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There's something inherently fascinating about visiting an operational factory of any kind. Think about your life. Each day you interact with a million (rough estimate) different things. How many of them did you actually make yourself? Probably none (sandwiches don't count). So, all that stuff that you use, or wear, or touch, or eat—how much do you know about where that stuff came from? How was it made? Who's hands did it pass through before it arrived in yours? Wouldn't it be nice to know a little more?
This isn't about "buy local" or any other trend in consumption. I'm not interested in guilting you into anything, here. Sure, I support the 'Merican Made movement—my shirts are all made in Jersey, my shoes in Maine, etc.—but more than anything I support superior quality products and expert craftsmanship. I also support knowledge. Knowing more about your own life, generally speaking, is a good thing. So, next time you slip on a Gore-tex shell, you might appreciate a little more its rain shedding properties if you know how it came to be. I sure do.
It's custom tailoring at the bulk production level.
I recently visited the Arc'teryx headquarters in Northern Vancouver, British Columbia, where many of the the brand's jackets, pants, bags, climbing harnesses and other gear is made (26% of the brand's gear is made here, to be exact). There is a hands-on element to the production of all these things that I never expected. It's custom tailoring at the bulk production level. Gore-tex jackets don't come stamped out of cookie-cutters. The Fabric is cut by hand by a guy using what looks like a jigsaw. Seams are bonded by hand with the care of an expert tailor, then tested using super-high pressure water jets. In 13 years working in the Arc'teryx factory, one manager tells me, only three seams have ever failed the test. In some cases, the processes haven't changed since the brand's humble beginnings making rock climbing harnesses in 1989. Knee pads are formed using a wooden mold of the founder's own knee. Backpacks are assembled using hair driers and sandbags.
In total, a single jacket takes nearly six hours to produce—it will pass through about 80 sets of hands, that's over 250 processes. Take into consideration the materials being used—space age fabrics and fastenings—and do a little math. You'll find that an Arc'teryx parka (they go from about $300 up to $1000) suddenly doesn't seem so outrageously priced.
Beyond the main line of Arc'teryx gear, there are two special collections. LEAF—Law Enforcement and Armed Forces, and Veilance—fashion-forward design. Both serve as proof that smart design and painful attention to construction can go a long way, beyond ski slopes and mountaintops—from the most advanced military special forces, to the most elitist fashion nerds.
I suppose, the way we consume, it's foolish to think that everyone wearing an Arc'teryx jacket would know where it came from. Or that they'd even care. It does what it's supposed to do, and that's the most important thing.