While home for the holidays in Kennebunk, Maine I had the opportunity to sit down with Tom Chappell, founder of Tom's of Maine -- which sold to Colgate for $100 million in 2006 -- to discuss his new business venture, Ramblers Way wool undergarments. What started as a pilot project on a sheep farm grew into a small business with ethical and sustainable standards at the forefront of its practice. Find out how Tom is revitalizing the American textile industry, providing consumers with quality garments, and what he believes "the biggest issue of our time" to be, in our exclusive interview:
TreeHugger: I see you have laid out the wool in varied stages of production, can you take us through the life cycle of one of your garments--from farm to consumer?
Tom Chappell: Rambouillet is a very common breed in the American west. See all the dirt and vegetable matter [on the raw wool] when this is clean we will have about 50% from what we started with. The rest is lanolin.
TH: Are you using the lanolin (wool grease)?
TC: We are in the process of deciding what we will use this for, most of the time it is just sold. Once the wool has gone through scouring and carding, it goes through the combing progress. The combing is what gives the wool parallel fibers. Instead of having fibers interwoven the fibers are intentionally laid out to make into a woostered garment--a process to keep the fibers parallel--before they go into the spinning machine and made into yarn. This is why woostered yarn is made into fine finished products like fine suits, silks, or woolen pants. We're putting woostered yarn into underwear. You don't get the heavy feeling, sweating, or the scratchiness.
TH: Why is this process and high quality not as common, is it more expensive?
TC: Yes, but the primary answer to your question is:
The market does not tend toward quality, markets tend toward mediocrity.
Brand managers are interested in as many customers as they can get and they think price is the way to get it. So they make decision that cheapen the product along the way. When you know that about human and business mentality, then you just say well we don't need to play that game we can stay on the high road and keep it for people interested in a different experience.
In this case it is lightweight, it doesn't feel heavy. You don't even know it's on but you are warm all day; you don't sweat when you're inside and you don't get cold when you're outside. The most common feedback is that people don't want to take it off. And that's okay, because wool absorbs microbes and doesn't smell. You can absorb odor and not smell with wool. It is also hollow and is a great insulator. We are providing an extremely lightweight fine threaded yarn that we then make into a fabric.
The construction of the thread involves strategy. Rambouillet is a long fiber. which allows you to get a very thn stretch. Other breeds of wool are shorter and they dont have the elasticity. Once the yarn has been made we make the garment. In this case I wanted a very lightwight garment.
TH: Where did the idea for wool undergarments come amid past ventures with toothpaste and Tom's of Maine?
TC: I had been hiking in Wales and was using state of the art wool brands that come from Australia, New Zealand, and China. They were all to heavy for me. Once I got inside I was hot and sweaty and when I was outside they were scratchy, it was annoying. My idea was to make something that was lighter than the state of the art. Most garments on the market have a 6 oz weight--per square linear yard of fabric--I wanted to make something lighter, a 4 oz.
I ended up in Pickens, North Carolina with a fifth generation, family-owned knitter, spinner named Kent Manufacturing. They were very willing to try to make this yarn. The garment maker there is Alamac in Lumberton, North Carolina. We three worked together on the concept. They said we think we can try [the 4 oz weight]. When they say it is risky, the question is whether or not the sheer quality will actually hold together. It in fact does.
We hit a bull's eye. We have a 4 oz weight, 50% lighter than the standard product on the market.TH: And the fabric is flexible, almost stretchy.
TC: There is nothing in it that is synthetic, it is the nature of what is called a jersey knit. When you knit something you have choices of how you knit it. You can do a a simple jersey, a rib, or interlock. Both the rib and the interlock are heavier than I wanted--they felt bulky--I ended up referring to this as the second skin. And when I said to the knitter, what I really want is a "second skin," he said, "Ah, I get it. We can do that."
Then I needed a garment maker. We found an operation in Fall River, Massachusetts called Griffon. They employ lots of people and families who have been doing this for years. They pulled in 15 people to do our project. The scouring, knitting, our business kept existing people out there.
TH: Can you tell us about the treatment facilities where the wool is cleaned?
TC: We wanted to do the right thing. and they had spend the money on primary and secondary waste treatment facilities. Primary is a settling process where you settle out in a basin, what is called settleable solids. These are not necessarily dissolved organics but are substances in suspension that need to settle out. Secondary treatment is when you take the water that is left--after the settling has taken place--and you aerate it to get oxygen into it, so the dissolved solvents (which are the pollutants, containing carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. The bonds are broken down so you are left with clean water that then goes into the local river. All of them are putting affluent into their local rivers in better shape than it was received. I was looking for fairness and environmental standards and was very impressed.
I used to be in the water pollution business with my father. I used to work on tannery waste, pulp & paper waste, and textile waste. I know the chemistry, the language, and I knew what I was looking for when I asked to see their waste treatment facilities--and they're all good.
TH: Do you have plans to incorporate color in the collection?
At the moment we do not have any color in the line. The reason is because we wanted to go very slowly understand the environmental impact and what was available. One of the reasons why we are not using dyes at this point is because they do persist. We have two dyes that we have approved for use. One is indigo, made from a vegetable material and the other is madder the root, which is a red color--not quite as dark as cranberry. The vegetable dyes biodegrade very quickly. The third is heather, a brown/black. We are trying to get enough black sheep wool, and are in the process of running a sample. At the moment we don't have any color. We will run the black sheep wool with the blonde and are hoping to get a heather.