Outdoors Clothing Made in USA From Natural and Recycled Materials

Kevin Kinney, Owner of Empire Canvas Works photo
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The Greatest Outdoor Gear
How do you make the greatest outdoor gear? We went to Empire Canvas Works' Kevin Kinney to find out. If the quality of Kevin's work is any indication, the recipe is clear. Start with a passion seeded by stitching together a down vest from a frostline kit at 12 years old. Add some years of labor over piecework, learning first-hand what it takes to design for efficient assembly. Sprinkle in the irony that textile manufacturing jobs moving offshore lead to an offer to do R&D; for a major outerwear company which recognized in Kevin an instinct for developing clothing that functions the way it should.

The way Kevin explains it, that instinct is simple common sense. A consummate outdoorsman, Kevin works and plays in those clothes himself. "We know why things break and why things work," Kevin says, including his active wife, Beth, in the plural pronoun.

Empire Canvas Works Boots and Parka photo

Making Nature Accessible to Everyone
Such passion naturally fuels larger questions, a search for significance. Kevin founded Vulpine, a company aimed at designing outerwear to make nature accessible for people with disabilities. The work is challenging--each order represented new obstacles, new problems to solve—and consequently fulfilling. Each piece is unique, designed specifically for the needs of the individual customer. Kind and trusting employers gave Kevin the keys to the factory so that he could work on his adaptive outdoorwear line during off-hours. This work remains his passion, but an opportunity to expand into traditional outerwear offered a better chance to pay the bills. Kevin acquired Empire Canvas Works in Duluth, Minnesota. He doubled sales in his first year. The company continues to grow. And it is easy to see why.

Natural Materials and Recycled Coyotes
Kevin is committed to natural materials. "Body oil, moisture, bacteria," he explains. Natural fibers have evolved with these enemies of synthetics and therefore perform better in real human applications. Usually, you don't even need to wash natural fabric layers. "The dirt just comes right out."

The hunt for natural supplies sounds like half the challenge. Recognizing that nothing protects a face from wind and elements better than a fur ruffed hood, Empire Canvas Works dedicates themselves to finding supplies of recycled coyote fur. A single fur coat can be recycled to trim about ten Empire Permafrost Parkas. Kevin says he has sold three parkas with synthetic ruffs, requested by customers sensitive about animals' rights. Two of them came back and switched the synthetic out for coyote. The chickadees around the workshop benefit too, picking up loose fur fibers to line their nests.

It doesn't stop at recycled coyote though: soles for the True North Boot are recycled tires. Empire Canvas Works uses bison leather tanned by native Americans either using the traditional smoke method or modern commercial techniques. Buttons are made on site from antler horn.

Empire Canvas Works Midlayers photo

Sustainable Design and Survival
Empire Canvas Works is committed to sustainable design. They avoid zippers, which are always the "first thing to break" in Kevin's experience. It is not about the theory taught in sustainability 101: that a product's lifespan is limited by the weakest element. It is about survival. Stainless Steel snaps set in webbing last a lifetime and are also easy to open and shut with gloved (or frozen) fingers. Cord locks are designed so that they can be repaired in the field without breaking the stitching. Each coat comes with a repair kit. Where this gear is meant to be used, the lifespan of the product may be closely correlated with the lifespan of the wearer.

Kevin talks about the trade-offs knowledgably: wool is heavier than fleece, lighter than down. Canvas outer layers are suitable only for arctic conditions: canvas wicks water, losing the benefits of lightweight protection which dry canvas offers. Elk hide in mittens dries quickly without setting shape. Empire Canvas Works' wool liners derive from pre-consumer wastes from large manufacturers. Empire Canvas Works washes and dries the liner fabric before cutting and assembly, to ensure the final product will maintain its shape in use.

Time to Prepare for the Cold
As the first crispness tinges the August air, it is time to think ahead about gear for winter's chill. This year, take a walk on the wild side in True North Boots, to keep your tootsies warm in the depths of the dark season. Or rely on a permafrost parka, which has a lifespan limited only by global warming. Empire Canvas Works midlayers and accessories will help you blend into the backwoods like you belong there. If you expect the truly extreme, check out the Big Mitt—the mittens which keep the hands of Alaskan pipeline workers warm. And keep an eye on Empire Canvas Works. May their natural, sustainable designs and their commitment to accessibility bring the joy of nature nearer.