The Play Hero Pant has taken me five years to bring to life, from the first sketches in a notebook to today, with the initial small production run sitting on the floor in my office.
I think back on these years and everything that I have learned. What is a tech pack? Or, how in the world do I make time for this project? How do I communicate with my production partner when I don’t know the language of cut and sew? You’d think creating a pair of pants would be pretty easy- I certainly thought so. But the layers of the industry had me fascinated and frustrated over and over… and over.
How did it all start? Easy- holes in the knees. Over and over, pant after pant. Holes holes holes. I couldn’t stop them, I couldn’t patch them (holes at the seams of the patches, patches that were too itchy on the inside, etc.) and I couldn’t keep them as hand-me-downs. Rags? Best case scenario. Otherwise, garbage.
So I tried different pants: farm-focused work pants, double knee pants, hiking pants from Sweden (really). I was met with flat refusal from my boys to wear these options, which, to be fair, I totally get. They were stiff. Thick and hot. Scratchy. Unmoving. How was a child to bend over in these options? Crouch? Climb? Lay on their belly to examine bugs? There was no answer out there for active kids who preferred the comfort of sweatpants. I searched the ends of the earth for pants that were comfortable but were also durable. Pants meant for kids to play hard in. The only answer I got? Guess I gotta make 'em!
I made some rudimentary drawings and sewed up a few pair on my own to test out different types of fabrics.
Once I knew what worked, I started to research the different fabric options. I was only interested in sustainable options (I wanted to do WAY better than throwing pants in the garbage- can they at least be handed down to a sibling?). I wanted soft, yet durable. Am I looking for a knit or woven? What I found was that you get comfort with knits and durability with wovens. I was looking for both... but you simply can’t have both in the same fabric. Natural fabrics are generally more sustainable but are not very lasting. Hemp can get you there, but it’s pretty scratchy (I have an awesome pair of hemp work overalls that are super stiff but get the job done with very little wear and tear). You can mix it with cotton, sure, but then you are back to hole-in-the-knee pants because cotton is a soft knit. Also, both bamboo and hemp create a fair bit of toxic water waste when making the material into fabric. It’s getting better and I would consider both in the future, but at the time of my research it made me shudder. The more I learned about sustainability, the less I thought anything was.
And so came the discovery that the fashion and clothing industry is one of the dirtiest in the world, contributing to massive amounts of water waste, toxic sludge discharge into the environment, and enormous amounts of landfill waste as clothing gets cheaper and more disposable (i.e. Fast Fashion
I landed on the most sustainable fabric I could find for the base fabric. It’s called Lyocell, and the brand I use is TENCEL™. TENCEL™ is unique in their production process where the fabric is created from wood pulp using a closed loop water recycling system. There is no water waste, and the wood is sourced from regenerative forests. It’s naturally moisture wicking and the fabric I chose is combined with organic cotton for additional softness. There is also a tiny bit of spandex because it HAD to have some stretch.
The secondary fabric that reinforces the seat and knees is also sustainable, but in a different manner of speaking. It’s one of the most durable fabrics on the market, used for military and police uniforms, duffle bags, and heavy duty workwear. This is durable at its best; excellent hand-me-down material. It is sustainable because it will endure and keep you from throwing pant after pant into the landfills. The fabric is 500 denier Cordura™. You will not find this in children’s clothing and that makes me laugh with glee. Oh? It’s strong enough for a military black ops uniform? Give it here and let my five-year-old test it out on low pile daycare carpet while he is on his knees zooming cars around. Needless to say, it passed the test.
Step one done. But where does one get these fabrics? It took me months of research and attending a ‘fashion’ start up online course in the wee hours of the morning where I gained access to a super secret manufacturing and fabric supplier list. This is about when I discovered that I had chosen the most expensive fabric. Lessons in business viability were consciously kicked down the road for another time and another day. I wasn't doing this to recreate what already existed with the same fabrics that have always been used. I wanted them to be different- no, I needed them to be different. They had to feel like sweatpants but operate like Carhartts. These were the fabrics that fit the bill and I was determined to make them work.
Meanwhile, I signed up to work with a local clothing startup. It was expensive but I thought worth it at the time to get things off the ground. I met with a designer who transformed my sketches into real life design drawings. Each design option came with the number of cuts needed which is important because the number of cuts generally dictates how expensive something is to produce. I had to choose: 14 or 23 cut design? We were conversing in a foreign language at that point but all I knew was that 14 was cheaper, but also that 14 looked bad. So I went with the 23 cut design.
They whipped up a sample pair for an ungodly amount of money. My son wore them and I made notes on the tweaks I needed. They made me a tweaked version, but forgot to add several tweaks I had asked for. No discount was offered to make a corrected pair. Soon, the communication is lacking. I asked for advice from them (they cater to helping startups, after-all): What adjustments can be made to make them a little less expensive to produce? They had very few ideas for me and said the pants would need to be sold for $100 or more to be viable. I picked my jaw up from the floor, gathered up my rolls of fabrics and sample pants and specialty thread and I closed my account. I gave up.
A few months later I connected with a like-minded local entrepreneur online and she recommended a cut and sew shop in Minneapolis that she thought could give me some development help too. So I reached out to them. We chatted and I felt uplifted. I brought my sample pants and enormous rolls of fabric to a meeting with them and explained what I was trying to do. I was passionate and out of breath and slightly sweaty from hauling everything through a labyrinthed but super cool old manufacturing plant. They were intrigued by the market I was after (because nobody had catered to active kids I guess?) and agreed to help. They created a NEW sample pair of pants with some adjustments that simplified the design (with fewer cuts!) and I’m telling you they were straight awesome. I told them to sign me up! They looked at me a little confused and explained that they didn't know how to replicate the pants they had just made. They needed the patterns. I was stumped. Apparently they were just really skilled at whipping up kid pants but they didn't touch pattern making and without the patterns they can't mass produce. That makes sense if you think about it- these folks are masters when it comes to the sewing machine but they couldn’t really tell you how they do it (like musicians!). So they connected me with a pattern maker.
I talked over the phone with the pattern maker. She said that she had received the pants from my production partners and I asked her if they were the blue ones with two pockets in the back not one? She confirms. Okay great, I said, then just get rid of the pockets altogether- we are doing only a panel. No pockets. I asked her if she could create a pattern for that going off what she had, and with the changes we had just discussed? Yes, of course, she said.
She let me know a few weeks later that they were done and she had sent them over to the warehouse. They asked me if they should make a size run out of it- one of each size? I say yes! I am excited!
I drove an hour to pick them up. I walked in to the workshop and my main contact grabbed a pair and brought them over. He laid them out on the table. Turned them over. And then stopped. We both stared. They were not what they should have been. They were totally wrong. They had one pocket, for starters. I started to cry. I couldn't help myself! I had no idea how they could be so wrong. I was three and a half years into this project and I didn't understand why it was so hard. I didn't blame my poor production partner who was frozen in horror at my emotion. I didn't blame anyone really. It was my responsibility to quarterback this thing but I was a general contractor that didn't know the difference between a nail and a screw. I had four different sizes of the wrong patterned pants made from fabric I had ordered from Canada. What the heck was I doing? I decided I had lost my mind and it was time to lay it to rest.
So I closed my account with them and I gave up for a second time. They felt very badly and charged me nothing, which was entirely too generous but I was still crying so I didn't argue. I wrote them a note later thanking them for their help. They were truly really kind folks and I was embarrassed by my incompetence.
I had said I would stop the project but it nagged at me and nagged at me. I was thoroughly pissed off that making a pair of kid pants was apparently too hard for me. I decided to do one last look for manufacturing options in the Twin Cities. I found someone that I had not run across before so I reached out and she got back to me right away. We had a conversation where I dumped my entire four year saga on her. She chuckled at the recent production partner's magical pant part- she knew them well! They were in the same building! They were great at production but not great at development. She can help me, she tells me.
And does she ever help me. We made two sample pants before they are solid (we add pockets back in). We did one final fit sample. She communicated like a queen. She managed the relationship with the digitized pattern maker. She taught me what a yoke was and knew what to do when I said the crotch area needed more room. She had me through sample making, patterns, size run and final production in six months. I was beyond thrilled. She got me to here, writing this. Thank you, Abby!
If you have an active child who is rough on their clothes, these pants are for you. My absolute goal is that these pants are their favorite and that they end up in a dirty heap at the end of the day. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Thank you for sticking with me, thank you for finding me, thank you for trusting in these pants as a solution (the hero!) to your child’s active play. If they don’t live up to the standards I’ve laid out above, don’t hesitate to reach out to me personally. I will make it right. I hope that these will continue to be a work in progress and any and all feedback is welcome. On the other hand, if they are as bomb for you as they have been for me and my kiddos, please leave a stellar 5 star review and spread the word!
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