As college-educated, textile professionals, they decided to start a business together, one that would prove clothing manufacturing in the United States could be successful.
Before business partners and lifelong friends John Gage and Mike Hawkins launched Appalachian Gear Company, which makes performance apparel from alpaca fiber, they each spent more than 25 years studying, living, breathing and working in North Carolina’s rich and historic textile industry.
As backpackers, they were familiar with the benefits of merino wool. But, they didn’t want to use the same, familiar materials everyone else was using. “We wanted a fabric that would improve upon the benefits and production methods of merino wool,” John said.
Taking a leap into the unknown, without a blueprint to guide them, John and Mike set out to create a product line like no other, inventing a new class of fabric: 100% alpaca fiber.
Like merino wool, alpaca fiber provides a lightweight and warm option in the backcountry. But when it comes to softness, durability, breathability and moisture-wicking properties, alpaca fiber is superior. It also has less environmental impact, because it doesn’t undergo harsh chemical treatments.
John and Mike put their alpaca fiber, and the outdoor clothing line made out of it, through three years of research and development — a period not without its hurdles. "We had to customize the fiber specification, yarn specification, machinery setup and procedures,” John said. “Each time we thought we had it mastered, another barrier would present itself. We thought we were defeated many times, but we finally succeeded.”
When they launched in 2017, Appalachian Gear Company became the first company in the world to manufacture lightweight technical fleece from 100% alpaca fiber. Due to its novelty, Appalachian Gear Company appreciates the opportunity to educate and share the benefits of wearing clothing made of alpaca fiber for active pursuits.
“Using alpaca fiber in the activewear space is practically unheard of. It’s more associated with being a crude and roughly finished fabric,” Sales Manager John Murtiashaw said. “Or it’s considered a very high-end product in the fashion space, costs $800 and would immediately shrink on you,” he laughed.
Alpaca fiber is great as performance wear because it keeps warmth in when wet. Additionally, compared to merino wool that can retain up to 30% of its weight in water, alpaca only retains about 10% of its weight in water. If it gets wet, once the alpaca garment is wrung out, it is almost completely dry, and will even dry quickly while still wearing it.
“So if you’re in the rain and get wet, once you get back to shelter you can wring it out, put it back on, and let it dry as you are chowing on some Ramen,” Murtiashaw said.
When asked why there aren’t other 100% alpaca performance garments on the market, Murtiashaw simply replied, “it’s hard.”
For one, alpaca fiber is not cheap, which makes for expensive mistakes.
“Most performance fabrics are made from cheap and plentiful synthetic fibers or blends of natural and synthetic fibers. They can be run at very high speeds on fabric forming equipment,” Murtiashaw said. “Most large companies are not set-up to produce custom fabrics with specialized processes that require specialized skill and knowledge.”
In addition to its 100% All-Paca Fleece Hoodies, Appalachian Gear Company recently launched the 8020 Long Sleeve Tee and Hoodie. Like the name implies, this lightweight, performance garment is made of 80% alpaca and 20% tencel.
While Appalachian Gear Company is exploring ways to source its alpaca fiber from the United States, there just isn’t the supply the company currently needs. In the meantime, they’re turning to Peru, the country with the largest alpaca population, unsurprisingly, making it the world’s leading producer of alpaca fiber.
Everything else, however, about Appalachian Gear Company is orchestrated back home in Kings Mountain, where North Carolina’s textile heritage runs deep. “There’s less of it than there used to be,” Murtiashaw said of the local clothing manufacturing industry, “but you’d be surprised how much is still around.”
Appalachian Gear Company is committed to keeping that spirit alive by doing everything in-house. “We knit, finish, cut and sew it all,” Murtiashaw said. “We can really control our production this way.”
Appalachian Gear Company's commitment to running an eco-friendly and mindful operation is also evidenced in their four-day work week, paid vacation, full benefits, and salary for each and every employee.
“A lot of this comes from the leadership from John Gage,” Murtiashaw said. “I knew from the moment I met him I wanted to work for this guy — his company was so interesting and innovative, but also his humble and down to earth nature. He has a magnetic effect of attracting other skilled people.”