Tom’s first designs: down jackets

Tom Bihn in 1977 wearing one of the down jackets he made
Tom, at 17, wearing one of the down jackets he made.

Last week, we shared with you this note that Tom sent to Mary, who commented as she placed her order for a new Medium Cafe Bag that she found our website through Google, but knew Tom as he went to school with her kids and made down jackets for them. You told us you wanted to learn more about Tom’s days making down jackets, so here you go.

Tom’s first cutting table was the family’s Ping-Pong table flipped upside-down; his first sewing project was a down jacket made from a Frostline kit. It was hard work, but Tom was hooked. Soon after that, Tom met David Meeks, then-owner of Custom Alpine Equipment in Santa Cruz, California. Dave was an avid Yosemite climber and mountaineer who designed and made his own line of down jackets and sleeping bags; Tom purchased raw materials for his projects from Dave, and Dave was generous with his time, showing Tom industrial sewing tricks he’d figured out over the years.

Tom Bihn's mentor Dave Meeks
Dave Meeks

It wasn’t long before Tom was taking orders from friends, classmates and teachers for his down sleeping bags, jackets and vests, all designed and sewn one at a time by Tom. A sectioned-off part of the family garage became the sewing and down-filling room and was known affectionately as “Feather City.”

For his own use, Tom made various internal and external frame backpacks (including an external frame made of PVC pipe — not a good idea, it turned out), tents and sleeping bags, which he tested on backpacking trips in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Sierra Nevada and the Pacific Northwest. Tom continued his exploits in the outdoors with the West Valley Hiking Club, hiking the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island and a stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington before he was 14.

Tom Bihn on the West Coast Trail

Over the years, into his teens and twenties, Tom taught himself the art of patternmaking and in the early 1980s began focusing his creativity on daypacks, briefcases and messenger bags.

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