Berkeley Backpacking Biz - Old School, New School, No School

A Review of Product Development for Sierra Designs

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Doug Thompkin in Cagoule, 1966 Sierra Designs catalog

Starting Out

After getting the business set up in October of 1965, and renting a building in Point Richmond, we then went to work on some of the most basic things. Building a cutting table about 30’ long by 60”wide, renting some sewing machines and buying a large roll of pattern paper. We also bought some typical tools used in the sewing industry, such as scissors, rulers and other drawing tools.

As the samples began to come, we hired the first of our sewing ladies, Mrs. Reba McWhorter. Strangely enough she outlasted all of us and was still there long after we had departed by late 1984. The next lady was named Reva Tinsley and then one of our co workers at The Ski Hut, Anna Lim. Then Peter Langmaid who was an invaluable employee for a long time until he was dismissed in an unfair move years later. He moved on to Seattle and was then a long time employee for REI.

Our first wholesale customer was Doug Tompkins (pictured right in the 1966 SD Catalog) who was running an outdoor products company in North Beach, San Francisco called The North Face. He had some suggestions as to the things we should make. We had our own ideas too based on our time working for George Rudolf at The Ski Hut. I will list them here in the order I best remember.

The Sleeping Bags

We started with three basic styles Model 100, Model 200 and Model 300. At one point during the making of the patterns, Bob came to me and asked for suggestions for names for these three styles. I was not inclined to think of anything clever so just asked him if 100, 200 and 300 would work. He agreed and thus those become the simplest names of all. (specs and detailed images of all the products can be seen in my other work A Brief History of Sierra Designs).

While working at The Ski Hut we made a double mummy which seemed to be a good idea. Even though all of the other sleeping bags could be joined up together the double mummy remained in the line until 1971/72 when it did not show up in the Bodie Catalog.

We made a down filling machine using an old upright vacuum cleaner with two hoses attached, one for drawing up down and the other for blowing it into the compartments of the sleeping bags and a bit later for down garments too. The down was put into a large fabric hopper suspended from a sensitive round face scale that could read in fractions of an ounce. This system was used for several years.

Before too long we had the three women sewing for us in the shop. But to make all of these sleeping bags we were able to find women who would work in their homes as contractors. One of these women was my mother Marie Marks who was our specialist for the expedition bag the Model 300 which was also the most complicated bag. By the time we had moved to Berkeley we needed a full time person to do the filling work.  One of the sewing contractors was Mrs. Huey. We hired her husband Gim Huey to do the down filling. He turned out to be more than just a down filler. He became so sensitive to the quality of the down that if he felt that one of the bags he opened was of sub quality he would inform us immediately. He worked as our down filler for a long time until one of Henry Gruchacz’s friends Allen Foster developed a machine that could do the work much faster and increased accuracy as it could measure in grams. Gim retired and stayed at home helping his wife Mrs. Huey by sewing on the baffles of the sleeping bags.

Sierra Designs Sleeping Bags from the 1974 Catalog

While still in Point Richmond, as we continued to work making a number of samples of everything Bob decided that we needed a small retail outlet in order to sell them. We walled off a small space in the front of the building to the right of the door for the store and the other half to the left was Bob’s office which was pretty small and cramped.

Our location was not really what one would call good for this type of sales, but as it turned out there were several maritime seamen who would walk by on their way to the long pier where ships would tie up to discharge oil to the large Standard Oil refinery across the way. In addition to that word of mouth began to circulate and people began to look for us. The prices were always good so we had no problem selling them, no matter how bad they looked.

By this time we were also developing a line of clothing, down and shell. Some of the early efforts were so bad they were an embarrassment, but the sailors did not mind and of course the prices were very low.

After moving to Berkeley a few years we were selling great amounts of sleeping bags and there seemed to be no end to it. Until one day when I opened up the main door as was my daily chore, I noticed a sign stapled on the power pole just in front. It was announcing a new outdoor company called Snow Lion (http://www.oregonphotos.com/Snowlion1.html) you can read its history on the link shown here. Essentially that marked the end of our successful run of sleeping bags. They had gone to Hong Kong and faithfully copied and in one respect even improved the sleeping bags. The prices of course were much lower.  For years dealers had told us what geniuses we were but when it came down to prices, it was just business, nothing personal (this was pre God Father so the quote did not come from him). Our dealers abandoned us en mass.

At a meeting of our national sales staff, the manager of the time Barry Perlman suggested that we abandon the sale of sleeping bags all together. I was opposed to that idea and since we were in the outdoor products business it was inconceivable that we would not have sleeping bags in our line. I told the members of the sales staff that I would create a line of sleeping bags so good and so expensive that no one would even think of copying them. The result was the Cloud Series of sleeping bags introduced in 1978. They were beautiful, expensive and were thought to be only a token of what we had to offer by keeping sleeping bags in the line.  We showed them at the National Sporting Goods show in Chicago of that year. The response was astonishing. The dealers loved them and orders began to flood in. They came in two color combinations, blue on the outside and an ivory color inside and blue outside with a light blue inside. The blue/ivory combination was greatly admired but the concern was that it could soil easily so the result was the two blue combination ended up as the one that sold. Finally when it was all over we found we had a large inventory of the ivory color nylon. More about that in the review of the tents. The Cloud Series ran for some time but eventually were replaced with more traditional sleeping bags.

Sierra Designs Cloud Series Bag

The Tents

Bob had some ideas for the initial line so we got busy and soon had three tents, The Meadow, Wilderness, and the Glacier. The Meadow was made with cost in mind, the Wilderness was not concerned with cost but designed to be as low in weight as possible. The Glacier was to be a high altitude tent that could withstand all conditions. We had to work on this style for a long time before we got it right but it was worth the effort as it turned out to the real winner of all the tents we had made.   We used to get some astonishing letters from people who had been subjected to near fatal conditions where the Glacier Tent protected them from high winds and even in one case where the owner said rain water came down so heavy and fast that the tent rose up and floated on the flood as it passed underneath. As I read the letter I was expecting to hear of a disaster but at the end he just said, “You make the best two man tent in the world”

One of my neighbors was a tug boat captain working on the San Francisco Bay. He was also a bee keeper and one day he suggested that I should make a tent with a hexagonal floor plan as it was nature’s most efficient use of space. He also said I could then use only three poles. So shortly after that I went home and after a few martinis (our drug of choice at that time) I came up with the drawing of what became known simply as the 3-Man tent. Later our catalog sales manager, Ms Jean Nagy, renamed it the 3-Person tent. As it turned out this was the perfect small family backpacking tent. A short time later Bob came out of his tiny office and told me that “my pet project” as he liked to call it was outselling all of the other tents.

At one point he decided that it was a bit small so he made a larger one called the Pleasure Dome. But one of the features of the 3-Man (Person) tent was its weight of only 8 lbs. The revised model exceeded that and the resulting poor sales of the Pleasure Dome proved that weight was of paramount importance.  Finally when “Dome Maness” hit the outdoor industry all A frame designs just faded away. We found we had huge quantities of A frames in stock all of which were subsequently sold simply for scrap.

3-Person Tent and Pleasure Dome from 1974 Sierra Designs Catalog

We had one more A frame tent a four man style which was never sold in any numbers except for a few to the U.S. Geological Service in Menlo Park, south of San Francisco. This was a tent designed after the tent used in Antarctica during my year spent in McMurdo station as the logistical officer for the National Science Foundation. They used if for their summer expeditions in the arctic and were very pleased with its performance.

Sierra Designs Arch-Bow Tents: Octodome and AirflexI wanted a dome tent too but not one that looked like all the others. Bob and I had made a tour of Europe and Rome was one of the places we visited. I wanted go up into the dome of St. Peter’s cathedral and I was surprised to see that it was a dome inside of a dome. At the top one can look down through a hole on to the alter below.  Using this principle I made a tent that was much like this, a dome inside of a dome. Bob named it the Octadome. He wanted a two man tent based on the same principle so I made one which he then named the Aireflex. The S.D. president of the day Cass Apple liked it so much he had it patented.

These tents did not survive long in the market for variety of reasons, the main one being shoddy workmanship. The person in charge of manufacturing at the time thought the cost to make it was too high and began cutting things out such as the reinforcing spots that led to several failures and returns.  Before too long the two tents were quietly dropped from the line and faded from our history.

By that time I had pretty much lost interest in all of it as my time came to an end in October of 1984.  Others began to work on the tent line using the new Easton arrow shaft aluminum tubes which became the standard tent pole choice for all tents thereafter.

Paul Kramer was one of the leading designers and is credited for the introduction and use of the tent pole clip, which is pretty much the standard even up to the present time. As you have noticed that the color mix for the tents that followed for several years was blue and white. Remember the ivory colored nylon left over from the Cloud Series sleeping bags? It made a good tent fabric and was subsequently all used up. But it set the blue/white color scheme and was continued for a very long time.

The Packs

Shortly after getting started Bob wanted to make a frame pack such as the Kelty Pack which was sold widely. It was soon copied by many others so we had no problem doing the same. While Bob worked on the frame development I worked on the pack. During that time as mentioned above martinis were pretty much our drug of choice. I made the two side pockets large enough to hold a bottle of gin on one side and a bottle of vermouth on the other. We did not want to miss our evening cocktails even out in the woods.

Bob created several other small packs one of which was the Serendipity one of the best sellers.

Sierra Designs Day Packs from the 1974 Catalog

The Clothing Lines

The garments just kept improving and the sales increased for all of them. One of the most popular was the Sierra Jacket, a simple down jacket that had a lot of appeal. But the all time winner even up to this day was the development of the Sierra Designs 60/40 parka. I have written its story in a separate article. (The Story of the Sierra Designs 60/40 Parka)

As time went by we dreamed up all kinds of things to make and sell, some were successful and others were not.

For more information and the specifications on all of the products mentioned here take a look at my previous review called A Brief History of Sierra Designs.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Yangzhou, Jiangsu P.R. China

by Author
GeorgeMarks

This Story is part of a Series...

The creation of Sierra Designs was an act of friendship and encouragement from David Buschman. Bob... Read Story
Starting Out After getting the business set up in October of 1965, and renting a building in Point... Read Story
Author George R. Marks was co-founder of Sierra Designs in 1965 Bob Swanson, (1933-2016) , my co-... Read Story
by Author GeorgeMarks

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Story Copyright
04/18/17