Necessity is often the mother of invention. Fjällräven’s founder, Åke Nordin, was in a bivouac – basically a pit in the snow – on the barren mountain plateau of Abisko in Sweden’s far north, enduring an unbearably cold and windy night.
Åke Nordin, Founder of Fjällräven.
Bitter cold was Åke’s least favourite aspect of outdoor life. He lay there freezing, his teeth chattering, and began wondering if perhaps he could invent a jacket in which it was impossible to feel cold.
Åke had long hated the army’s unpleasant sheepskins, which quickly became wet and heavy to wear. He imagined a lighter garment that could be compressed to occupy less space in the backpack and when worn could insulate at pretty much any temperature.
Blue was Åke’s favourite colour, and the combination with yellow reminded him of the Swedish flag.
Learning from the best is a good start
Back in 1940, an American named Eddie Bauer patented the pattern for the world’s first down jacket after catching pneumonia during a fishing trip in the US state of Washington. His down-insulated parkas were a preferred choice for US combat pilots, who flew in them in World War II. Åke had always learnt by dealing with people who were more skilled than himself.
The down insulation experts were in the US, so that’s where he headed. At an outdoor fair in Chicago he met the rock climber George Lamb, founder of Camp 7 – at the time one of America’s foremost manufacturers of down jackets and sleeping bags.
Lamb sold his business a few years later to a Californian company and retired to take care of his horses, but not before taking his Swedish friend to Boulder, Colorado, to teach him how best to develop his own insulating down jackets, and other products, such as sleeping bags.
In those days, the pioneers of the outdoor equipment industry were primarily self-taught outdoor enthusiasts. All would help each other with new inventions and solutions. Just as Lamb shared his knowledge, Åke published the drawings for his revolutionary Thermo Tent in Fjällräven catalogues so that people could attempt to refine the design.
The Expedition Down Jacket
On his return to Örnsköldsvik, Åke finally had the tools he needed to design a functional garment that stopped the wearer from feeling cold. Sitting at his Singer, he sewed a jacket of durable Rutarme polyamide (nylon) fabric comprising a smaller jacket inside a larger one. US army tests had shown a ten-centimetre-thick layer to be capable of insulating down to minus 40°C, provided air ducts are sewn in the space between the inner and outer jackets, as in a sleeping bag.
With this knowledge and using the technique he’d learnt in Colorado, Åke filled these ducts with goose down and feathers but packed the shoulders with a layer of Dacron polyester fibre to prevent them from compressing and losing insulation when wearers carried heavy tools in their pockets. He fitted the jacket with an insulating hood that covered everything but the eyes when pulled tight, and he made the garment long enough to cover the wearer’s bottom.
After testing his prototype carefully, Åke began producing the Fjällräven Expedition Down Jacket in 1974. The hood came with yellow waxed strings of the same durable type as in ice hockey boot laces. It was a jacket that kept the wearer warm in extreme temperatures in places with no indoor shelter.
Over the years, the Fjällräven Expedition Down Jacket has been used by Swedish Polar Research Secretariat expeditions in the South Pole and Greenland. It has warmed sled dog drivers high in the Arctic Circle and rock climbers at Himalayan base camps. The key factor behind its success is simplicity. Åke hated being cold so he designed a jacket that insulated against freezing temperatures better than any other on the market.