Carhartt to the Extreme: Our History Fighting the Cold
By Dave J. Moore, Brand Archivist and Historian
When you think of Carhartt, you think of gearing up for the cold. We certainly have the products that can keep you safe out in the elements: but our skill at keeping you warm didn’t just happen overnight. We’ve spent the past 129 years learning how to better protect our customers.
You might be surprised to learn that Carhartt’s earliest garments didn’t come in lined versions. They were made out of heavy-duty fabrics to protect you from the hazards of the job, but not necessarily the weather. But that doesn’t mean that people weren’t already using them in harsh conditions. It did mean that you might need a couple of layers under those overalls to be comfortable. This gentleman donned his Carhartt overalls while supervising the construction of the Alaskan railroad around 1915.
We introduced our first saddle blanket lined products in the late 1930s. We took our most classic styles and began to adapt them for year-round wear. The Chore Coat, introduced over 100 years ago, was one of the first to get the blanket treatment. Other outerwear pieces and pants soon followed. The combination of tried-and-true fabrics and our first blanket linings was truly a seminal moment in the evolution of the company.
It’s also worth noting that those first linings were produced by the historic Troy Mills, a company that began making horse blankets in the mid-1800s. Heck, Hamilton Carhartt might’ve wrapped himself in a Troy Mills blanket while he was cutting his teeth as a traveling salesman with a horse and wagon.
So how do you take that protection to the next level? Well, in Carhartt’s case, you try foam. Scott Foam, to be precise, the same type of material that’s often used to make puppets. It was introduced as a lining in 1962, but didn’t have a whole lot of staying power… it was gone by 1965. However, about this same time, we introduced our Ranch Wear line, which included products with acrylic pile lining. They were a huge hit, evolving into the Western Wear of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and the legacy of the pile lining lives on today in our Sherpa-lined products.
The same year the foam lining left our gear, we introduced our first garments with a quilted lining: they were a hit. Coats, jackets, coveralls, vests, hoods, pants – if it’s been part of the Carhartt line, it’s probably had a quilt lining at some point.
Arguably the best example of the evolution of weather protection is our coveralls. Carhartt’s first coveralls, known as “allovers,” served more of a traditional purpose, keeping clothes from getting stained and damaged while working. It wasn’t until 1968 that we introduced our first lined coveralls. These quilt-lined coveralls were a workwear standard by the early 1970s.
A massive order of about 5,000 pairs was placed to outfit workers building the trans-Alaska pipeline. According to former Carhartt CFO Pete Krause, it was the largest single order to date at that time.
Those coveralls were some of the heaviest-duty on the market, but the feedback we received from pipeline workers showed us that we shouldn’t stop there. Even these coveralls still left something to be desired in the coldest conditions, like in Prudhoe Bay on the Alaskan North Slope.
In 1982 we introduced our Arctic Wear line, featuring an eight ounce quilted lining and a faux fur lined hood. Today’s Sawtooth Parka does a great job representing the legacy of this line.
The culmination of our fight against the cold came in 1998 when we introduced the Extremes line. It marked the beginning of our relationship with Cordura®, who we still work with today, not only with our heavy-duty Extremes products but also with lighter-weight fabrics. The Extremes line featured a 1000-denier nylon shell. Simply put, it made a wall between you and the elements. According to Carhartt’s marketing director at the time, "We created this line of clothing to provide superior toughness and protection from the harshest elements. It’s specifically tailored to the customers who must conquer the severe cold, wet and icy outdoors at work or play.” Most of the products we introduced in ’98 are still available today.
Our legacy fighting the cold is just one part of how Carhartt has been helping its consumers tackle tough jobs for 129 years. The way we built these products is echoed in how we build garments today, whether they’re intended to keep you warm, cool, dry, or safe on the job.