When Seamwork came out with their Menswear Issue in October I filed away the Denali vest as a “must make” project and waited until I had a bit of spare time. As it turned out, one day soon after adding the vest pattern to my sewing plans, an email came into my Thread Theory inbox from Wiphala. I had never heard of this company before but it turns out that it is a start up run by two best friends that have created an insulation fabric comprised of llama fur- how fitting while insulated quilted vests were on my mind!
The two friends (Jared and Elias) who developed this insulation with clothing manufacturers and outdoor enthusiasts in mind were curious to know if the DIY/sewing community would be interested in using their creation as a fabric for garment or quilting projects. Of course, the Denali popped into my my mind as I read the email and I decided to test out the insulation by sewing up this pattern!
Jared and Elias kindly offered to send me some llama fibre insulation to play around with and sent me enough to make a vest and potentially a quilted hammock with Matt. They did not ask me to write a blog post or publicly endorse their insulation in any way – they were just curious to hear my thoughts on it privately. Since I can imagine many ways it might be a useful fabric for the sewing community, I chose to blog about it so I can hear your thoughts too!
Before I talk about the sewing process, let’s put things into context a bit by telling more of the back story for this project.
First, here’s a little about Wiphala and the insulation: Jared and Elias are friends who share a passion for adventuring and competitive sports. During their alpine adventures they often jokingly wished they could use polar bear fur to stay warm – they discovered that the hollow core of polar bear fur is the key to it’s insulating property. Joking was set aside and they delved into finding an insulation with similar properties and a far better impact on the animal and the environment. They were thrilled to discover that llama fur contains a hollow core too! This hollow cores makes it very light and allows it to retain its insulating properties when damp (unlike down). The harvest of llama fibers has a low environmental impact and a large economic impact for communities in the Andes.
And now, a little bit about why I was so excited to sew a project like this: The motive for launching Wiphala really resonated with me because Matt has been very immersed in the hobby of hammock camping and sewing his own camping gear throughout the last year or two. I obviously have been absorbing the information he has learned about winter camping, insulating a hammock and creating a super light and minimalist camping set up because I have been so thrilled that he has taken an interest in sewing!
Also, my little sister is an avid adventurer who has created an organization called Rad Girls. She and her friend/co-founder aim to encourage women and girls to get outside and go on adventures (check them out on Instagram for loads of inspiration)! She is constantly fulfilling her organization’s mission when she pushes me out the door despite my protests that I don’t have the correct clothing, gear or ability :P.
I may not be an expert on extreme hiking adventures or on light-weight camping but I think my family and my experiences put me in a fairly relevant situation where I am constantly bridging the gap between the DIY/sewing community and the outdoor adventure community so, if I do say so myself, I think my opinion about llama insulation could be quite useful to Wiphala and to any sewers who are interested in creating an insulated or quilted project :P.
Ok, with the backstory complete, let’s move on to the sewing project itself!
To create my Denali Vest I bought very high quality Ripstop from Ripstop by the Roll. I’ve wasted a considerable amount of money in the past by purchasing low quality Ripstop for a back pack I tried to make. The bolt of Ripstop that I found at the fabric store I was shopping in at the time didn’t contain any technical info on the material and I was disappointed to find out that the material simply shredded when I tried to sew it! The good quality Ripstop material was glorious to work with – it didn’t suck into my sewing machine and seems to be very strong. The biggest asset of this fabric is that it is sooooo soft and light!
I experimented with creating a sandwich of Ripstop, llama fibre and Ripstop while quilting and then tested out removing one Ripstop layer to create an even lighter (and more affordable) garment. I sewed with the Ripstop on top and the llama fibre against my feed dogs. I know that it seems crazy to sew with the loose hairs against my feed dogs (what if the feed dogs became packed with hair? What if they shredded the insulation apart?) but I really wanted to test out just how easy the insulation was to work with – I had no problems with it and it sewed up just like a fleece fabric or synthetic insulation would. Throughout the entire project I just treated it like a fabric rather than a matted selection of hairs (which is what it really is). I found it to be very worry free and simple to sew with.
Because the hairs are hollow and the insulation is quite thin, I felt that it wouldn’t lose too much of its insulating properties if I quilted it quite thoroughly (my dad requested square quilting rather than horizontal lines). When working with down it is necessary to use baffles between the layers of fabric to avoid compressing the down and to stop the down from slipping down the garment until the bottom of your vest is extra puffy and the top of your vest is empty of insulation. It is not necessary to do this with the llama insulation because it is matted together to create a fabric.
Jared and Elias recommended I use down-proof fabric for my main fabric and lining. Down-proof fabric is either very dense (think fancy high thread count down filled pillows for instance) or has been treated so that the tiny feathers can not slip through the weave to escape your vest over time. I ignored this advice purposely because my dad had a certain rip-stop color scheme in mind and I wanted to test the insulation by refusing to treat it special in any sort of way. It turns out that their recommendation was good advice because my dad has been picking a few hairs from his vest as he wears it. Matt and I think that it is only the thick and long hairs that will try to escape – once they have found freedom outside of the vest we think the finer and softer hairs will be happy to stay within the quilting.
My dad requested some very particular styling elements for his vest (which is why, of all the people I sew for, my Dad’s projects are always the most fun, challenging and interesting to make!). He preferred a taller collar so it created a softer look when zipped up. He also wanted different pockets than the patch ones included in the Denali pattern.
He requested somewhere safe to place his keys and wallet – he suggested zippered pockets on the front but I ended up creating single welt outer pockets so that the zippers wouldn’t rub against his wrists when he put his hands in his pockets. Instead, I placed the zipper on the inside of the vest, along with a leather accent and Thread Theory tag:
Now that my dad has had a chance to wear the vest in some pretty chilly weather, he reports that it is approximately as warm as his fleece ski vest – translated for those of you who haven’t seen the particular vest my dad is talking about, I would say that this llama insulated vest will make an excellent mid layer to wear underneath a shell style jacket (such as a ski jacket with no insulation) and on top of a merino wool base layer. It is slightly less bulky than the fleece vest in question but it could have been far less bulky if I hadn’t lined it in cotton (I had debated lining it in Ripstop but chose style over function :P).
The vest also works nicely as a thin and light layer to wear over a long sleeve shirt when feeling chilly inside the house. It isn’t a puffy and extra warm vest that can be worn as the main layer of warmth in a snow storm, that’s for sure! It would be easy to make a warmer garment by choosing a less boxy fit (since there is a lot of heat loss potential due to the cold air flowing between the vest and my dad…I probably could have chosen a smaller size). It would also be much warmer if I had sewn with two layers of insulation and compressed it less with a different quilting style. As the vest is, though, it is perfectly suited to the way my dad will wear it – as a layer that works for all manner of situations from sitting at the computer in his office to walking the dog. He doesn’t have to worry about it losing its insulating value if he gets caught in the rain or gets sweaty while skiing some aggressive black diamond moguls.
From the perspective of the creator rather than from the wearer, there are several things I would change next time: I would learn to insert the zipper with far less rippling (it’s rather embarrassing but I couldn’t re-do it because Ripstop is next to impossible to stitch rip!). I would select a less bulky zipper – I should have found the perfect zipper online when ordering my fabric but I forgot and had to settle for the small selection of the correct length at my local fabric shop. I would choose down-proof Ripstop as my main fabric as discussed above. And, lastly, I would choose a more fitted size.
All in all, I am fairly happy with how the vest turned out and very happy with how easy the insulation was to work with! The only constructive criticism I had for Jared and Elias was that the narrow width of the fabric (30″) was a bit restricting and unusual. I imagine this width would be very restricting for quilters who, I think, would otherwise LOVE this insulation for making light quilts composed of all natural fibres. ***Update: Elias replied to my feedback to tell me this good news – the insulation is now being manufactured at a standard 60″ wide! The 30″ fabric that I received was from an earlier run of the insulation created specifically for the width of sleeping bags.***
Now that I’ve given my two cents, do you have an opinion about this fabric? If you saw llama fibre insulation in the fabric shop, would you be excited? What would you use it for? Active wear? Camping or Ski Gear? Bedding? Quilts? You are very welcome to add your feedback as sewers and DIY enthusiasts to help Jared and Elias find a market for the fabric they’ve created!