OK, thanks, we’ve got some “value engineers” who are going to look over the project and your bid, and we’ll get back to you with their evaluation. Well, it took a month for the engineers to do their business, count every seam and fold and stitch or whatever they did. I wonder how much they got paid for all that? In the end, they came up with a price that was only 10 cents per seat different from the one Roger had given Ozark on the spot. That was typical accuracy for him. Show Roger a seam, and he could tell you, to the minute, how long it would take one of his workers to do 100 of them.

Skill-wise, if it was a sewn product, Roger could do it as well as the best in the industry. He always insisted on using the correct sewing techniques. He was a master of cost-efficient manufacturing, but he wouldn’t try to win a bid by doing things the cheap way. When sewing with nylon, for example, he always used an overlock stitch for the seams, even if the stitching was on the inside, because nylon fibers are slippery and regular single-needle stitches allow the edge of the fabric to ravel, which will quickly weaken the seam. A lockstitch machine is more expensive, and the seam itself is significantly more time-consuming to do, but it wraps the cut edge of the fabric so it won’t ravel, even after multiple launderings. In Roger’s opinion, you just had to do that with nylon. For me I couldn’t have had a better teacher.

We do the same thing today at Wiggy’s, but many companies don’t look out for those simple details. That’s a big problem with the outdoor industry shipping so much manufacturing overseas, in my opinion. I’m getting ahead of myself here, but for example, in 2012, I took apart a sleeping bag from a very reputable company, Mountain Hardwear, that was marketing a new lamination technology I was curious about. The bag was made in China. Now there’s nothing necessarily inferior about Chinese workmanship. It’s more a matter of failures in communication and accountability. Anyway, Mountain Hardwear did a poor job on the lamination concept, I thought, doing a very incomplete job of stabilizing the fiberfill by using tape-like strips, only near the seams, instead of laminating the whole batting. I was especially shocked at the quality of the stitching. The single-needle seams were already badly frayed in a brand new bag. You couldn’t see this from the outside, but a bag like that will never hold up for long. I believe it lasted less than one season.

So, I was immediately impressed with Roger’s skills, and he and I went into business together in a 70/30 partnership, with him in charge of the production and me doing the sales. I was really enthusiastic about the arrangement. I was finally doing what I wanted to do, selling laminated continuous-fiber insulation, which I knew to be the best insulation in the world, despite the total lack of industry support for it. We called our company Olam Outdoor Sports Products. The “Olam” was Susanna’s suggestion. It’s a Hebrew word sometimes translated as “infinity,” but more accurately as “a distant time.” In our case we intended it to refer to the long lasting nature of our products and the fact that our signature insulation—laminated Polarguard—was long overdue in the marketplace. We used the eternity symbol in our logo. All but the name has been carried on at Wiggy’s.

Right away, my partnership with Roger was a great success for both of us. Roger had a good business going in Spring Hope, but prior to teaming up with me he did exclusively contract work. Without a product line, your production schedule is erratic. If you have a big contract and a tight timeline, you need a lot of workers. Roger sometimes had 50 people sewing for him. Once the contract is filled, however, you can’t keep all those people busy. Sometimes Roger could only employ 10 people. When you have your own line, you have a lot more control of your monthly volume and your delivery schedule. You don’t need to keep hiring people and laying them off.

For me, this was my best opportunity yet to focus on a product I really believed in. At that time, and even today, I considered myself primarily a seller of insulation, specializing in sleeping bags and outerwear and sporting goods applications. I’d seen a lot of kinds of insulation, and knew that laminated continuous-fiber insulation was the best product for the job, but as I’ve said, no manufacturers wanted to buy it. Either they had some vested interest, like a subsidiary quilting operation, and were too locked in to a different type of product.

In the specialty outdoor market, I had approached most of the major companies that made sleeping bag:The North Face, Gerry, Class 5, Alpine Designs, Alpine Products, Sierra Designs, Kelty. None was interested in laminated Polarguard. It was a political thing, or a failure of imagination, I think. One of the main problems was that they were concerned about customers not liking the “look” of a laminated-insulation bag. Expensive synthetic sleeping bags, the conventional wisdom went, were supposed to have that stitched-across look you get from the baffles that are necessary for down insulation. A nylon shell without that stitching was associated with cheap sporting-goods store type bags. And most companies just didn’t understand the technology’s benefits. If I was going to sell laminated insulation, I knew I had to bypass the manufacturers and sell finished consumer products. By teaming up with Roger, I was now able to do just that. We sold several thousand sleeping bags that first year.

Coming from the base of an established contract sewing business, rather than a small start-up, we had an advantage over our competitors when it came to big orders. The small companies could make half a dozen bags each for a few different specialty retail shops, but they couldn’t supply the volume needed by any of the larger sporting-goods stores. Some of our competitors in 1976, companies like The North Face (which at that time was only about eight years old and based out of a small retail shop in San Francisco), Sierra Designs, and Snow Lion, had very little experience in industrial sewing. They would do things like cut out patterns one at a time, while Roger had us cutting the nylon at 50 or 100 ply, and insulation at 10 or 15 ply. And Roger could cost things out very accurately, so we knew just what to charge. We kept an inventory, so we could ship out bags immediately, while the smaller operations would make all the bags to order. In short, we could deliver when other companies could not. This is why Wiggy’s customers very often call sying they are amazed at how quickly we ship orders.

The main thing I saw in my competitors is that they really didn’t understand synthetic insulation. Down sleeping bags, OK, they could do those well. It takes a lot of sewing to make all the baffles to hold the down, but the insulation itself is pretty straightforward. With synthetic-insulation bags, there are a lot more choices—denier of the fiber, if the fiber is continuous or chopped, how the fibers are bonded, etc. Each insulation type requires different techniques, and the sleeping bag companies didn’t really understand all that. They were especially clueless about how the different construction methods held up to laundering. To this day they are still clueless.

But of course in the 1970s, down was still the gold standard for premium sleeping bags. Synthetic insulation had a bit of a stigma—people thought it was something to be used in cheap car-camping bags and such. Many customers expected that any bag over $100 would be insulated with down. In the store, down bags feel softer, more compressible, and generally more attractive. The trouble is, if you are going into a wet environment, down won’t work. It turns into soggy clumps. You absolutely need a synthetic if there’s a chance of getting exposed to water. Or, if you’ll be out in very cold weather for a long period of time, ice will build up inside the bag.

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of down. It’s very light and compressible, but it just can’t be trusted. I think synthetic-fiber insulation is better, period. Maybe you’ll say I’m biased, but spend enough time out in really harsh conditions, when your life depends on your insulated gear, and you’ll change your mind. Therefore, the only synthetic insulation to have in your sleeping bag or outerwear must be Lamilite continuous filament fiber insulation.

Anyway, when it came to synthetic-fiber insulation, no one in the sleeping-bag business had seen what I’d seen, selling all kinds of insulation and visiting many, many factories like I had when I was at Walla and Fiberfill. I had seen garment companies encounter all kinds of problems working with various insulation types, and so I knew how to avoid those problems myself. For example, some of the companies were trying to quilt continuous-fiber insulation. Bad idea. A quilting machine is a multi-needle sewing machine, and when the needles go down through the insulation and come back up, they often pull up a few insulation fibers. It can’t be helped, but with short fibers, it’s a no big deal. The fibers work their way through the fabric and fall out. Continuous fibers are another story. The pulled filaments just keep on coming. You get foot-long loops of fiber sticking out everywhere. They’re tough, like fishing line—you can’t just break them off. If someone’s expensive sleeping bag does that, they are going to return it. The companies lost a lot of money on returned bags. They still do today. Actually I do not know of any other companies making sleeping bags who use continuous filament anymore.

At Olam, though, we also had a run of returned bags. In our case, it had nothing to do with the sewing or insulation. Our problem was zippers. We used the YKK coil zippers. They are attractive zippers, svelte-looking and lightweight. Customers seem to like them—when looking at bags in the store. The problem is, they are notorious for failing. That was our problem at Olam, coil-zipper failure. We changed to the heavier #10 molded-tooth zipper and never had another return. At Wiggy’s, that’s all we use or have ever used, the YKK #10. We get complaints sometimes about the look and weight, but I learned the lesson at Olam and I’ll never use those coil zippers at Wiggy’s, regardless of how pretty they might look. Wiggy’s is also the only company making sleeping bags that does use thee #10 YKK molded tooth zipper.

In addition to sleeping bags, we did jackets, mittens, and booties. That was it. Our designs were pretty simple, but they worked. The Wiggy’s products I sell now are very similar to the ones we made at Olam. I’ve never been interested in chasing every new fabric or insulation trend. When you’ve been in the business since the early 1960s, you’ve seen a lot of products come and go. A lot of this stuff is not really new. And some of the new stuff—don’t get me started about Gore-Tex, for example—became successful because of marketing, not performance.

The whole marketing machine in the outdoor industry irritates me. My products have never been very popular with the outdoor magazine editors, mainly because I have very little patience with those people, and have told them what I think of them on many occasions. I’ve been banned from their on-line forums, because I have requested that they never mention my name or company. Editors need to keep the big advertisers happy, and need to promote the latest new thing, regardless of whether it works. The people I most care about are the ones whose actual survival depends on warm, durable, no-nonsense, insulated products—people like Coast Guard rescue teams, all the Special Forces, dog mushers and hunters. They buy my products year after year.

All in all, Olam was a positive experience for me. Living in the South was a big change from living in Manhattan, but I was more focused on the work than the cultural differences. We had plenty of friends. Susanna had lived in Selma, Alabama, when she was in her early teens, and before that her family was from Texas, so she was comfortable in the South. She had started college at a girls’ school in Bristol, Tennessee. At first we lived in Wilmington, a large port city in southern North Carolina, near Cape Fear. It was about a two-and-a-half hour drive from the factory, and I’d only go up there every few months. After about six months we gave up being near the water, sold the boat, and moved to a small town 16 miles from Spring Hope, Wendell (named for Oliver Wendell Holmes). That worked better business-wise, though I’m not sure Susanna preferred it.

Pretty soon, Roger and I came to the end of our partnership. Ironically, it was our success that ended it. We really needed to expand, which would require a substantial bank loan. But Roger had always worked with a small North Carolina bank that didn’t have enough capital to risk $250 thousand on us. The bank president actually held a business interest in Roger’s operation, and Roger really didn’t want to change banks. We were making a living, but I didn’t want to stay poor, so for me, the choice was either to expand or bail out.

The next year I sold Roger my share of Olam and we parted ways. There were no hard feelings. Roger kept Olam going for a while. I also sent him contract business from time to time. I felt good about those referrals, because I knew my clients would be very satisfied with Roger’s performance on any project.

In all, I was in business at Olam for a year and a half. Last I heard from Roger he had hired on with someone else and was doing well with that, but that was a long time ago.

The education I received working in a manufacturing facility was incredible. It would be hard to duplicate getting this education today.

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