Sew Your Own Outdoor Gear

How to sew sleeping bags, clothing and parkas from kits.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
March/April 1984
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A sew-your-own kit includes precut and marked materials with detailed instructions for making outdoor gear.  
PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF


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Most of the "make your own" articles we've collected for this outdoor gear primer lean heavily toward the rustic and—in a few cases—the downright crude. And there's nothing wrong with that . . . we like rough-and-ready projects, or we certainly wouldn't be recommending them to you! However, what if you want something extra nice . . . like, say, a Thinsulate-lined winter parka with hood? Well, unless you are a seamstress (or seamster) extraordinaire, that project would entail a bite of work that might prove to be a little too big to chew. And if you tried to buy such a coat, you could expect to spend about $125!

So there you sit, perched uncomfortably atop the horns of a dilemma . . . damned if you do (try to design, cut, and sew the parka yourself, that is) and broke if you don't (and opt instead to buy the darned thing).

But wait! There is a solution: You could sew your own by purchasing a kit that comes with all the parts precut and marked so that all you have to do is follow a set of detailed instructions. And that $125 winter parka can be yours, in kit form, for $66.50. That's a saving of nearly half! 

Furthermore, for the moderately experienced seamstress or seamster, kits can offer more than economy: They can be downright instructive in the ways of the stitch-and-hem, putting you several steps closer to actually being able to make your gear from scratch. And too, a kit-produced garment can give you the satisfaction of having done something for yourself, of having climbed a little farther out of the consumer rut.

But—you may well be wondering—what potential problems lie in wait for the would-be kit completer?

Well, our collective hands-on experience says to take the "Anybody can do it, even if you have no sewing experience!" come-on with a grain or two of salt. Of course, each kitmaker's products are different. But you do need a basic knowledge of sewing and its jargon—and, of course, a sewing machine—to breeze through a-kit project.

Two down-filled parkas and a sleeping bag/comforter—all three items made from kits—were stitched together by a friend of MOTHER EARTH NEWS way back in 1974, and we can attest that all of them are still going strong and looking good! So, yes, kits can help you to save substantial money and still have the very best . . . if you can find what you want in kit form today.

Outdoor Gear Kit Industry 

Before we dove into the research for this article, we envisioned it as little more than a catalog of the many sources available for mail-ordering those moneysaving outdoors-gear kits. We started, in fact, with a list of no less than a dozen reputable suppliers and hoped to turn up even more. But it's strange the things a little digging can unearth, things that are often totally unexpected . . . and what we wound up with is a story about the growth, overgrowth, and subsequent near-demise of the outdoors-gear kit industry. In short, there remains today only one large-scale supplier, and even that one lonely outfit—Altra, Inc., of Boulder, Colorado—has drifted away from backpacking and camping gear . . . and specializes instead in fashionable outdoors clothing, especially apparel for the ski slopes.

And behind that newsas you may well suspecthangs a tale.

It was only a handful of years ago that those dozen or so kit makers were going strong, with Frostline (the outfit that started it all back in 1966) well in the lead, followed close at heel by Holubar and the other, smaller, outfits. Both Frostline and Holubar were founded by outdoors folk who knew and cared about their products and their customers. And, for a while there, it looked as if they'd tapped into a market with no bounds, one which promised to stretch beyond the $50-million-a-year sales figure and threatened to make deep slashes across the heart of the retail ready-made market. Well, the aroma of that kind of money is bound—sooner or later—to attract the big fish . . . and it did.

And the offers those big fish dangled under the noses of the two leading little guys were too tempting to pass up. As a result, both of the kit-industry leaders sold out . . . Frostline to Gillette, and Holubar to Johnson's Wax. Holubar has since been sold, by Johnson's Wax, to North Face (a one-time Holubar competitor) and has departed not only from the kit market but from its mail-order endeavors, too. Holubar is now strictly a retail-outlet operation offering no kits.

And Frostline has fallen on very hard times indeed. In early 1982, Gillette's Frostline sold 14 retail stores, reverting to a lower-overhead, mail-order operation. Then—in February, 1983—when things hadn't improved and Gillette couldn't find a buyer for the now-on-the-market Frostline, the firm decided to liquidate its substantial inventory in order to lower the selling price, and so closed down its production facilities.

As this issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS goes off to the printer, it looks as if—unless a buyer appears real soon—Frostline will rest in peace by the time you read these words. However, if you've recently purchased a kit from Frostline, there's no reason to go into shock, since the folks there assure us that they will honor their warranties right up to the last kit sold . . . and, as long as supplies hold out, they'll keep someone around to "correct kit problems" up through June 1984. Frostline has always enjoyed a good reputation, and—from all appearances—it intends to keep that good name right to the very last. The outfit has been around a long while now, and more than a few folks hate to see it go . . . including many of us here at MOTHER EARTH NEWS.

And what about those other, smaller kit makers? Well, they've all fallen along the way, for various reasons, leaving Altra as the only "old fish" (it's been around for nine years now) in what was once a very well-stocked kit-maker pond.

Then again, a few new guys have jumped into the business of late . . . but, like Altra, they're specializing in clothing and other items (stuffed animals, for one!) that are even less related to the outdoors person's needs. As far as we've been able to determine (and we've searched far and wide), there is currently no manufacturer offering kits for backpacks or tents. Furthermore, the only sleeping bag kit available is from Altra, and that product isn't even listed in the firm's current catalog (the bag is described in a separate brochure, which you have to request in addition to the free catalog).

What's happened here? How did a thriving outdoors-goodies kit market shrivel and all but die? Well, it's logical to surmise, at least in the cases of Frostline and Holubar, that when they were bought by mega corporations that expected to make megabucks, expenditures for advertising and promotion and facilities and inventory and employees and corporate bureaucracy—overhead in general—went up. And, of course, higher overhead demands higher profits, and higher profits necessitate higher prices, and you can guess the rest from there.

But that's only conjecture on our part. What both Frostline and Holubar say accounts for the demise of the outdoors-gear kit industry is more market-oriented, and includes several elements. First of all, times have been hard of late, forcing more women to take jobs . . . thus leaving them with less time (and energy) for sewing projects. The second element is the comparatively recent introduction—and aggressive marketing—of (primarily Oriental) imported outdoors gear that sells, ready to pack into the field, for less than the prices at which the American companies are able to offer kits! And while corporate inefficiency probably can't be totally dismissed as a causal factor, there's no doubt it's true that—as Holubar and Frostline say—in this throwaway age, price is often a more important criterion for buying than is quality.

Still, the kit industry is far from rehearsing its swan song. Sure, we'd like to see someone step in and take up where Frostline—for whatever reasons—has been forced to leave off . . . and at least one manufacturer is considering testing that tempting water. But for now, the cost-conscious outdoors person can at least take advantage of what is available . . . a good assortment of outdoors clothing (and that one elusive Altra sleeping bag).

Consult the following trio of kit makers . . . one survivor (Altra), and a couple of new contenders. Somewhere in one of their catalogs you might find your fancy, new, low-cost whatever!

Sew-Your-Own Kits


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