Nick Armentrout on creating an apparel brand from an all-American sustainable supply chain
Nick Armentrout is the supply chain manager of Ramblers Way, a high-quality, sustainable apparel brand founded by Tom and Kate Chappell, founders of the infamous Tom’s of Maine toothpaste and other all-natural products. Nick shares how his background in animal science led him to find and establish relationships with Rambouillet sheep, the knitters, dyers and manufactures that all go into the crafting of Ramblers Way apparel. Nick also dives into Ramblers Way’s Global Organic Textile (GOTS) and Cradle to Cradle certifications and how they influence today’s consumer.
Nick’s Interview Transcript
Nancy: Hello, I’m Nancy Fendler and your listening to Material Wise, your podcast on material matters. It’s my chance to talk to designers, product developers and other guests in the outdoor fashion, home furnishing, and other industries about what inspires and influences them to create. Why and how they select the materials they choose and the relationships they’ve built with their customers and industry.
My guest today is Nick Armentrout, supply chain director for Rambler’s Way. For those unfamiliar, Rambler’s Way is a sustainable, premium-quality apparel brand founded by Tom and Kate Chappell of Tom’s of Maine fame.
On a hiking trip in Wales in 2008, Tom struggled to find just the right layering shirt to keep him warm and dry and fresh enough to go from the trail to the inn. Upon his return to Maine, Tom set out to create the perfect next to skin shirt inspired by wool. One that absorbs sweat, kept you warm when wet, and allowed body odor to escape. It also had to be American made.
Nick joined Tom in finding just the right wool suppliers and now works with domestic sheep farmers and fabric makers to ensure the manufacturer of every garment follows the company’s strict environmental and sustainability ethos.
Today, Rambler’s Way products for men and women, all sustainably made in the U.S. with natural materials are sold online at RamblersWay.com and its retail stores located in Portsmouth and Hanover, New Hampshire and Portland, Maine.
Nancy: Hi Nick, thanks so much for allowing me to come to Rambler’s Way.
Nick: Hi, nice to be with you here.
Nancy: How did you begin your career in the supply chain management?
Nick: Well, first of all, I’m a relative newcomer. My career in supply chain management has been solely at Rambler’s Way. I’ve been involved since inception 2009 and I had the opportunity because my father-in-law is Tom Chappell, our company owner. And while he had a product vision and he wanted to make that product source the fiber, in this case wool fiber, and make that product completely within the United States.
He was looking for some help to go and make some of those initial relationships and connections with wool ranchers in the West. I lived and worked on ranches in Wyoming and Montana and Idaho for about six years during college and then before returning back to Maine. He asked me if I wanted to come along.
That’s it. Simple as that.
Nancy: That’s great.
Nick: My understanding of supply chain is from an agricultural production standpoint. Animal agriculture to an extent as well, grains and forages. The idea of a soil or field preparation towards harvesting a crop and that cycle. That’s my point of entry to manufacturing.
Nancy: Wow, well that’s great. Those talents or those skills probably help with the growth. The better the animal, I would think the better the fiber.
Nick: Sure. In some cases it was just having a little bit of an easier conversation with some of the ranchers in far flung corners of the West. Having some understanding about animal agriculture certainly helped.
Nancy: In your experience has material sourcing changed over the years?
Nick: Sure, yeah I mean even within the brief time that I’ve been involved in sourcing, we’ve seen steady uptick and greater transparency for sure. Consumers looking for brands to be more socially and environmentally accountable. Greater concern for agricultural and animal welfare.
So we’ve seen a significant uptick in those sustainability standards, those traceability and transparency. For sure. That’s kind of been how we’ve always operated and certainly with the previous company – Tom’s of Maine – always operated that way as well. It wasn’t new territory for us, but we’ve seen a lot of activity like this in the brief time that our company in existence.
Nancy: Thank you, yeah. So I understand that Tom Chappell created Rambler’s Way with the intention of using an all American supply chain that meets the company’s stringent standards for sustainable agriculture and animal welfare?
Nick: Well again, it helped for me to have a background in animal agriculture. So that when we started the business, we went looking for fiber. We didn’t go looking for an existing yarn or fabric. There was a product vision that for something that was going to be exceptionally soft, 100 percent wool that you could wear next to your skin, frankly year round, not just in the colder months.
Tom had help in researching the type of fiber required, and so we went to find those ranchers, those producers who were raising genetically those kinds of sheep. That was again where I came in to the business having worked and lived in some of the areas where the territory states our West where some of these ranchers and producers are operating.
How did I help with that? Basically carrying those relationships forward and saying, you know, we can be a customer, we can be brand to pull some through some of the exceptionally high quality fiber that you are raising on your ranch to celebrate and honor the good work you’re doing on the land and for your livestock.
Be a home for this end of your fiber production. Formerly a lot of these ranchers, producers would have just bundled up all of their wool and sold it into the commodity market.
Nancy: That’s what I was going to ask. You’ve really created partnerships with these ranchers.
Nick: Yeah, absolutely. When we went out on the road in Montana or Colorado, whatever it may be, saying you know we’re looking for this specific type of wool and we understand that you raise this type of sheep, can we talk about the qualities of your fiber? These producers said to us just, “no brand has ever asked us that information before, we just kind of deal with the wool brokers and sell to the warehouse and go about our business. We’re so excited that there’s this much interest in what we’re doing.”
And then further part of whole Gestalt is to honor and respect and celebrate. Again, celebrate the people we work with. The meaning of those relationship, and so they were pretty excited as well to have a light shed on what they were doing.
Nancy: Yeah. So when I went into this store in Portland, the Rambler’s Way store I saw a beautiful poster of this gorgeous sheep and it’s a Rambouillet sheep?
Nick: Yeah, it’s a Rambouillet sheep.
Nancy: The gal in the store mentioned that this the sheep Rambler’s Way uses to sheer the wool. I’m not sure if I’m saying that, that uses the wool from the sheep. Why Rambouillet sheep?
Nick: Well first of all if you have a product in mind, a wool product that you want to have next to your skin, you have to be specific in the type, the quality of fiber and softness and fineness that you’re looking for. So beyond Rambler’s Way, any brand, pick your industry. It could be outdoor, it could be fashion or lifestyle, whatever it may be. If they’re looking to make a wool product that’s worn next to the skin for softness and no prickle factor, you’re looking for very fine, micron fiber diameters.
If a human hair is about 40 microns, we’re trying to source wool that’s 18 micron and finer. So half the diameter of a human hair. There’s scientific study that says that’s kind of where the prickle factor starts and ends for people.
That focused on a certain quality of fiber and then looking within the United States, we had to find, identify with help the breeds that would produce that kind of wool. The lead breed in the U.S. is Rambouillet, it’s a French sound-
Nancy: Pardon my pronunciation.
Nick: … Nah, none of us say it that way, but here I’m on the mic, so what the heck.
Nick: So Rambouillet is considered a multipurpose breed. They’re great for meat and lamb production and they’re also a fine fiber producer. Merino is the name and the breed that most people know. Rambouillet is actually a close genetic cousin to Merino, and more recently you are finding larger production flocks in the U.S. that are crossing Rambouillet and Merino. That’s where a lot of our wool is coming from. Those ranches.
Nick: They’re a cross of Rambouillet and Merino.
Nancy: Okay, and sourced or what do you say, do you say sourced or raised? Raised in Montana, Idaho, in that part of-
Nick: Yeah, the territory states. So Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and then Colorado, Nevada. To an extent Utah or New Mexico, you can move around. Texas has a lot of fine wool production as well. We came to work more closely with specific producers in certain areas because we came to know a lot more about the quality of their fiber production.
Nancy: Do you raise any here in Maine?
Nick: We did. You know that’s a great question. Tom and Kate Chappell had a small Rambouillet flock of their own here just outside of Kennebunk, and we had some pretty grand plans to grow that out, but we chose instead to focus more on clothing production and fabric production because we are making our own fabrics with partner mills as well.
We just couldn’t do it all, so he dispersed that flock. I have a small flock of my own outside of Kennebunk as well, but they’re considered long wool breeds. So the fiber diameters not quite the same we use in the Rambler’s Way clothing.
Nancy: So what are some of the performance characteristics of wool that some of our listeners may not know of?
Nick: Yeah. You know first of all, I think it’s important to point out that wool is a dynamic fiber, so it has, it’s comprised of over 20 different amino acids that are linked in polypeptide chains that start to form the keratin, the structure in that.
Some of those amino acids are hydrophilic or water loving, and some are hydrophobic or water repellent, and what happens is that where this comes into play is that wool will change and absorb, or disperse water depending on the humidity, it’s environment. And it really is quite remarkable.
What happens in the process of water being attracted and hydrogen molecules being attracted to some of the hydrophilic amino acids, it actually creates this chemical reaction so it actually creates a little bit of heat. In fact, from zero to 100 percent humidity wool will create over a 760 calories of heat.
That’s why wool has this capacity to keep you warm even when it’s damp. You never feel clammy and cold in wool. The other thing is that it also contains both beta and alpha keratins in that structure. The beta is common, but the alpha is unique to wool.
Alpha is a way to express the fiber in its relaxed state, beta is when it’s under pressure. What the beta keratin wants to do is go back to that relaxed state when pressures removed. So that’s where you get natural elasticity in the wool fiber.
More importantly, a lot of that elasticity comes from the crimp, the natural crimp or the coil in the fiber, and that too is effected genetically. So some of the fine wool that we seek out, that half a human hair or 18 micron and finer, is actually also high crimp wool because that lends to the elasticity.
You see this in stretch and recovery of the fabric. Cotton is kind of dead where you can stretch and wool wants to go back to that form. You don’t have to wash to get it back to its shape like a pair of blue jeans or something. It happens naturally.
Nancy: Yeah, that’s so interesting. It really is. Several traceability and sustainability certification standards have been developed to ensure the responsible sourcing of materials such as down and other textiles. Is there one for wool?
Nick: There is. So you referenced responsible down for instance, the responsible down standard or RDS developed with brands and the organization Textile Exchange. They also developed one for, the Textile Exchange, a standard called the responsible wool standard, RWS.
Similar to the down standard, brands like Patagonia, The North Face, and in fact as well Rambler’s Way, were stakeholders involved in that process. RWS is built around land and livestock management. To be sure that they are humane treatment of the sheep in this case in the process and accountable treatment of the land in the process.
The Rodale Institute has an emerging regenerative organics standard. The Rambler’s Way uses the Global Organic Textile standard called GOTS, G-O-T-S. That’s a standard that is designed to come in where international or let’s speak national in the U.S. GOTS would come in where the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) ends.
The NOP was never designed to create standards for fiber coming off of a farm post- harvest. GOTS does. It comes in and says we’re going to use the NOP farming standards and then we’re going to create similar standards that are in the spirit of organic. No GMOs, no synthetics, there’s a lot of prohibited substances. And we’re going to apply that to every step in the manufacturing process.
And every processor, be it a scouring mill, cleaning wool, a spinner spinning yarns, a knitter, a weaver, a yarn or fabric dyer, they all have to meet those rigorous standards to make an organic textile product.
That speaks a lot to how we go about things. In a very general way, I tell folks that we like to use limited and as little applied chemistry as we can to make our product and GOTS really was the right standard for us.
To that we’ve layered onto that specific for our organic wool clothing line, the Cradle to Cradle certification which is based on Bill McDonough, Michael Braungart’s book Cradle to Cradle which is thinking about the circularity of a product, in our case, clothing. How that fiber and the textile product gets made and where it goes to at the end of its life.
Wool is a great candidate for circularity because it’s a product of the soil and it can go back to the soil. In Cradle to Cradle, the language of the book and now for our brand as well, you’re thinking about the end of life strategy and can the leftovers of your clothing become a technical nutrient, i.e., a piece of another clothing or textile product. Or, can it become a biological nutrient, can it become a soil feedstock?
And wool can do both fantastically. Naturally, it just wants to do that. And then we can make choices of course to optimize the product with the cleanest dyes or no dyes or whatever it may be to be sure that it lends itself even better to either of those applications.
Nancy: Yeah, not to mention that wool lasts so long, apparel made with wool lasts longer thus less need to put in the landfill.
Nick: Yeah, and that’s where you get a little deeper into the natural benefits. I mean it’s natural stain resistance, it wants to be odor absorbing and it’s actually not anti- microbial, formally, it’s bacterial static.
But all these things mean that a wool garment can be long lived in your wardrobe. It also means it lends itself to breaking down back in the hands of nature when it’s done.
Nancy: Yeah. So I’ve been attending a few retail seminars lately and they’ve shared that millennials are more apt to purchase products from socially and environmentally responsible companies. Do you find this is the case with Rambler’s Way?
Nick: Absolutely. We’ve had an uptick for sure in iPhone sales. You can just tell, we have to think of how our website and how our online presence serves itself in a handheld device.
Our online presence has always been a big part of our business for sure. We’re watching Instagram a little bit more these days than Facebook. We have a steady presence on both, but our Instagram is quite active.
Our sales to women seem to be – well, they run the gamete from 35 to 65, I think that’s a nod towards some of our designs and some of our styles. They’re treading lower, actually, over time. We’re increasingly meeting a slightly younger consumer. Which is exciting for us.
Our median age would be the 40s. Men are flat, but I think that’s also, to an extent, either our men’s designs and also the men’s customer. I mean I could wear a shirt that my 78 year old father might wear and feel like I’m rocking it. It’s alright.
But I guess that I should point out that as a company, we’ve always thought more in terms of psychographics. So we’re trying to meet people with whom we share values for environmental responsibility or sustainability. So we think a lot more about psychographics than an age demographic.
Nancy: What do you think the supply chain can do better to educate brands and their consumers about their products and processes?
Nick: I think, you know, the short answer for me would be better proactive story telling about the good work they’re doing and how they’re trying to make a positive impact. I think, unfortunately, that supply chain is by design largely responsive.
And there is manufacturing reluctance to take on much risk or try something new unless there is a customer for that. So brands are the liaison between the chain and the consumer, and the brand comes back and says we want a greener product. And then the manufacturer says okay, well we’ll try to respond to that.
We get most excited, well first of all, in the U.S. we’re working with some highly responsive manufacturers and we get most excited as a brand when we go out and we find there’s a lot of common ground, there’s a lot of those shared values or beliefs around the environment or being good to your people or being good to the animals.
We get very excited when we find that common ground, then we can built that relation out. I think that more manufacturers need to go ahead and step forward. In some cases without that brand driver or that brand consumer ambassador to say, here’s some of the things we’re doing, we’ve converted this much our energy to wind or solar or, you know, we were really concerned about the quality of the water discharge from our plants, so here’s the steps we’ve taken.
And that’s based on their beliefs. It shouldn’t all be brand driven. So that’s what I’d like to see, and I think it’s starting to happen, too.
Nancy: Very interesting. We’ve talked a lot about wool. Are there any new textiles on the horizon for Rambler’s Way?
Nick: We’re still very much a wool centric company, so we have a small, lesser known line of 100 percent U.S. sourced and manufactured cotton knits as well. We’re looking forward to rebooting that program as an organic 100 percent U.S. sourced and manufactured organic cotton program.
That’s only recently become available to do, because there weren’t organic certified cotton spinners in this country. Now there are. So we’re really excited to tap into that potential.
We’re also really excited to develop some different recycled wool products. We began a new partnership last year with the Renewal Workshop in Cascade Lots, Oregon. Their role is to partner with brands like Rambler’s Way and to help us to launder or repair or renew clothing that might be damaged or was a return, but still has life in it.
This is a growing part of that sustainable consumption and sustainable apparel place as well. How do we define first quality, does it have to be fresh out of a bag or can it have a slight flaw and just be still a wonderful garment to wear?
We’re pretty excited to be working with them. They’re also can be a fiber recycling partner for us. Part of that recycling, if something can’t be renewed, it could be ground up and made into a whole new product. There is a whole world of woolen products or felt products that could be outcomes of us recycling our own off quality, returns or flawed fabric or garments that are going to happen and we’d like to be smart about, and creative and innovative about our solutions to those things.
Nancy: Nate, thanks so much for joining me on Material Wise, and listeners you can learn more about Rambler’s Way by visiting Ramblersway.com. Thank you.
Nick: Thank you for having me.
Nancy: Thanks so much for listening to Material Wise. I’d also like to thank the incredibly talented Woods Creative for their help in producing this podcast. Jake Nevrla mixes our episodes, and our theme music is by Activity Club. For information on Material Wise, please visit Materialwise.co and please subscribe, rate, and review wherever you get your podcast. Thank you again and until next time, take care.