A Spectra® Fiber partner
Based in Portland, Oregon, NW Alpine design apparel to fulfil the technical needs of today’s alpine climbers. We asked Cameron Larson, Brand Manager, to give us his take on NW Alpine’s unique partnership with Spectra.
First, can you tell us about your greatest alpine adventure?
As an ambitious young climber, I attempted a challenging snow and ice route on the north face of Big Four mountain in Washington state. My climbing partner and I underestimated the difficulty and time it would take. Two-thirds of the way up the 4,000-foot face, the winter sun began to set. The steep aspect offered little in the way of ledges to stop on. So, we were extremely lucky to find a small sheltered ledge, which was big enough for one of us to half lie down and the other to stand. We alternated like this the whole night, trying to stay warm. About eight hours in, the hallucinations started. We heard voices and saw lights that weren’t there. After what seemed like forever, the sun came up. We then made the long technical descent back to the base of the mountain and our car.
“Ultimately, Spectra is reinvigorating what was a dying market with exciting fiber that’s being used by global league climbers.”
Brand Manager, NW Alpine
This was my first unplanned winter bivouac with no sleeping kit. The clothes we were wearing saved our lives. We were lucky to escape with minor frostbite and a good story. Following this experience, I understood the importance of creating quality apparel.
What initially inspired the start of your company?
Bill Amos started the brand in 2010. Back then, he was a schoolteacher. But really, the teaching was to subsidize his summers off to go around the world climbing mountains. Bill realized that dramatic shifts were taking place in the technical apparel industry. All outdoor brands were moving into a lifestyle model. Suddenly, the big players were focusing on lifestyle goods instead of innovative fabrics geared to serious climbers.
Bill saw an opportunity. He could start a brand and have it made regionally here in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. With design driven by true climbing athletes, rather than product designers, and limited product runs, he could keep his costs competitive. So, he started producing handcrafted athlete-driven apparel.
By 2014, the brand had gained a cult following in Japan, Korea, the UK, Central Europe and North America. The products were a big hit with a niche community of hard-core climbers. That’s when Bill asked his friends and family to jump in and finance a small factory. At that point, there were two salesmen and Bill. Now we’re up to about 30 sellers and operators in our own dedicated factory.
Do you field test your own products when you’re out climbing?
Yes. Everything that we put out is tested for at least one full calendar season. We test all our products ourselves. We literally have no overheads. Everything’s tested by people at the company, and our international team of brand athletes. So, all our products are tried out in different extremes across the planet.
What is it that you love about your job on a day-to-day basis?
I really enjoy working in a manufacturing environment. It’s not where I saw myself when I was leaving university 10 years ago. I started out making bike parts. From there, I moved on to beehives for urban and backyard beekeepers. I enjoy helping small businesses to grow. I love seeing a product develop from the ground up – every step of the way – it’s a real buzz. All my friends work in the IT industry and they have no idea how things are made.
What makes the Fortis T-shirt so special?
The Fortis T-shirt is the first of its kind globally. This shirt is the first of, hopefully, nine different products that we’ll have out in the next two years. It’s the first time the Spectra Fiber made by Honeywell has been used as a next-to-skin material. The shirt itself is a knit like you’d find on any other sort of shirt. It’s made up of 92% polyester and 8% Spectra.
It makes sense to use Spectra. After all, climbers and mountaineers already rely on that fiber in their ropes and safety gear due to its incredible strength to weight ratio. Now they can rely on it as a stabilizer in their clothing to go the distance through the rough and tumble of all types of climbing – from rock to ice.
If you’re in a long-sleeved shirt during spring climbing and you puncture that shirt with your crampons or an ice pick, for instance, it will not further tear apart or unravel. Now we have a shirt that will continue to last for another 10 to 20 years. Thanks to Spectra that little hole won’t get any bigger.
We know you spend a lot of time getting your products just right … What compelled you to choose Spectra instead of alternative products?
We chose Spectra because our bestselling product contains a similar material. Two years ago, a company we worked with developed a laminate material that we used to create a jacket that’s 100% waterproof, 100% breathable and weighs less than 2 credit cards.
We wanted to create another product with that same fiber, but the company we were working with wasn’t interested. Fortunately, Honeywell was. So, we’re designing a new hoodie using material called ripstop, that you find in tents and other outdoor gear. In this case, it’s ripstop with Spectra in it. Beyond that we’re looking at laminates. And beyond that, we’re looking at using Spectra in whole-knit construction for really cool socks, maybe even shoes.
Did you find it easy to work with Spectra to create the product?
A little too easy. I say that because now we find it difficult to work with anybody else. Today’s global sourcing means that fabrics may be made in one country but go through a distributor in another country. There’s a lot to consider: lag and lead times, custom colors, weights, compliancy… The textile industry is surprisingly complex.
Fortunately, the folks at Spectra have been behind us every step of the way. They’re fun to work with too. We were just at a trade show in Colorado called Outdoor Retailer, a huge convention for all the big brands, and we built up this mobile Sprinter van that acts as a retail store. The guys at Honeywell provided cushions for the van that were made of the same material used in our T-shirts. So, we have a great relationship with the Spectra team. Then there’s the innovation that’s being driven. They’re excited, we’re excited, and we’re willing to try any of the new stuff that they come up with.
We have an expression: rising tides float all boats. Honeywell is working with so many different independent companies. They’re incorporating Spectra Fiber into all these applications. They’re building relationships and working with all the different mills that produce the fabrics. And as part of that, they’re connecting NW Alpine to all these innovative textile manufacturers. Ultimately, Spectra is reinvigorating the outdoor recreation market with exciting fiber that’s being used by global league climbers.
If you could make absolutely anything out of Spectra, what would you choose to make?
We’re very excited about a new future in global fashion that’s just starting to hit the market. It’s early stages for the technology. But within three to five years, we’ll see many more garments. It’s called whole garment knitting – one machine knits a complete garment (like 3D printing). Our dream is to be the first company in the world to use that technology to create things with Spectra.
Can you tell us more about the new hoodie set for release in March?
The full-zip hoodie will be a step up from our current base-layer T-shirt. It’s what we call a mid-layer. It’s 30% Spectra and 70% nylon. What’s exciting is that more Spectra means more durability. Plus, Spectra has natural cooling properties, so it will draw away moisture and be cooler for the wearer in high temperatures.
Any other concepts in the pipeline that you’re working on with Spectra?
We’re working on ripstop material for technical trail running. Our running collection is called Mountain Running, and we’re using the ripstop material in a jacket with another innovative material called eVent to make it 100% waterproof and breathable.
Thinking further ahead, we’re not in the footwear industry yet, but Portland Oregon is home to Nike and the North American headquarters for Adidas. So, there’s a major footwear community here. And we want to work with someone locally to put out a Spectra-knit shoe. The possibilities are infinite.