The Story behind 420 Denier High Tenacity “Parapack” Pack Fabric

Our 420d HT nylon Classic Parapack in OliveOur 420d HT nylon Classic Parapack in Olive.

420 denier, high tenacity, type 6.6 nylon fabric was originally developed for the military for use in parachute backpacks — the thing on the guy’s back that holds the parachute. Paratroopers needed a fabric that was smooth so as not to hang up on anything as a jumper left the plane; it had to be light (obviously); and it needed to be strong so as not to be easily punctured or abraded. These same qualities gave it great appeal in the blossoming outdoor-recreation industry; 420d HT nylon became the staple backpack fabric in the early 1960s, almost entirely replacing cotton canvas. At one time, virtually all high-end backpacks were made of 420d HT “Parapack” (short for parachute-backpack) fabric.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a renewed interest in health, nature, and the environment coevolved with an interest in self-propelled outdoor recreation: hiking, backpacking, cross-country skiing, even mountaineering, became mainstream pursuits. And pretty quickly folks realized that all their new, light, and durable outdoor equipment functioned just as well back in town as it did in the wilderness. Quilted jackets made of ripstop nylon and filled with goose down appeared on city streets, and small backpacks designed for day hiking became de rigueur on campus. Of course, it wasn’t long before large, corporate (or soon-to-be large and corporate) interests saw the potential in this new market. I’m going somewhere with this, so hang tight.

I’ve already mentioned that 420d HT nylon is light, strong, and smooth, but I didn’t mention what it’s not: neither easy to dye, nor cheap. Just like our 1050 denier, high tenacity, type 6.6 ballistic cloth, 420d HT does not take dye as readily as type 6 (or “regular”) nylon. It dyes somewhat inconsistently and often ends up with a slightly heathery appearance (which I’ve grown to really like but can drive our fabric inspectors a bit nuts because it’s not consistent). Lots and lots of daypacks made of 420d HT were sold, and the sellers pushed the fabric mills for something cheaper. Some technically driven, small-time manufacturers wanted quality; some larger companies wanted low cost. Enter 430 denier (type 6 nylon) pack cloth: it was smooth, it was light, it was easy to dye consistently and evenly, and it was considerably less expensive. It was less densely woven, not as strong or abrasion resistant, but price, not quality, was now in the driver’s seat.

At about the same time as all that, texturized nylon fabrics (like 1000d Cordura®) were developed as alternatives to both smooth nylon pack cloth and cotton canvas. Their texturized look and feel made them plausible alternatives to cotton canvas, but they were lighter and more durable. The market share for 420d HT Parapack fabric continued to shrink and the mills ran less and less of it, resulting in it being difficult to obtain. Eventually, even high-end manufacturers abandoned 420d HT Parapack.

By the late 1980s, most backpacks were manufactured offshore, and Southeast Asia was making their own Parapack simulacra, with nominal deniers ranging from 400 to 430. Most of it was low quality, none of it high tenacity, but it was cheaper than U.S. made 420d HT. By the 1990s, with U.S. made 420d HT fabric nowhere to be seen, smooth nylon pack cloth became generally equated with low quality products, and understandably so.

Fast forward to 2013: when we went down this nostalgic rabbit hole, looking for fabrics from which to build the new Guide’s Pack and the Founder’s Briefcase, we were delighted to find some undyed, unfinished 420d HT nylon in a warehouse on the East Coast. We had it dyed to our own colors and we’ve pretty much fallen head over heels with it. The mill says they can weave more for us and we hope to add another color or two early in 2014. In addition to our 420d HT nylon Classic Parapack simply being a beautiful, densely woven, tough-as-nails fabric, its smooth surface entirely lacks an affinity for pet hair, lint, sweater fuzz, and snow. Combined with our 1050d HT ballistic fabric in high-wear areas, it makes The Guide’s Pack an amazing bag of which we are particularly proud.

And the revival of 420d HT Parapack continues: we’ve made our Small, Medium, and Large Café Bags, Synapse 19, Synapse 25, 3D Fabric Organizer Cube, and 3D Mesh Organizer Cube available in 420d HT Parapack.


Accessory Strap Holders: Return of an Icon

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

Accessory strap holders were originally designed as a means to allow the user to add lash straps to a backpack to secure either items that were oddly shaped (such as ice axes or skis) or to extend the capacity of the pack (by adding a sleeping bag in its stuff sack or perhaps a rolled-up ground pad). Eventually, these usually diamond-shaped patches became emblematic, symbolizing that a pack was a real outdoor pack. Of course some manufacturers then sewed them on pretty much every pack they made, even school/book bags; most people had no idea what they were for and even if they did, well, few students carried ice axes anyway (probably for the best).

The earliest versions of these patches were made from thick, full-grain leather: they were often stiff and hard to use, especially when soaking wet and/or frozen (by that point, the user’s fingers were usually wet and/or frozen too — what fun). While leather is quite abrasion resistant, it doesn’t have much tear strength, so even the heaviest leather couldn’t support much weight. As accessory strap holders filtered down from genuine outdoor gear to mass-market consumer goods, the quality of the leather used declined as well. And unless regularly treated with leather conditioner, even the high-end, full-grain leather patches would become brittle over time.

In the 1980s, many manufacturers began switching to simply using a short piece of nylon webbing sewn down to the pack fabric (both ends were tacked down or included in a seam) as a replacement for leather patches. Though the stitching was often an area of acute stress, this solution was still stronger than the old leather patches, and usually easier to thread the lash strap through as well. These loops of nylon webbing, or sometimes a full daisy chain of loops in webbing, have now become the industry standard, and they work pretty well.

(There was a brief period — very dark times indeed — when black plastic strap holders, molded to look vaguely like the leather patches they replaced, made an appearance. They typically would fail after a few seasons’ use, plus they were . . . less than attractive.)

When we first considered revisiting some of the old designs, I became obsessed with developing a new version of the once-iconic, diamond-shaped accessory strap holder. I wanted to make something that spoke to the aesthetic of that era, but was more useful, stronger, and didn’t tend to absorb water. After a lengthy search for the right material and endless iterations of the shape, size, and sewing pattern, I think we’ve nailed it.

My final design is composed of a short length of nylon webbing, sewn (with substantial bar tacks) onto the fabric at the same time as a die-cut patch of synthetic felt. The synthetic felt is evocative of heavy leather, and though it’s quite strong, it bears none of the load: the nylon webbing provides all the strength. The synthetic felt provides reinforcement at the area of stress — at the stitching — and nicely covers the hot-cut ends of the webbing. I designed both a single version (the common diamond shape) and a double version. Double accessory strap holders are useful for lashing skis or a yoga mat onto the side of The Guide’s Pack; they also provide the optional/removable side pockets with a sweet spot to secure to the pack (via the Annex Clips included with the pockets).

Optional Accessory Straps are available in matching coyote brown: choose from a pair of 24″ straps (used to secure a small sleeping bag or mat) and a 10″ strap (to secure an ice axe), both made from 1″ wide nylon webbing.


New designs tomorrow

Tom working on the new designs
Summer 2013: Tom working on one of the two new designs debuting tomorrow.

New: Knitting Tool Pouches

Knitting Tool Pouches

Our Knitting Tool Pouches are the latest design to debut from our ongoing collaboration with Amy Singer, Editor of Knitty®.

Knitting Tool Pouches can be used on their own, or together as a system. They offer a new style of tool organization allowing for modular and expandable containment of as many or as few tools as you might use. Each pouch features an O-ring on its corner, allowing you to connect the Knitting Tool Pouches to our optional Double Carabiner or to a Key Strap or Handle Loop.

Though designed with knitting and crochet tools in mind, these handy pouches can be used to organize and store anything you can think of that’ll fit in them.

Knitting Tool Pouches. $13 – $15. Available for order now; in stock and ships within one business day.

TOM BIHN Little Swift and Knitting Pouches

Knitting Tool Pouches

P.S. The Little Swift is once again available for backorder in these color combinations: Aubergine/Aubergine/Wasabi, Black/Black/Ultraviolet, and Black Dyneema/Black Dyneema/Iberian.

The new Cadet briefcase

TOM BIHN Cadet Briefcase

A new version of the Cadet — it now uses the same checkpoint-friendly laptop “rails system” as the Synapse 25, Synapse 19, Tri-Star, Brain Bag, and Smart Alec — in colors Black/Steel, Black/Wasabi, and Steel/Iberian is now available for backorder with a shipping date of late November.

The Cache and the Rails System Explained
Every Day Commentary Reviews the Cadet

Pre-order: Cache for the iPad Air

The Cache, Size iPad Air, in Horizontal and Vertical orientations is now available for pre-order.

The Cache is designed to protect your iPad Air against scrapes and scratches and is sized specifically to fit the iPad Air with or without a Smart Cover. The Cache protects your iPad Air with little bulk added and is ideal for those who don’t want their iPad Air sleeve to make their loads heavier or to take up a lot of space. It cradles the iPad Air in .25″ / 6 mm thick foam padding laminated with an exterior of heavy-duty polyester knit and an interior of brushed tricot. With no noisy Velcro® or zipper, the Cache closes by simply tucking a generous flap into the top opening.

$30. Available for pre-order; ships by mid-November.

TOM BIHN Cache specifically sized for the iPad Air

Introducing Black 400d Dyneema®/nylon

In late 2012, we introduced a new weight of our Dyneema/nylon ripstop fabric: 400d Dyneema®/420d nylon. It’s tough enough to serve well as an exterior fabric in our travel bags and backpacks yet it’s still ultralight in weight.

Our 400d Dyneema®/420d nylon was first introduced in colors Steel grey and Nordic blue. Now we’ve added a third color: Black

Smart Alec in Black Dyneema/nylon
Smart Alec in Black Dyneema/Black Dyneema/Wasabi. Photo by Mason Drumm.

The great tear strength of our 400d Dyneema®/420d nylon ripstop and its surprising abrasion resistance comes from the grid of white Dyneema® yarns woven approximately every .25″ / 6 mm parallel to both the X and Y axes (the weft and warp), forming the distinctive “ripstop” pattern (the Dyneema® yarns don’t accept dye and hence remain their natural white color).

Black Dyneema and Steel Dyneema Aeronauts
Left: the Aeronaut in Black Dyneema and Right: the Aeronaut in Steel Dyneema.

Ready to ship in Black 400d Dyneema®/420d nylon ripstop:
Aeronaut, Black Dyneema/Wasabi
Smart Alec, Black Dyneema/Black Dyneema/Wasabi
Side Effect, Black Dyneema/Wasabi
Synapse 19, Black Dyneema/Wasabi

Available for pre-order in Black 400d Dyneema®/420d nylon ripstop:
Co-Pilot, Black Dyneema/Wasabi
Tri-Star, Black Dyneema/Wasabi

Pattern Water Bottle

TOM BIHN Pattern Water Bottle

Our patterns are templates for making our bags. Patterns make it possible for every bag we make to be as perfect as Tom’s final prototype. There’s an art to pattern making; a graceful pattern can mean the difference between a pocket that lays smooth or one that doesn’t, or a sewing process that is efficient or one that isn’t.

Just like the recently introduced 32oz Motto water bottle, our 24oz Pattern water bottle is Made in U.S.A. by Liberty Bottleworks.

$20. In stock and ships within one business day.

Our latest collaboration with and Amy Singer

Earlier this year, we decided it was time once again to collaborate with Amy Singer, Editor of Knitty®, on the design of new knitting bags and accessories. Yeah, we could’ve Skyped, but we thought it’d be even more fun to bring Amy out to visit us at our Seattle factory/company headquarters. And to celebrate the occasion, we hosted a knitting party at Metrix Create:Space. People brought their Swifts and showed us how they use them/what they carry in them, knitted, talked, we showed everyone the prototypes we’d been working on over the weekend… and Amy even tried to teach Tom how to knit (that didn’t go so well) and Tom showed Amy a couple of things on a sewing machine (that went well).

Here’s just one of the prototypes we came up with (a tool pouch):

Knitty and TOM BIHN working together

Read the story of Amy’s visit over at the blog — and learn how you can be entered to win one of the two very last Knitty Swifts available.

RWB Pocket Pouch

RWB POUCHES ARE SOLD OUT! Thanks to everyone who placed an order over the past couple of days; you’ve kept us pretty busy today! Note that we’re pretty much out of the limited edition RWB Pocket Pouch at this point and the window for ordering one is now over.

Limited Edition 4th of July Pocket Pouch

We came up with a limited edition RWB Pocket Pouch to celebrate Independence Day. It’s made out of our Cardinal Red U.S. 1050d ballistic nylon, features contrasting Sapphire Blue trim and is lined with Iberian Red Dyneema/nylon with its signature white ripstop grid. Just so there is no doubt about it, we added a “Made in USA” label just to remind everyone where we make our stuff.

Place an order over $20 now (today, Wednesday, July 3rd) through Friday, July 5th at 12:30pm Pacific Time, put “RWB Pocket Pouch” in the comments box during checkout, and we’ll include a complimentary RWB Pocket Pouch in your order. This applies to pre-orders or backorders as well: we’ll include the RWB Pocket Pouch in your order whenever your order ships.

(Remember that the colors red, white and blue are also the national colors of Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cuba, the Czech Republic, France, Iceland, Liberia, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, the Philippines, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Thailand, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom. So even if you don’t live in the U.S., you might still like this pouch.)

The fine print: if the RWB Pocket Pouch proves even more popular than we expected, we could possibly run out. We’ll make more (as long as we have the materials to do so) but it might mean that your order will be delayed up to a few days while we catch up. Please note that we cannot add the RWB Pocket Pouch to existing pre-orders or backorders or orders placed prior to this announcement. This can be the unfun part of something otherwise so much fun — we love to be spontaneous and make something special to offer to everyone, but, no matter when we time the announcement or how much advance warning we give, some people will have ordered just before (or just after) the window for getting the special thing. The best we can offer: this won’t be the last time we do something like this!

And hey: hope you have a fun holiday!

Tao works on the LE Pocket Pouch

TOM BIHN 4th of July Pouch

TOM BIHN 4th of July Pouch

Fits an Apple mouse

4th of July Pouch fits a multitool

TOM BIHN - Made in USA