interview with harth huffman, wabi woolens, portland, oregon

harth huffman

what prompted you to start a business making cycle jerseys? there must be easier ways to make a living?

What prompted me was a dearth of quality wool cycling jerseys. Swobo had changed fabric and then went out of business, and other brands closed shop or made changes that I didn't like, as well. At one point I bought a long sleeve wool undershirt, cut off the sleeves and used that fabric for pockets, and put a zipper on it; that was the beginning. Next, a friend who designed stage costumes worked with me on the original pattern. From there it was endless fabric sourcing and testing, and tinkering with the design.

What most people don't realize, though I make no secret about it, is that Wabi Woolens is a one-person company, and only part-time at that. I'm a teacher first. I teach Language Arts (English) at a non-profit school to 6-9th grade students who have left the public school system for various reasons. It is challenging but rewarding work that doesn't pay much, so I needed another job, especially for summers. Somehow, my dear (and otherwise sane and intelligent) partner Kate bought into this wool thing and we decided I should make a go of it. I still may need to get another job to pay the mortgage...

It really is an amazing combination: on a daily basis, I work with kids who need help and I feel like I am contributing to make my community better in some small way. Then I get to be passionate in the cycling world, making a quality product that seems to make my customers feel good. If it weren't for the book-keeping part, it would really be ideal in many ways.

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are you a lifetime portland resident?

I moved to Portland from Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1997, in no small part because of the burgeoning cycling culture here. In Ann Arbor, I got into mountain biking in the early '90s, and my first road bike followed soon thereafter. I was peripherally connected with the Ann Arbor Velo Club because I talked the company I worked for into becoming a sponsor, so those club rides were a part of my development as a cyclist even though I didn't race.

were you a part of the city's bicycle culture before starting wabi woolens?

The Portland Timbers, our local professional soccer team, have a fan club called the Timber's Army. The only step required for officially joining the Timber's Army is a desire to be in the Timber's Army. I'm in. I bought season tickets this year to make it official. The bike culture scene in Portland is the same, as I see it.

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I'm a cyclist to my core. Cycling is a big part of our household and there are many different styles of bicycles around here, often in various stages of disrepair. I'm definitely a local (and global) race fan and supporter; I've been a daily commuter for almost 20 years (and moving to Portland made that much easier); I take bike trips every summer; and now I am exploring the world of brevets. Mountain biking remains my true love but I don't do it as much anymore, unfortunately, mostly because I don't like the necessary driving involved. I came to Portland as a cyclist and expanded on that through countless experiences and like-minded friends, even before Wabi Woolens. So I was a part of the bike culture in the everyday sense of the phrase. Wabi Woolens made it official, I guess.

how hard is it to design a jersey then find somewhere to have them made in an economic fashion?

I'll let you know when I find out. They are already more expensive than I'd like them to be, ideally, so building in a very high level of quality is vital. The perceived value must be unmistakable for the customer. Oddly enough, it isn't the cost of labor but rather the fabric itself that is most of the expense. Yet this fabric is custom made for me in the U.S. and worth every penny.

Portland has a small infrastructure of cut-and-sew shops due to the presence of several big companies here that often need specialty runs made. These specialty items (college uniforms, Olympic uniforms, etc) need to be made to very high standards, so quality is top notch.

It was challenging to get started because I literally knew nothing about the process and I felt I was more of a pest than a customer. That has changed now and I have found a manufacturer who treats me very well and does excellent work.

wabi woolens cielo jersey

have you ever had desperate thoughts of having the jerseys made overseas?

None. If I can't make them here, I won't make them.

is the original jersey modeled on any particular ideal?

I loved Swobo jerseys in their first iteration and owned several. Those original jerseys were my inspiration - a beautiful blend of style and function. As much as I loved them, I knew I had to improve upon some things to make my ideal jersey, which I have done.

Recent trends in cycling clothing are, thankfully, more understated, which is perfect for Wabi Woolens. The design and aesthetic is relatively simple - it is just a shirt, after all - but it is the business ideal that I am still trying to formulate. If the product makes the customers happy, then everything else is secondary, just gamesmanship. When I have to make decisions about a design or materials, I keep reminding myself, "Just make good shit!" That must always come first.

how hard was/is it to let the right people know you exist?

Still working on that. Marketing has been a challenge, for sure; it's all a complex matter of ideas and strategies, money, and time. If it doesn't improve soon, I may have to fire my entire marketing team! On the other hand, this is the first year I am seeking bike shops to sell Wabi Woolens on the retail floor. The designs are solid and the manufacturing process is now consistently reliable, so I am ready to put it out there on a slightly larger scale (which is still puny, relatively speaking). So any bike shop suggestions out there that may be a good fit for Wabi jerseys, please let me know!

wabi woolens cielo jersey

where did the association with cielo come from?

Jay Sycip contacted me. He was looking into having wool jerseys made for the Cielo brand and he appreciated made-in-Portland factor. It was not my intent to make custom jerseys, but I could not pass up the opportunity to make a connection with a company like Chris King. Jay and everyone there have been extremely patient, appreciative and great to work with. I hope they are happy with the final product.

with the recent advent of the sports series, is wabi woolens heading in the right direction for you?

I am really excited about the Sport Series! The fabric is an ideal combination of lightweight and durable, and the design is sleek. It is different from what I initially envisioned for the brand, but I love it and will fully pursue the development of the Sport Series line, which will continue to grow and evolve. I see it as a more modern style, with the same level of detail and craftsmanship as the original jersey. It's lighter weight and more versatile than the Winter Weight original Wabi; it's just a great piece of equipment!

Wool is not just for people who ride lugged steel frames, and the Sport Series is designed to be just as at home on a sleek carbon frame as on steel. Customers will need to be educated, but knowledgeable, discerning cyclists already know that wool is a luxury performance material worth owning.

harth huffman

Sometimes I stop and think that I have customers who own four or even five of my jerseys, in countries all around the globe, and it amazes me! Whatever direction Wabi goes, I have to honor those customers who support what it is now so that it doesn't stray from what they have come to appreciate.

any plans for future development, or are you satisfied with the extent of the current range for now?

Designs (and endless other things) constantly buzz around in my brain, but time and cash flow limit the rate of development. The line will grow but slowly, intentionally. From the beginning, Wabi Woolens was intended to be a brand, not just a product. Yet to grow too quickly might sacrifice quality in some way, and the brand image of Wabi Woolens is all I've really got to lean on. I will not sacrifice anything just to get a product out faster or I am only screwing my customers as well as my brand. New products - shorts, knickers, trainers, and different jerseys - are all in the pipeline, but still a ways off. I have the jersey thing down and it is done right. Other items will take time for me to learn and compare with what is currently available. If I can't improve on what already exists, why bother? Whatever it is, I want my customers to trust that it will also be done right, and that takes time. And if I stick to my plan, Wabi Woolens will be around for a while.

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posted friday 25th february 2011

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