Words and Photos by Seb Kemp
Let me be blunt for a second, rain sucks balls. Farmers appreciate it and ducks supposedly love it (ever heard the phrase "it's a nice day for ducks" and wondered why there is never a duck to be seen when it rains?) but beyond nourishing the land, filling our rivers and lakes, and keeping the dust down on the trails, rain can straight up get ducked.
You can cast whatever colloquial aspersions you choose upon me, but I have an excuse: I grew up in England.
Most stereotypes are exaggerated and most exaggerations are exaggerated to the zillionth degree, but there can be no overstating how much the weather in Britain really is like an icy poker up the arse of the entire nation of Her Majesty's people. There is no such thing as seasons, the difference in summer and winter is just the frequency of rain that falls.
In winter the weather is set to Persistent Saturation and in summer it set at a balmy Incessant Drizzling Showers. I feel like I endured enough rain in the first 25 years of my life to dampen and drown the spirits of even the most buoyant of souls. So I left the aqueous Albion…
…and found myself settled in the southwest of British Columbia, where the Pacific sweeps up moisture and upper cuts us with a mighty fist of pissing rain for half of the year.
I'm an idiot.
Or a sucker for punishment.
The worst thing about being a mountain biker who more than occasionally gets called upon to go out in all conditions in a professional capacity, is that I don't get a choice to say no to staying in when it rains. I hate my bike on days when it makes me go out in the rain--that was until I got a proper jacket.
My first real jacket - something that was more than a logo holder for a mountain bike brand and was made with really clever science materials - was an Arc'teryx Squamish, kindly given to me for my birthday. Immediately I was impressed, after a day riding in the rain and falling in the puddles I was still dry AND not too sweaty. I've owned several since and will stick with them till something even better comes along. Which will have to be a giant awning stretched over the land from Dawson's Creek to Surrey.
Last winter I lived in Vancouver and discovered that Arc'teryx were just down the road from me. In the name of Bike I went to poke my sticky beak around their design and production orifices to see how they made me feel like a duck.
You know, water off a duck's back and all that…sorry, moving on.
Roll Up, Roll Up.
Arc'teryx was formed in 1989 by founders Dave Lane and Jeremy Guard. They started with climbing harnesses, but began diversifying in 1996 when they obtained a license to use Gore-Tex fabric. Every two days 70-80 meters of Gore fabric gets unloaded and turned into jackets, bags, and pants.
Jo Salman, Arc'teryx's media trumpet says, "For over 20 years Arc'teryx has worked exclusively with W.L. Gore as its fabric partner for waterproof and breathable fabrics. The value of this long-standing industry relationship is the opportunity to be involved in research and development at the onset, as well as setting the standards and pushing the boundaries for the quality expected."
In a manner of speaking, building a jacket is like assembling a jigsaw. Stencils are designed inside of a computer's immense brain, printed out and overlaid onto the fabric to get the maximum material efficiency for each cut. Through the stencils, drill marks are made at critical points so sewers can later align pieces of the puzzle.
The cuts are done by hand because there are no machine exists that can be as precise and careful. Dave Gardner, my chaperon for the day, quipped that human beings are "cutting edge technology". I'm a good boy so I laughed along at that one, but I nervously watched one chap cutting so close to his own hand that it looked like he was giving himself a manicure with garden shears.
Each piece is assembled from the puzzle of cut outs, but in a zig-zag fashion. For example, once the cuff is stitched to the sleeve, it then moves on to be taped and seamed before returning to the stitchers who then stitch the sleeve to the body, which is in turn passed on to be taped and seamed. It's a juggling act as well as a puzzle mystery.
The industry standard is eight stitches per linear inch, but Arc'teryx opt for much tighter stitching, 14-16 per linear inch. This makes their pieces tougher and more resilient. This is also helps to explain why Arc'teryx produces goods for various military and law enforcement interests, park rangers, and mountain guides all over the world. These are the people at the very sharp end of nature's big, ugly stick, and they require the very best equipment possible. Arc'teryx will work with these groups to produce the absolutely ideal products for their needs. While the products that these people want is often very specific and very dedicated, much of the technology and designs eventually filter down to the general public.
Gore Tape is used to seal the seams, making it as weatherproof as the materials. Using less tape is better. Tape isn't breathable and muck loads of it can makes the garment less pliable and comfortable to wear. In this picture a seam is being pressure tested to check for seal. Three out of every ten items are tested like this. Water is forced at the seal under a pressure of 3 pounds per square inch and, I'm informed, that in 13 years only three seams have blown out, causing a miniature rain storm inside the factory.
Rather than big flashy logos blazing across gaudy fabrics that carry Celtic tattoos prints, and splashes of funky weirdness, Arc'teryx keep it pretty simple. Color blocks are preferred, not just for their looks but because high-tech fabrics just can't and don't need to be made to look like a raver's flashback.
Arc'teryx's Jo Salman explains, "We very rarely chose patterned fabrics (apart from our casual shirts) because we construct durable garments that last for a very long time - we try to keep colors contemporary and yet with a timeless appeal so you can wear it season after season."
Some mountain bike jackets are made from second-rate fabrics and compensate for the lack of technology with a smattering of spastic crayon-esque graphics. When it comes to the logo, Arc'teryx go for a teeny, tiny neat embroidered logo. Twelve computer programmed embroidery machines, using fifteen different thread colors stitch in the logo. These machines looks like something from a Thunderbirds vehicle.
The embroidery machines look like something from Thunderbirds. See, all gamma electrodes and interplanetary circuitry.
Can Get the Staff These Days
Fifteen to 20 percent of Arc'teryx's production still takes place in North Vancouver, British Columbia. That rain-soaked location plays heavily into why Arc'teryx produces the products that carry their emblem and explains why they approach the production process with such rigor. The manufacturing building is located just minutes drive from the Coast Mountain Range, a popular starting point for outdoorsy people, whether they are biking, running, hiking, climbing, skiing, sailing, or, well, whatever sport gets you hot and wet. Vancouver itself has a population of five million people living in what amounts to the Coast Mountain's trailhead parking lot. The pool of talent available to companies like Arc'teryx means that they can retain skilled, trained technicians, not just worker bees. This also means that unorthodox design concepts can be attempted and manufacturing processes lead to the highest possible level of quality control.
Quality control measures are taken throughout the production process. At every stage pieces are inspected, as opposed to merely assessing the completed piece. Three out of every ten pieces are inspected at each stage, meaning some pieces may have been checked three times. This, according to Arc'teryx, leads to a very low rate of returns and far less waste.
Return and Recycle
Arc'teryx aren't cheapskates, they just much prefer to repair before replace. The high quality manufacturing processes and care taken means that a mere half of one percent of products sold are ever warrantied. Of items warrantied, 65 percent are repaired. Dave tells me that "If we can fix it, then why not? This isn't a disposable product."
Ripped, worn or broken pieces are repaired in-house (why not if the bulk of the manufacturing happens right there?) and anything that can't be fixed is donated to charities. Discontinued rolls of material also join the reuse-it pile. Most winters, Arc'teryx has stitched up simple capes for homeless people that live in East Vancouver.
Arc'teryx don't strictly make mountain bike products. They are quick to point that out. Which is strange because the Arc'teryx jackets I own are by far the best rain repelling, sweat reducing, well fitted, all weather, all riding jackets I've tried. Which makes me wonder how good they would be if they did make cycle specific products…
Every Stage is Important
Arc'teryx is a no-compromise kind of company. The function and durability that the company is so well known isn't, according to company representatives, due to just their high standards of production, or their high-technology fabrics, or the precise fit of their pieces.... What sets the company apart is that their products consistently combine all three of those things.
Those three things are also reflected in the sticker price of the product, which is undoubtedly high. That steep price tag alone will keep some riders from even considering Arc'teryx. Then again, the sticker price isn't quite as steep as it might initially seem when you consider that an Arc'teryx jacket will likely outperform and outlast several less-quality jackets.
Mountain bikers too often wrap themselves in garish, fragile, disposable garments that make them look like renegade bar mitzvah clowns on holiday. Our first priority should be staying dry when we are sweating our rings out, not looking like a carnival attraction.
For more information about Arct'teryx and their products, check out their site.