Above tree line, the temperature drops so fast once the sun’s gone it feels like a different planet. When you’re diving into your parka, zipping up, cinching down the hood against wind and graupel, you’re not thinking about who decided where the pockets go, or where the insulation came from or any of the dozens of details that combine to make this jacket your shelter in this moment. None of that crosses your mind, nor should it. You just want the thing to work.
Still, your scramble to get into your parka is precisely what focused the explorations and efforts of a host of minds and energies. All of the parka’s details began as questions that were asked and answered to create a tool that works exactly as it should, when it has to.
Building any product is damn complicated and takes an astonishing number of people. In his 1958 essay, “I, Pencil,” economic philosopher Leonard E. Read recognized the humble No. 2 pencil as the unlikely assembly of “millions of tiny know-hows.” In a more recent experiment, British designer Thomas Thwaites tried to make a rudimentary
toaster from scratch by himself and found it practically impossible, confirming that collaboration is critical to success (Thwaites’ end result is worth looking up online). In fact, combined effort and expertise is what allows anyone to make anything.
Such hands-on problem-solving has always been at the center of Patagonia. In a tiny shed that served as a smithy, our founder Yvon Chouinard and a couple of his fellow climbers fired and hammered their own steel pitons for pioneering ascents on Yosemite’s granite walls. The same Tin Shed to this day acts as a touchstone for a few simple Patagonia rules of thumb: Make it right. Make it to work. Make it to last.
Today at Patagonia, we hammer out futuristicprojects in the in-house advanced researchand development center we call the Forge,named in tribute to the original ironsmith shop.Set on the main floor of our headquarters inVentura, California, the Forge is a creativespace focused first and foremost on solvingproblems. With a stable of machines that rivalsand even surpasses many factories in depth ifnot in scale, the Forge offers a unique resourcefor design, materials and product developmentteams trying to answer questions, a place theycan experiment and explore an idea from conceptto completion—with their own hands, onstate-of-the-art equipment. Part museum, partplayground, part library, part laboratory, theForge serves as real-time proving ground forPatagonia’s mission statement: Build the bestproduct, do the least harm, and inspire andimplement solutions to the environmental crisis.
Slightly smeared scribbles have always played a crucial role in Patagonia product development. Director of Field Testing Walker Ferguson jots down thoughts while Senior Product Designer Christian Regester (left) and Snowboarding Ambassador Forrest Shearer gear up for another outing. Cajón del Maipo, Chile. Juan Luis De Heeckeren
CIRCLE, NOT BOX
Ideas come from anywhere: mountains, oceans, rivers, but also cotton fields, recycling centers, classrooms, dinner tables and urban settings. They may come from athletes or employees or customers. In the end, all Patagonia products are created equal in the eyes of the Forge. An interesting problem unearthed by a lifestyle product, such as a T-shirt or a pair of hiking pants, receives as much attention and brainpower as a technical high-alpine shell. For example, the recent “Fleece Project” took an untraditional tack, according to Steven Yui, director of advanced R&D in the Forge. Instead of following a top-down directive to create a specific garment, “the materials team gathered different amazing fleeces from around the world and brought them back to the design teams and the Forge, and said, ‘Create something incredible with this.’” This type of approach, says Yui, widens the circle and “invites people to create and to make.”
It takes designers, engineers, technicians, production specialists, athletes and field testers, working closely together, to achieve the higher level of sophistication and understanding the Forge is designed to reach. Projects then cross-pollinate and inform each other. This allows solutions to carry, when appropriate and useful, into different styles and categories, transporting the deep work done in the Forge all the way to the customer.
Glen Morden, VP of product innovation, material and development, feels that projects that weren’t successful were a result of not collaborating enough. “If something didn’t work, it’s because we didn’t know things we would have known had we involved more people. The black box model where no one knows what’s happening limits you on how much feedback you get and the progress you might make. We succeed when we stay open-minded and collaborative, by having the humility to invite others to help.”
The Grade VII Parka
QUESTION: WHAT DETAILS MATTER IN THE WORLD’S HARSHEST HIGH- ALPINE ENVIRONMENTS, AND CAN WE BUILD A BELAY PARKA THAT ADDRESSES ALL OF THEM?
The details and construction of the Grade VII Parka, our pinnacle high-alpine down parka, revolve tightly around the realities of brutal mountain environments, so we meticulously incorporated input from our most visionary alpinists, like Anne Gilbert Chase and Steve House. For example, keeping down insulation in place and lofted is critical to keeping a climber’s body warm. Advanced Research and Development Prototype Engineer Ming Kwan devised a painstaking but elegant solution. “I thought the best way was to make each down chamber like a shoebox, where the shoes inside it wouldn’t touch the shoes in the box next to it. Each chamber has four corners to seal in the down so it won’t swim into the next chamber and leave cold spots.” Other details include vertical hand pockets (so you can belay with your brake hand in a pocket); glovecompatible zipper pulls with a spring pull tab; and flapped pockets that keep snow out even if you forget to close them.
The PSI (Personal Surf Inflation) Vest
QUESTION: AS SURFERS REDEFINE WHAT’S CONSIDERED POSSIBLE IN BIG WAVES, HOW CAN WE HELP THEM STAY SAFER IN CRITICAL SITUATIONS?
We spent more than five years developing the PSI (Personal Surf Inflation) Vest in the Forge. Supporting multiple rapid inflations and featuring a dump valve for quick deflation between waves, the PSI Vest is a pioneering tool for use in the heaviest, most hazardous surf—a tool that wouldn’t be possible without the specific knowledge and feedback of an array of engineers, technicians and big-wave surfers who have tested and proven the vest in critical situations. Ian Walsh is one. On a massive day at Pe’ahi, he took off late and caught an edge as he knifed into the face. “After a violent fall and a long time underwater,” he remembers, “I started thinking about the second wave of the set. I triggered the vest and surfaced with only seconds to spare before the next wave broke. After a quick exhale and deep inhale I was back underwater again, but with the vest inflated I was able to roll close to the surface like a buoy would, find a couple of extra breaths and then keep my head above water as the oxygen came back into my body.”