Last month, I reviewed the Ultimate Down Hat ($49) from Black Rock Gear, a new cottage gear manufacturer on the outdoor scene that specializes in making ultralight down clothing. Since then, Black Rock’s founder, Evan Cabodi, and I have had an active email correspondence about high tech fabrics and sewing and stitching techniques and I’ve been very impressed by his hard-won encyclopedic knowledge of the area.
There was a moment early on when we started exchanging email, where I knew I could never convey Evan’s personality and drive to you as well as he could, so I asked him to participate in a section hiker interview. I like doing these interviews to give smaller manufacturers exposure to a wider audience and to recognize individuals who contribute to the outdoor community for their efforts on our behalf. I think you’ll find Evan’s responses below particularly interesting because they provide a vivid picture of the hurdles that small businesses have to overcome to get off the ground in the outdoor community and the all-consuming passion that drives Evan to make such fantastic down hats. We are lucky to have many fine cottage industry manufacturers in the lightweight hiking and backpacking community – please show them your support this holiday season.
And now – here”s Evan Cabodi from Black Rock Gear.
What are your favorite outdoor activities and what part of the United States do you call home?
I simply love the outdoors whether I’m in my garden or hiking in the Cascades. I’d say that rock climbing is my passion and it is one of the reasons I was drawn to become part of the outdoor community. I really like the technical aspect of climbing not to mention that it gives me a good excuse to hike and camp all the time. I call Seattle home and just love the area. It’s got a very diverse outdoor scene and gives me the chance to play outside a lot.
How did you get started sewing your outdoor clothing and equipment?
Rock climbing is my passion. I just love everything about it from the people to the gear. I just wanted to be a part of it and was tired of my desk job behind a computer so I figured I had to come up with an idea where I could live it instead of playing it on the weekends.
Now I’m not a tailor by trade, I’m actually a Chemical Engineer, but I think it’s that background and desire to know everything in detail that helped get me going. I started with a simple idea, the Ultimate Down Hat, and then worked from there learning everything I could about the industry. I’d never made any of my own gear before but realized that if I wanted to become a part of the community, I’d have to learn everything I could.
Where did you learn so much about sewing technique and fabric?
I started by dissecting every piece of gear I own, spent hours milling through outdoor gear at stores, and comparing every spec I could find online. I took notes on how everything was made, measuring seam allowances, looking at stitching and comparing fabrics. I read through books and picked the minds of people already in the industry. I then focused on down gear and looked at everything from generic REI brands to products from top of the line companies.
After a while it became obvious on how to do things, so I created a set of standards I wanted to follow for the product I eventually ended up going commercial with. It had to be something I’d want to use myself and therefore required the best materials possible, top quality construction, and outstanding durability in adverse conditions.
Can you run us through the history of the Ultimate Down Hat and some of the design decisions you made during its development?
The idea itself started with a sketch while on a climbing trip to the City of Rocks. I love my down jacket; it’s one of my favorite items, and I thought “Why not a hat”?
Down has all the qualities I’m looking for in a piece of gear: it’s lightweight, warm and has an excellent temperature range. It’s a sustainable insulation compared to synthetics, very compressible, and can be worn in sub zero temperatures.
After learning more about fabric and sewing techniques, I took to designing a prototype on paper. A major design hurdle was building a three dimensional piece of gear. Down items aren’t simply fabric sewn together like a jacket. Instead, they are constructed as two separate layers with a sandwich of down in the middle. Loft and baffle size were the two biggest decisions to make. Should I use differential cuts and actually baffle the hat or simplify with sewn through design? It turned out that a ½ inch loft was nearly perfect for the hat, and if I created something with enough baffles, I could evenly distribute the down to maximize the warmth.
In the end, I must have gone through 20 prototypes before settling on the style and design of the current hat that’s available today. It’s a carefully handcrafted piece of gear focused on providing the right balance of warmth and functionality, while trying to maintain a sense of style, because we all know our gears gets used more when it looks good too!
What would you say are the biggest challenges you face as a small cottage manufacturer?
I would say a big challenge for me is time. I’ve got plans to expand my gear selection but having the time to build each item is getting harder to find. Spreading the word in a market saturated by big businesses who sell just about every piece of outdoor gear is tough, but so is competing against their prices. It’s hard to compete when most of your competitors simply give up producing something locally and move production to third world countries.
I hope to stay local, focus on being environmentally conscious, and create a brand name that is synonymous with quality. Building a sustainable local business is my goal and I believe I can do that even against the odds of the outdoor giants who make widgets by the millions. They’ll never provide the same quality and service that I can provide, or give people pride in the gear that they wear, knowing it’s helping support our local economy.
Who or what inspired you to launch Black Rock Gear?
After working in industry for 10 years, I decided that what I really wanted to do was start something that revolved around my passion for the outdoors. I wanted to make my own hours and work for myself. I eat, sleep, and breath climbing, so I needed something that would give me better options to do what I love.
Where is your “factory” and how many employees do you have?
My house is my makeshift factory to the dismay of my wife. I’ve got rolls of fabric, bins full of down, and papers scrawled with ideas floating everywhere. There are down plumules that seem to run the place and you can’t go two feet without picking up another hat. I don’t have any full time employees but I do have a small group of buddies that help in any way they can. One buddy helps with computer images, another with photos and they each hold the title of Field Representative and Gear Tester.
I continue to evolve my manufacturing process and have spent a lot of time working to streamline it. I now have specialized tools, jigs and patterns that I’ve built, with more on the way. They’ve helped me to make a better product, and with more innovation, I’m hoping to keep up with demand while continually making new and better products.
What is the significance of the name “Black Rock Gear?”
The name was simple, I love to climb, and I felt the name should reflect that. I spend a lot of my time climbing at a place called Index on beautiful granite, most of which is black from lichen. It just seemed natural to call the company Black Rock Gear.
What future products do you have on the drawing board?
I have a lot of new items in the works, but I obsess about details and design, so development for a new product can be slow. For now I’m focused on down gear and would like to see how far I can take that before branching out. Just off the top of my head, I’m working on an extreme version of the Black Rock Hat which will have an ultra-light waterproof outer shell. I’ve also been toying with baffle design and may produce an expedition version, although quantities will probably be very limited. Not many people need gear for 40 below on a daily basis.
I’m also experimenting with more natural fibers and would like to start using Merino wool as an option to the wicking lycra I currently use. I also follow many of the forums and try to learn what others are using or want for their day to day gear. I see great potential for more light weight easily packable gear and layering which is why I’m prototyping a lightweight down booty which I’d describe more like a down sock. Combine the Black Rock Hat with something for your feet and you’ve just taken your 30 degree summer bag to the next level without having to purchase another bag or carry another pound.
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