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Chapter 4

1977-1988: The Laminal Years

After Olam I went into the contract-laminating business, starting a new company called Laminal. As the name implies, this began as a laminating operation, and my original goal was to promote one of the best and most underappreciated textile products in the world, laminated continuous-fiber insulation.

Susanna and I had moved to Columbia, South Carolina, and the new company was based out of there. I was in one of Columbia’s industrial districts, in brick building with about 15,000 square feet of work space.

I built my laminating machine at that time, using what I knew about the way continuous filament battings were made and the many laminating machines I’d seen when I worked in the Garment District. I still use that machine today at Wiggy’s.

Even back then I was calling these laminated continuous-filament battings Lamilite, though I didn’t officially trademark that name until June of 1989, after I dissolved the Laminal company. I still had good contacts from my days at Fiberfill, and soon I was supplying almost every ski-mitten manufacturer in the country. Then I got a big account supplying insulation to a company out of Florida that made all the skiwear for Sears. I had just two other guys working for me at that point.

I was making my original Lamilite out of Polarguard, which at that time was the most popular synthetic insulation in the outdoor industry. All of the companies making sleeping bags were quilting the Polarguard, and hence compromising its insulating properties and were buying from a California company called Reliance, but I purchased mine from a factory in Pennsylvania, Camden Fiber Mills, the same company I used to rep for when I worked at Fiberfill, when Celanese first came out with Polarguard in 1968. Given the rate at which businesses change hands in the fiber industry, sourcing the best fiber for Lamilite has been a continuous challenge, which I’ll talk about a little in the next chapter. But at first, I was buying from a source I knew well.

To compliment my laminating business, I soon took on some other outerwear related work and diversified into quilting and then general sewing. I hadn’t planned to do this, but my business was new and small and struggling a bit, and I got an offer I couldn’t refuse. When I worked at Fiberfill, it was a big company made up of many specialized subsidiaries. One of these was called Multistitch, who did all the company’s quilting. Well, one Sunday evening in 1978 one of the guys who owned Multistitch, Bernie, called me up and said he was down in Columbia and wanted to talk to me.

We got together, and after catching up a bit about the events in the four years since we’d worked together, Bernie told me that one of their largest accounts had moved down to South Carolina, and in order to keep the business they would need to open a quilting operation in Columbia. They needed someone to run it, and would I be interested? I was.

It turned out to be a really good deal for me. Multistitch paid for all the quilting machinery, picked up two-thirds of my rent and utilities, and gave me as much work as I could handle. I was now running two companies, Laminal, my previous laminating business, and the joint venture with the Multistitch guys, which went by the name of the Columbia Quilting Corporation.

After about a year and a half, Multistitch no longer needed their new factory, but now I had a foothold in the quilting business and there was money to be made. I took these new capabilities, bought their equipment for a great price, and we dissolved the partnership. Laminal now had almost 15 employees. I moved across town to a much larger place, and sublet some of my space to a couple of guys from Canada who sewed bedspreads. I sent plenty of contracts their way, but after only 10 months they decided they didn’t like the work. They moved out, taking their sewing machines but leaving their cutting tables and feed rail. I bought some machines, hired some operators, and began doing bedspreads myself.

In the years following I did a lot of business quilting bedspreads, mostly for hotels. I a job for 1400 bedspreads one year for lodges in West Yellowstone, and filled a similarly large order of bedspreads for the new cruise-ship company Carnival, when they were just launching the “fun cruise” concept that changed their entire industry. I don’t want to say those bedspreads were tacky, but they sure were colorful! I did this kind of contract work from 1978 through the mid 1980s, eventually with a workforce of about 25.

In 1981 I turned 40 and began to get increasingly impatient with the state of my business. I had good contacts, but I was a small operation, competing with others who had been doing this work for 40 years, so it was tough. I struggled to do maybe five or six hundred thousand dollars worth of business a year, also, the business landscape of the outerwear industry was changing dramatically. In the early 1980s I laminated a lot of fiberfill for glove and mitten manufacturers. Quite suddenly, all that business disappeared. It wasn’t just me who lost the business. All the American manufacturing companies felt it. The work was rapidly disappearing overseas.

As I write this, 30 years later, we all take it for granted that almost everything we wear is produced in Asia, but in the 1980s there was still a lot of domestic production, and American companies, like mine, were still trying to produce things themselves, at home. But times were changing. I remember one conversation with a client that really made these changes clear.

I was quilting the linings for wool coats made by a company named Campus Sportswear.One day I met their buyer, who had come down from New Jersey, a really nice guy, and I said to him, Jim, how about skiwear? I saw an opportunity to sell some Lamilite, which I thought was a much better and more modern product than the quilted linings I was making for Campus Sportswear’s dress coats. “I can buy a complete ski jacket made in Asia, delivered to my warehouse, for $21,” he said.

I saw then what I was up against. In the US, you couldn’t even buy the material for the jacket at that price. I saw the finished products—they were really nice. For pennies on the dollar in terms of labor costs, the Asian factories could make a beautiful, highly detailed jacket, and Jim could mark it up over 300 percent, sell it to Macy’s, and they could mark it up again and sell it for $150. The average quality you get now is much lower, but at the time the Asian factories were doing beautiful work for next to nothing. There was no way to compete against it. This came as a big shock to me. Little did I know that I was witnessing the death of the American garment industry! By the 1990s, it would be a done deal.

Another issue I was having had to do with being a contract operation rather than a manufacturer. I was a good salesman, but when you do contract work it’s less a matter of going out and selling your product than it is waiting for others to bring work to you. I started thinking more about getting back into retail and the sleeping-bag business. I said to myself, “I can make the best bag the world has ever seen.” I had the knowledge to make it—that would be the easy part—but after my experience at Olam, I also knew that it would be another thing entirely to sell it successfully.Little did I know just how many obstacles there would be!

Early on I made a bit of progress, making a few laminated bags for Camp Trails, a Phoenix-based company whose founder had invented the aluminum-frame backpack. I also had some promising meetings with Lowe Alpine, a Boulder, Colorado, company that was at the cutting edge of mountaineering gear at the time. (Their products included the revolutionary Footfang crampons. They also started a camera-bag line called Lowe Pro, which became a separate company that is still successful today.) Lowe was diversifying into sleeping bags and clothing, and was very interested in my laminated-fiber technology. Both companies are still around, though they are corporate entities that bear little resemblance to the small, personal businesses they were then. Actually, Camp Trails had already been bought by Johnson Wax by the time I worked with them.

Anyway, I collaborated with each brand for a few months, and was quite disappointed when neither sleeping-bag line worked out. Both companies had creative people working for them, and I learned some things from my association with them, both pro and con. One thing I learned is that gear designers can be extremely unrealistic about the costs of certain design and sewing details, versus the benefits of those details. It helps explain why so many outdoor companies do their sewing in sweatshops overseas.

Another issue that plagued the laminated bags was retailers’ aversion to the styling. You see, back then, and even today, retailers expect a top-of-the-line sleeping bag to have transverse stitching across the top of the bag. That stitching comes from the baffle construction needed for a down-filled bag, and shingle-style synthetic bags, which really don’t work very well, probably became popular because they mimic that look.

If the top of the bag was smooth, like it is on a Wiggy’s bag, the shops were afraid that customers would think it looked like a cheap sports-store-type bag and wouldn’t pay the same price as they would for a bag with stitching. (My mail-order business has since proved them wrong.) Never mind that every transverse stitch line creates moisture retention points and/or cold spots. The whole beauty of the laminated-fill process is that it allows you to eliminate that stitching and create a much more efficient insulating layer. Regardless, the shop owners just didn’t want to educate themselves and their customers about why a smooth finish was the new state-of-the-art. Instead of taking a chance, they clung to the look of old, outdated technology.

I needed to pay the bills, so I kept the sleeping-bag plans on the back burner and continued with various contracts, mostly quilting. Finally, I think it was sometime in 1985, I got a call from an old acquaintance, Charlton, who had been a regular customer of mine at Olam. He was a good outdoorsman who had worked for both Pacific Crest and Colorado Outward Bound, and done a six-month tour in Antarctica. He wanted a sleeping bag like the ones I’d made at Olam. I wasn’t doing much laminating at the time, but I still had some laminated Polarguard lying around left over from the Sears ski-jacket account, so I made a sleeping bag—made several, actually—but never sent it to him.

The main reason for that, probably, other than some personal issues with Charlton, was that I wasn’t completely happy with the detailing in the prototype. The mummy-style design was solid, tracing its heritage, before Olam, back to a pattern I’d gotten from a designer I greatly respected, George Lamb, who founded Camp 7, as well as Alp Sport and Alpine Designs before that, all in Boulder. These were some of the country’s top outdoor companies in the 1960s and ‘70s, and I’m not alone in believing that George was one of the best outdoor gear designers of all time. He and I skied together quite a few times over the years, and I stayed with him when I was in Boulder and rode his horses. I later purchased the pattern for my Wiggy’s Antarctic Parka from him. He had no flash-in-the-pan designs, no frills, just extremely functional, durable, correct products, which is my style, too.

My sleeping-bag design was tried and true, but my execution wasn’t yet what I wanted, so I postponed sending anything to Charlton. Instead, I showed my prototypes to two other friends who had a backpacking shop in Columbia. They were brothers, Lewis and Malcolm, and just like Charlton I had met them during the Olam days. They were close friends of mine. In fact, Susanna and I had moved to Columbia largely because of those two, and our social scene there included many friends we met through them. Lewis and Malcolm were as close as two brothers could be, and people sometimes thought that I was a third brother.

These guys ran a decent shop, but like most outdoor retailers of the day, and even now, they had trouble paying their bills on time. Every six months I would lend them money to pay off The North Face and Sierra Designs for the previous season’s merchandise so the companies would send them their new stuff. I let them return the favor this time by critiquing the quality and detailing of my prototype bags against what they were getting from the established companies.

I made a few cosmetic changes, and pretty quickly the bags were ready to market. I was proud of them, and so I created a brand name for the sleeping-bag line: Wiggy’s, after my nickname. It was 1986. These were the first Wiggy’s-brand bags, although at that time they were made by my company Laminal, and the company Wiggy’s did not yet exist. I figured that Lewis and Malcolm would give me an order for a dozen or so bags and my new business would be on its way.

But they balked. They didn’t order any bags for the shop. They talked about putting Wiggy’s bags in their rental program, but decided that would create the need for an inventory in case someone wanted to buy one. That sounded perfect to me, of course. Unfortunately, they ended up refusing to go that route. Lewis was adamant that the shop couldn’t carry a brand that didn’t do national advertising. Our friendship was never quite the same after that decision.

Nevertheless, I persevered and got a small mail-order business going. I took out some modest ads in Backpacker Magazine, and sold to some of the same retailers who had carried Olam bags. Turns out Lewis and Malcolm weren’t the only ones who wouldn’t carry my bags in their shops. Apparently The North Face had a network of“exclusive” dealers in the Southeast, and if you wanted to carry North Face, you had to carry only North Face, or you would lose your contract. It was a pretty cutthroat competitive tactic, and this was the first time I’d heard of it used in the outdoor industry. Not one shop in the entire Southeast carried my bags, though some in California and elsewhere did.

My sales amounted to perhaps a few hundred bags in 1986—not great, but I was confident that I was on the right track. I was sick of contract quilting, and committed to my new venture. That winter, Lewis and I—yes, we were still friends—and another guy were driving up to ski at Sugar Mountain, a resort near Boone, North Carolina. On the way, Lewis asked me, “Where do you think you’re going to be in five years?” I said, “I will be the largest single sleeping-bag manufacturer in the United States.” There was some hubris in that answer, I guess, and maybe I wanted to prove something to Lewis in appreciation for his good work not helping me. But the fact was, in five years, it would be true.

My big break came the next year, 1987, not through mail order or the retail shop—not even through my official Wiggy’s line—but through a contract to make sleeping bags for the US Forest Service. It was a strange turn of events, since I hadn’t even bid on the contract myself, but got it through a guy, Howard Thayer, who ran a company in Tennessee that got—and still gets—all of the big contracts for military bags.

I don’t know how he found out about me, but Howie called me up and said that he knew of a company (turned out it was a company his brother used to own) who needed to get 14,000 sleeping bags made for the Forest Service. They didn’t have time, and did I want to do it? I said sure.

A few days later we all had a business meeting in Clinton, Tennessee, and within a week they were putting a couple of dozen new machines in my factory to make these bags, at a rate of 1000 bags per week. As it turned out, before we had made the first 1000 bags the order had grown to 17,000, and it kept growing.

My workers were nice people, mostly women at that point, but they were not productive workers. Most of them were working very short hours—in order to keep their welfare benefits, I soon realized. There also were some problems with drinking and drugs. Up until this point I had managed to get the work done, but I dealt with a lot of personnel issues and had to keep a much larger workforce than I would have with reliable fulltime employees. Once the sleeping-bag contract work kicked in I had to hire more people still. The magnitude of the problem became clear to me that year at tax time, when, in order to maintain a workforce equivalent to 35 workers, I found myself filling out 160 W2 forms!

My personnel issues made it increasingly difficult to fulfill my Forest Service contract obligations. Then the order grew even more. Finally, increasing production demands and decreasing productivity began to push me to the brink, and I needed a radical solution. As it turned out, my workforce nightmare would soon force me to make good on a longtime dream—to fold my general contract-sewing company and open up a new manufacturing business, under a new name, in a new state.

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