Penicillin. Potato chips. Senchi Designs.
What do these three things have in common?
They were all invented when one person said, “what the heck?” and tried using something in a completely new and different way.
OK, maybe it’s a little hyperbolic to compare a fleece to a medical revolution, but this isn’t just any fleece. The Senchi fleece weighs half as much as a t-shirt, has essentially zero features, and sells out faster than a K-pop concert.
So how did this become a thing?
It all started when Ryan Windus—a Portland, Oregon ambient musician and ultralight backpacking enthusiast—got his hands on a roll of Polartec® Alpha®. Alpha is Polartec’s superlight active insulation, and has a shaggy, semi-transparent texture that allows tons of airflow. The fabric was originally designed to live inside of a backing fabric, but Windus was inspired by some other small makers to try stitching together this ethereal material into a standalone jacket.
The result might have looked a bit unusual, but the capabilities of Windus’s new franken-sweater were astounding! At little more than 3 ounces, it weighed a fifth of the average fleece, but it still provided deceivingly effective insulation. Plus, all that ventilation meant the fleece could stay on for longer and during higher-intensity activities without overheating. Then, thanks to its lightning fast dry time, it became the perfect fleece to jam into a backpack afterward.
Although Windus may not have been the first brave soul to try making an all-Alpha garment, what he came up with—the original Wren Hoodie—would set the new standard for ultralight fleece. So with his first fully-functional product in hand, he decided to try selling a few… on Reddit.
Before Senchi Designs became the coolest accessory on the trail. Before Windus put nursing school on pause to pursue Senchi full time. Before they had a slick website and thousands of Instagram followers, Senchi fleeces were sold in small drops on Reddit. Windus would stitch up a run of one color or another from his home in Portland, post them in the ultralight forum, and sell them until they were gone. It didn’t take long before word caught on, and the runs started selling out in minutes.
At that point, Windus was still using cereal boxes for patterns, and doing all the construction, shipping and customer service himself. All of this while being in nursing school.
He needed help.
Eventually Windus moved manufacturing and operations out of his garage and enlisted help from one of his old college friends who had experience with apparel manufacturing. She helped him create digital patterns and design systems and run operations. But just because Senchi is no longer a one-man show, doesn’t mean they’re looking to go mainstream.
They have no plans for moving manufacturing overseas, or producing a bazillion fleeces, or jacking up prices. They plan to remain themselves, and the best way to do it is to keep selling fleeces one drop at a time, just like the good-ol’ days. The only difference is now they announce them on Instagram, and they tend to make a lot more to meet today’s demand. You’ll still want to keep your fingers limbered up and ready to click fast when a new drop hits, though.
If there was ever a 21st century equivalent of the cottage industry mountaineering and backpacking companies of yore, it’s Senchi Designs!
Senchi’s radical ultralight fleeces have created a bit of a phenomenon amongst hikers and outdoors people. But it’s really no surprise that Windus brought some out-of-the-box thinking to Senchi’s designs. After all, the world of ultralight backpacking has a long tradition of inventing bizarre solutions to shave every last gram. Think rain gear that looks like trash bags, sawed-off toothbrushes, freeze-dried meals in zip-lock bags, etc.
And like any good ultralight maker, Senchi does things a little bit differently from the bigger brands. You’ll see specific weights listed for every size of every garment. You won’t see Senchi pretending that their super-hyperlight gear isn’t also quite delicate. They provide wash bags that not only mitigate fiber fragment shedding in the wash, but also provide protection in the field. Senchi encourages their users to prepare to make field repairs, and they can even repair their gear for you in some cases.
In a way, the story of Senchi is also the story of Polartec Alpha, since Senchi uses Alpha in just about everything they make. But what is the story behind Alpha?
Like a lot of big inventions (GPS, the internet, airbags), Alpha was actually a collaboration with the United States Government. It turns out the U.S. Special Operations Forces can’t afford to mess around with pulling on and off layers and waiting for their clothes to dry while they’re out in the field. So they came to Polartec to see if we could engineer a solution.
What they needed was, essentially, “super-down.” An insulation that was exceptionally lightweight, but that would keep working while wet. And stay cool when you got hot. But still remain warm when you need it. And compress down super-small.
What they got was Polartec Alpha, a highly lofted insulation that’s built around an extremely advanced lattice structure for strength. We’ll spare you the construction details, but trust us when we say that designing and building Alpha was a serious challenge.
But the resulting fabric created a brand new category: active insulation. And, as it turns out, active insulation is just as good for civilians as it is for special forces. Today, you’ll find Polartec’s Alpha active insulation in everything from ski touring gear to mountain biking jackets.
Senchi has taken the potential of Alpha and stretched it to its absolute limit—and we applaud them! So if you’re looking to stay warm, stay light, and stay cool, check out Senchi Designs fleeces.