When we first started redesigning our women’s climbing pants, I was scared. Our design team had endured a series of beatdowns, including field testing comments that essentially read, “These are the worst climbing pants we’ve ever made.” As a Patagonia designer, I’ve created belay jackets for elite athletes and complete alpine systems for demanding conditions on the highest peaks in the world. Those experiences pale in comparison to the wrath of one strong lady crusher whose pants didn’t fit. And she wasn’t wrong. So I knew we needed to approach things differently this time.
A few months into it, I took a trip to the Flash Foxy Women’s Climbing Festival in Bishop, California, where Patagonia had a repair booth set up. The festival attendees—hundreds of strong climbers—made an ideal focus group. I snapped Polaroid® photos of women who stopped by our booth and asked them to write notes in the margins about whatever it was they wanted to tell us about pants. Looking at the stack of Polaroids back at our Ventura design studio, I was inspired by all the thoughtful opinions we’d received. Some women wanted more durable fabrics, others wanted fewer features. Many women simply couldn’t find their size or didn’t like the fit when they did. It also struck me that the men designing these pants in the past oversimplified the goal they were trying to accomplish, paring all women down to a single monolithic block.
In order to solve the issue of a more inclusive fit, we first added stretch to all our materials. We then worked closely with our in-house patternmaker (and resident desert crack-climbing expert) Allison Hendricks to develop a specific starting block that was articulated for dynamic high-step movements, chimney butt scoots and whatever else might be thrown into the mix. By adding more stretch to our pants, we realized that they could easily slip over hips without need for a fly. “Why have pants always had a fly in the past?” Jenna Johnson, head of Patagonia, Inc., rightly asked during a design review. So we removed this holdover from the biological design of men’s pants.
Then we sent our designs out to our field testers and athletes. There was Jane Jackson, who harvests wild mushrooms from the Yosemite Valley floor; Jess Campbell, an artist and volunteer firefighter who lives in a yurt perched atop the mountains surrounding Leavenworth, Washington; Döerte Pietron, who sets new routes in the Austrian Alps and holds a PhD in physics focusing on climate change research; Anne Gilbert Chase, who works tireless night shifts in the Bozeman, Montana, emergency room; and Zoe Hart, a guide and mom raising two boys in the Chamonix Valley amid the French Alps. I loved the personality that came with each of their notes—how one pair was perfect for Jane on Yosemite’s big walls, while Döerte needed something more suited to fast routes and a European aesthetic. Matching each field tester with the pants that fit their style of climbing and personality was the key to creating a line that appeals to a wide range of women.
When I look back on this project and the work of the amazing all-female product team, I am particularly proud of how we were able to nail the emotion—the ineffable reason why you reach for your favorite jeans, your old torn-up sweater, your lucky sports bra. Secretly, we made every single pair of women’s pants more technical than the men’s. We introduced ultrasonic bonding to crucial seams. We lightened up the fabric. We removed bartacks so the seat and knees could be more easily repaired. And we reduced bulk under the harness line and added trims to cinch hems so you could more easily see your feet.
That’s the exciting thing about working with a group of inspiring women—sometimes the accidental work around the edges ends up being just as innovative and important as what you set out to do.
This story was first published in the Patagonia Spring 2021 journal.