The company uses American sheep, American manufacturing, and lets their vertical pursuits guide their ideas.
Voormi is the antithesis of most modern outdoor apparel operations. Tucked in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, they source locally, manufacture in-house, and sell right out of their Pagosa Springs facility. There are no quarterly trips to Asia for quality control or international shipping logistics.
During the summer, co-founder and Director of Product Integrity Dustin English guides clients up Denali for Alaska Mountaineering School, and during the rest of the year, he’s climbing and skiing at home, honing the company’s reputation as a hard-charging band of locals. Yet, perhaps most impressively, they still manage to innovate like few have done in the long history of wool. How do they do it?
We caught up with English to find out what makes his company so unique.
First off, what’s a Voormi?
It’s an ancient mythological range of creatures that use their natural environment to really thrive and to embrace winter and the harsh elements. We draw a lot of similarities to these Voormis because we’re pulling wool from the area that we’re recreating in—the Rocky Mountains—and building products from that. Which then led us to thrive and perform in our environment in the mountains here. Long and short, a Voormi is basically like a Yeti.
I know you started out as a father/son company. What were you guys doing before this that made you think, hey, we can design and manufacture better wool layers? That’s a huge undertaking.
Yeah, I mean it was. We always, as a family, grew up skiing and playing outside, so we were always going on trips, trying to predict the weather, and usually over packing for the “just-in-case.” So we came at this with the idea of just bringing gear that works for 98 percent of the time. Every time I went to Alaska, I would bring a couple bags of stuff for different elevations and different conditions we might encounter. Our idea was about trying to make better gear for a wider variety of uses and having it be more durable and sustainable. So looking at history from Hillary to Shackleton, who used wool back in the day to do amazing things, we really wanted to use a natural fiber and push it even further.
How does guiding and your outdoor passions play into the company now that it’s rolling?
Everything regarding product development. Features and functionality, fit, even colors. I bring duffle bags full of prototypes to Talkeetna every year and hand them out to the guide staff for trial and feedback. We’re really trying to dial down what works best around the world in different environments. The same goes for here in the San Juans. We’re able to develop, build new products, and test them that same day. We’ll head up to Wolf Creek Pass, for example—drill down on how things are performing. Our main goal is selfish, to engineer these textiles so that they can perform at a wider variety of climates, so we can pack less, change less, and just enjoy being outside. It’s also a source of inspiration and new ideas.
Like your waterproof wool?
Weather resistant might be the better way to say that. That textile spawned from this engineered knitting that we’re doing. In your traditional waterproof-breathable three-layer laminate, all of that heat, glue, and pressure that’s done during the lamination process stifles the breathability. In our Core Construction, we’ve kept it all as a single layer and then during the knitting process, we insert in a usable core. That core can be a lot of different things, but where we’re at today with some of our shells, we’ve chosen to make that core a weather protective, water resistant membrane. So during that knitting process, we punch a bunch of holes in that membrane and part of our technology is how we reseal all those holes and dial in all the moisture transfer and breathability of that textile, without getting too technical! So it basically gives you the comfort and the breathability and moisture transfer of a traditional fleece, but yet it has the same weather protectiveness of a high-end softshell.
How is it that this small company out of rural Colorado came up with something like that?
Right!? That technology was recognized as a top innovation of 2015 by Popular Science. It garnered us a lot of press, and it’s really spawned a conversation about how to innovate in a small mountain town where we can kind of be blissfully blocked off by mainstream influxes and do what you’re supposed to do and innovate for core outdoors people. We really wanted to revamp weather-protective fabric and it took some outside thinking to accomplish that. Pun intended!
So what other innovations and advancements do you guys have coming down the pipeline? Anything you can tell me about?
Well, yeah! From a textiles point of view, we’re continuing to double down on our Core Construction and make and release new products around that from a style and feature point of view.
From a business standpoint, we’ve decided to pull out of trade shows and divert funds we’d have spent on that to double down on domestic manufacturing. By doing that, we’ve added a bunch more sewing machines and seamstresses and patterning software right here in Pagosa. This further enables our quick iterating and testing.
You use Rocky Mountain sheep for your wool. Why is that? Are there environmental or economic benefits to that, or are homegrown sheep just better?
All of the above, really. We work with the American sheep industry pretty closely. We believe that the sheep we have here are tougher than the sheep from the South Pacific. It has to do with the amount of sunlight exposure that the sheep get at our higher elevations. Our sheep have a higher sulfur content within the fiber and that makes a stronger fiber, a fiber that carries more loft and potentially more thermal value.
Most of our wool comes from Colorado, though not all of it. We so source all of it from the Rocky Mountain region, though; we bleed over into northern New Mexico as well as Wyoming and Montana. From an environmental point of view, we’re not buying the wool from New Zealand, shipping it to Asia to get finished and then onward to the U.S. There are a lot less shipping and environmental concerns when it’s all done in the States. It’s cheaper, too, and we have tighter control on quality. It’s cool to see the sheep first hand and think you could have a jacket from that sheep.
Enough work stuff. What’s the best climbing around you?
We’ve got Piedra Canyon right in town here which is a good little sandstone crag right on the river. It’s excellent sport climbing, maybe a little off the beaten path, but it’s definitely an afternoon favorite of ours. And then there’s fantastic ice climbing in Wolf Creek Pass. Alpha Male is a great route there.