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Frostline Kits May Be History, But The DIY Gear Is Still Beloved In Colorado

Stephanie Paige Ogburn
The classic Frostline Kit label sewn inside of the jacket passed down to Peter Workman from his grandmother.

Standing in his backyard on an unseasonably warm day in Fort Collins, Peter Workman is modeling a winter coat. It's nylon, forest green, and falls about mid-thigh on his slender frame.

Workman takes the coat off and shows off the label, sewn in by his grandmother: "Made from a Frostline Kit. Broomfield, Colo." This coat, handmade over 40 years ago, is a piece of Colorado outdoor history.

Frostline Kits are one of those companies that most Coloradans have probably never heard of. The company germinated and flourished in the late 1960s and 1970s; by the ‘80s Frostline had been sold and largely disappeared.

Credit Bruce Johnson
A image from a 1977 Frostline catalog, reproduced in Bruce Johnson's book about the company, 'The History of Gear: Frostline of Colorado.'

Those in the know, however, have fond memories of the company and its products. Workman's been wearing his jacket for about five years. His grandmother had made it for one of her children, and then eventually wore it herself on cross-country skiing excursions in the ‘80s.

"My Oma passed away in 2011 and my cousin found this jacket in a closet actually," he said.

Dale Johnson, Frostline's creator, starting making sew-your-own gear kits in his Boulder home, after a stint working for the pioneering mountaineering gear company Gerry. He had helped Gerry with its own version of the kits, but thought they were too difficult to make.

Dale Johnson, according to Bruce Johnson (no relation), an author who wrote a history of Frostline Kits, wanted to make the sewing kits as simple as possible.

"He packaged the whole idea in the concept of ‘oh this is very easy, it's no risk,'" said Johnson. "There's no patterns, everything is pre-cut."

There were kits for down coats, winter windbreakers like Workman's, tents, even sleeping bags. Having put together many of the kits himself, Bruce Johnson testified to their simplicity.

"You could actually do this on a home sewing machine and you didn't have to be a seamstress."

In the late ‘60 and ‘70s, Frostline Kits grew like crazy. Dale Johnson got a warehouse in Broomfield, then later moved to a custom-built structure in Northglenn.

Credit Bruce Johnson
Dale Johnson, the founder of Frostline, pictured cross-country skiing in 1976. Reproduced in Bruce Johnson's book about the company, 'The History of Gear: Frostline of Colorado.'

Author Johnson said the success came in part from the "ideal time in history." Coloradans and other young people across the country were growing increasingly interested in backpacking and outdoor recreation. Companies like REI, the North Face, and Sierra Designs had sprung up to provide them with gear. It wasn't cheap, and that's where Frostline came in.

"Suddenly he introduced the idea that you could make your own gear and it wouldn't be shoddy gear," Bruce Johnson said. "It would be equal to what you could buy elsewhere for half the price."

Most Americans still had sewing machines in the home, and the populace still wasn't too far removed from the DIY ethos of World War II and the 1950s. The affordability of the kits helped make outdoor activities more accessible to a wide range of people.

One slogan read: "Economy without compromise." In 1977, for $24.50 you could get a down sweater kit; for $89.50 you could sew your own tent.

"And that leads to a generation of people who might have some values to the preservation of those kinds of opportunities," said Johnson - something the company's founder was proud of.

"He was a lifelong outdoorsman himself and was well aware that his products really had gotten a lot of people out there."

Frostline wasn't the only kit company, but founder Dale Johnson was a great innovator in the field. Vonnie Hocker worked on the trimming line in both the Broomfield and the Northglenn factories, packing kits for shipment.

"We packaged all the trimmings from buckles and thread, tape, webbing tape, fasteners, anything that went into the kit that was not part of the material we would package in those small packages," she said.

One of the innovations was a round table that rotated slowly like a giant Lazy Susan. DIfferent parts of the kits were placed on the table, and workers would pick up pieces to pack while it rotated, said Hocker.

Credit Bruce Johnson
Down packets that home DIY coat- and sleeping bag-makers would squeeze into baffles. Image reproduced in Bruce Johnson's book about the company, The History of Gear: Frostline of Colorado.

Another was the down packing machine. Notoriously difficult to manage, home sewers would have had difficulty packing down into coats and sleeping bags. Hocker recalls the down room in the factory, hot and full of feathers.

"They had to keep it closed up because we'd have feathers all over, people would come out with feathers all over, it was crazy."

So Dale Johnson invented a way to package the down in small plastic bags. After the home kit maker sewed the baffle, he or she would insert one end of the down-filled plastic bag into the baffle and push on it. The bag would open and down would come out the other end, similar to squeezing icing out of a bag.

Today, the Frostline factory is home to a solar company. When Vonnie Hocker visited the site, she marveled once again at the sheer size of the facility, recalling how nice the new building was.

"They had a really nice lunchroom, over there," she pointed at one side of the building. "And they had this lovely little, open air atrium with trees and flowers and grass, like a little brook."

Hocker sees this final expansion by the company as perhaps a contributor to its eventual downfall.

"I was a little concerned because it was so over the top."

She soon left the company to care for her daughters at home. Not too much later, Frostline was sold to Gillette, the razor company, where it languished. It changed hands a couple more times, briefly revived in the 90's, and eventually went defunct in 2008.

Bruce Johnson sees a different reason for the company's decline: the export of garment manufacturing to Asia.

"What you ended up with pretty quickly was, ‘Well I can buy this down vest at Walmart for less than I can make the kit for,'" he said.

That shift led to the demise of all the kit companies, not just Frostline Kits, he said. Today, other than on sites like eBay, DIY outdoor gear kits essentially don't exist. Bruce Johnson believe this is in part because modern lightweight materials are just too hard to sew, and techniques like seam sealing for waterproof gear just aren't available to the home tailor.

Credit Stephanie Paige Ogburn / KUNC
Peter Workman models his Frostline Jacket outside his Fort Collins home.

Peter Workman, who loves his grandmother's Frostline coat, wishes things were different. He's sewn and built some of his own musical equipment in the past, and believes his generation is also interested in making their own gear.

"I can't think of anything cooler than crafting something or putting something together that you will eventually wear and use for a purpose."

Perhaps that means there's an opportunity. Bruce Johnson has kept track of the Frostline Kits business registration for years. Not too long ago, he said, the Colorado Secretary of State listed it as available.

"It's not in arrears anymore," he said."So for a very small amount of money, anyone who wanted to could start to use the trademark and use the business name again."

Stephanie Paige Ogburn has been reporting from Colorado for more than five years, primarily from the Western Slope.
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