August 2, 2015

Tom's Down Jacket 1973

Tom's Down Jacket 1973

Submitted for your approval: a down jacket, built circa 1973, for my brother Greg -- one of probably fifty down jackets or vests I made when I was in my teens.

Tom's Down Jacket 1973

It's made of the standard 1.9 oz ripstop nylon and filled with high-quality duck down. I purchased the materials from David Meeks' shop -- Custom Alpine Equipment -- in Santa Cruz. David opined that the slightly higher fill power of goose down was not really warranted for a down jacket, and neither was the slightly lighter weight 1.5 oz ripstop nylon fabric. As an acolyte of David and his modest philosophies, my very early down jackets, vests and sleeping bags tended to follow somewhat his designs. I didn't copy his work, but was very influenced by it.

David was a believer that a down jacket or vest was strictly an insulative layer: if it was blowing or raining or snowing, you were supposed to cover it with a pullover wind breaker or rain shell, never wear it on its own. As such, his designs eschewed a front zipper and relied for closure upon simple, fool-proof metal snaps.

As down jackets made their way out of the mountains, to be worn on their own on city streets, many manufacturers gave in to customer demand and made jackets with a front zipper and a snap-closing flap covering it, and David did too eventually. The jacket I made for Greg only had snaps for a front closure. After a while, though, he complained enough that I sewed in a zipper under the snaps for. If you look closely, you can see that the zipper was sewn with a different color thread and was clearly added after the fact. When your big brother makes a request, you gotta listen.

Tom's Down Jacket 1973

David always felt that keeping things as simple as possible was key to both happiness and safety in the wilderness: make equipment that was durable and very unlikely to ever fail, but also simple enough so that if it did fail, you could fix it or work around any failure. Zippers are more prone to fail than snaps, and if you do manage to break a snap, you can still close the damn jacket up pretty well and get off the mountain safely. A lot of modern equipment has gotten very light weight, and often that's a good thing: modern materials can often be just as tough as the old stuff but lighter. However, some modern equipment doesn't have much reserve built into it: it functions just fine so long as the sailing is smooth, but particularly bad weather or bad luck can turn things sour pretty quick if your equipment isn't up for the challenge. (I'll be riffing more on this topic in another blog post.)

But back to this jacket: of particular note is a feature I was experimenting with at the time. In an effort to keep one's shoulders from poking through the down so much, it has a third layer of fabric sewn into the lining over the points of the shoulder, this extra layer containing a light fill of extra down in this critical area. This extra fill is held in place with chevron quilts ("V" shaped quilt lines instead of straight quilt lines) that you can see only from the inside of the jacket. My idea with the chevron quilts was, because of their orientation, that the down would actually tend to fall towards the point of the shoulder rather than away from it.

I thought it worked pretty well -- perhaps too well, as it somewhat further exaggerated the Michelin Man look to which down jackets are prone, and Greg ultimately didn't feel warm shoulders was worth the aesthetic sacrifice. This down jacket is now at our factory and headquarters in Seattle as part of our collection of early designs.


John Warren - November 19, 2019

I still have one of these… in Forest Green. I think Tom made it in ’76 or ’77. My wife wears it now on snowy days.

TB Crew - November 19, 2019

@John Warren Hey John – if your wife ever wants to give that jacket up, we’d love it for the museum. We can give you some trade value for bags!

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