Spinning a yarn

Jason Kaplan
Sleeping Beauty: Doug Hoschek with a Sky Master camping quilt

After 50 years in the outdoor garment business, Doug Hoschek changed an industry. Now he wants to change it back.

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Doug Hoschek, 73, likes to tell stories.

Sitting in his SunRiver home, he spins yarns about the textile industry that start in 1902, jump to a 1980s anecdote about Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, and segue to Native American blanket production in the 1600s before veering back to last week, all in one breath.

But it’s the story of polyester fleece that weighs heaviest on Hoschek. He ushered the fabric into ubiquity and then watched as the entire trade embraced synthetics, moved to cheap Chinese production, polluted a continent and left an American industry behind.

Hoschek and his wife, Tina Machuca, want to build a new narrative and are taking a page from Oregon’s maker movement for inspiration. Their company, Portland Woolen Mills, aims to produce small-batch, natural-fiber camping gear entirely in the U.S.

It’s an audacious bet for an industry dominated by big names, synthetic fibers and a business model that floods the market with product and encourages deep discounts.

It’s also an apology tour for Hoschek. He marketed polyester fleece, invented at Malden Mills in Massachusetts, to Patagonia and L.L. Bean in the 1980s as an alternative to wool insulation.

He and his partner, Clyde Layman, bought Portland Woolen Mills in 1981 to manufacture the synthetic fabric under the name Polarfleece. At the height of production, four factories, employing 3,000 sewers, produced jackets and blankets.

“I saved the ski industry from going bankrupt,” he boldly says, pointing to “$6 million in fabric sales at $4 a yard.”

Then the business model shifted under him. Company by company, the country’s textile and sewing industry moved to China. Today Chinese-made fleece is everywhere from outerwear, to blankets and layering insulation. Hoschek is not pleased.

“The planet is totally screwed,” he says, referencing the multiple impacts of the unregulated overseas manufacturing of a fossil-fuel-derived fabric. “It’s changing the climate.”

He also laments America’s lost textile and sewing industry and the good-paying jobs it supplied. He’s made it his personal mission to disrupt the industry and, in his words, “turn it back around.”

RELATED STORY: Tangled up in Wool

A self-described free spirit, Hoschek thrives in the cutthroat, wheeler-dealer world of textiles. Refusing to follow his colleagues at Nike and Columbia Sportswear to China, he cobbled together a string of hits and misses at home. He moved from synthetics to a wool/tree-pulp fiber, making cycle gear and military underwear until his partner retired and he had to “let it go.” He sold a few thousand wool/tree-fiber blankets until the mill that made the fabric closed.

“Easy come, easy go,” Hoschek muses.

Still he has “100% confidence,” in his next venture. Hoschek and Machuca want the outdoor industry to take a step back and re-embrace wool.

“We believe in wool,” says Machuca, who gives her age as “50-plus.”

A recently retired interpreter for Portland’s Federal Courthouse, she wears wool everything: pants, jacket, long johns, socks — even thongs, until Ibex, the company that made them, discontinued the line. Since marrying Hoschek 11 years ago, she’s spent every vacation at trade shows learning as much as she can about the industry.

Like Hoschek, she’s appalled at the sector’s record of pollution, overproduction and waste.

“We’re the right personalities for each other,” Hoschek says, clearly smitten. It’s a good thing. They moved to SunRiver from Portland last November and spend every minute together, taking time for “two good walks a day” with their German shepherd.

Horshek 2

But mostly the pair work, drumming up interest in Portland Woolen Mills’ Sky Master camping quilts.

Filled with a blend of wool and tree pulp, the sleeping bags are entirely sourced and made in the U.S.A. The wool comes from Oregon, Colorado and Wyoming, processing takes place in a facility in Charleston, S.C., that doesn’t use chlorine. It then moves to Texas to be turned into insulation and is sewn in a Colorado factory in Colorado used by companies that craft military goods.

A niche product for sure, sleeping bag sales totaled $210.38 million in 2011, according to Statista, with prices running from $99 to $500 for a down-filled, top-of-the-line model. Hoschek and Machuca offer their camping quilt for $135.

They’ve sold about 150 quilts so far, not enough to make a profit. Yet Hoschek remains optimistic about the future. He predicts between $500,000 and $1 million in orders if a deal with a retailer comes through.

“There’s no reason for this to not be a $2 million to $3-million business,” he says. He even envisions starting a factory in Bend. “I could have 50 people sewing here tomorrow morning.”

“That would be super!” says Chris Van Dyke.

Another industry veteran, Van Dyke crossed paths with Hoschek during his 20-plus years on the product side at Nike and Patagonia. These days Van Dyke is creating curriculum for OSU’s new degree in outdoor product creation and management, offered at their Cascades campus in Bend.

Why is Hoschek starting a business at 73? True the industry is historically sticky, with players staying in the game well into their 80s. And it’s also true that Hoschek needs the thrill of the deal the way that the rest of us need air. But something else is at play.

“We want to prove that you can do this here,” he says. “Young people in the business today have never been to a factory. They’re glorified marketing distributors.”

He and Machuca are hoping shoppers will connect with his small-batch, locally sourced, made-in-the-U.S.A. ethos in the same way they did with Oregon’s wine industry.

He may be on to something.

Sue Bal, business development manager for Prosper Portland (formerly the Portland Development Commission), sees natural fabrics trending in the industry along with interest in on-shoring manufacturing.

Keen Footwear, for example, launched its Swan Island assembly plant in 2010 and has grown the operation steadily since.

Still, Bal acknowledges that scaling up large American manufacturing won’t be easy. “A lot of pieces have to fall into place.”

Hoschek hopes that Sky Master quilts will help tip the scales. A good product with a great redemption story — think Dave’s Killer Bread — will always resonate, and the success of “Grab Your Wallet” boycotts proves that conscientious consumers are eager to flex their economic muscle. Hoschek’s product hits all the talking points: sustainable, clean and made in the U.S.A.

And it’s been done before.

“All of the great outdoor companies were started by an individual with passion,” he insists. “We had this industry before; we can have it back again.”