History of Gear: Frostline Kits

(with sections that will direct you to modern suppliers and repair facilities for outdoor gear in Oregon and nationwide)

MY BOOK ABOUT FROSTLINE KITS IS NOW AVAILABLE. ITS 65 COLOR, 8x10 PAGES PROUDLY DISPLAY THE CLASSIC FROSTLINE GEAR; THERE IS A FORWARD BY THE FOUNDER OF FROSTLINE, AND ALSO MANY FUN GEAR REPORTS FROM LONG-TIME USERS. The Frostline book was first released as a soft-bound book, and more recently is also available as a hard-bound book that looks extremely presentable as a gift item. Please click on the Badge below, which will take you to my publisher Blurb Books, where you can order the book, or see a free 15-page book preview... Alternatively, you can contact me directly and purchase an autographed copy for somewhere between 10% and 25% higher price. Click for a Book Review. 

Frostline Kits in the HISTORY OF GEAR
Frostline Kits...
FROSTLINE KITS OF ...
By Bruce B. Johnson
Photo book
 

"FROSTLINE OF COLORADO," By Bruce B. Johnson. PLEASE CONTACT ME IF YOU HAVE QUESTIONS, OR EXPERIENCE ANY DIFFICULTY ORDERING THE BOOK ON MY PUBLISHER'S WEBSITE. Note: Also now available are other books in the History of Gear series: "GERRY, To Live in the Mountains," "MSR, Defying Tradition, and, "Holubar Mountaineering Ltd.," please click for details.


History of Gear: Frostline Kits, Colorado

Please Note: All Material on this page, and in all my "History of Gear" webpages, is copyrighted, and no usage of my material is permitted unless explicit permission is granted by me, Bruce B. Johnson, owner of OregonPhotos.com. Sources used to develop this material include interviews with Frostline founder Dale Johnson and also an interview with the Frostline owners who took over circa 1983. I've also spoken with many ex-customers and some of the contract sewers that Frostline used. I myself visited the Frostline store in the Portland, Oregon metro area in the later 70s. I welcome readers contacting me (oldgear@oregonphotos.com) with information, pictures or stories about Frostline Gear, or any other of the classic outdoor companies.

Date: 1966, Boulder, Colorado.. Dale Johnson (no relation to this writer) became possessed with the cheerful vision that common folk could produce high-quality outdoor gear on their own home sewing machines of sufficient quality to take into the high mountains backpacking, climbing and hiking. Mr. Johnson's involvement with Frostline ended in 1978, after over ten years of booming growth and success. The company he began continued, and for over 30 years this (mostly) mail order business nurtured many of us (often poor) outdoor types. Dale, age 76 in 2008, continued to live in Colorado, and continued his active life of backpacking and backcountry skiing with his wife. He even still had full sewing facilities at his home, and whipped himself up a new tent now and then. (source: personal interviews with Dale in early 2008). On February 23, 2012, Dale Lloyd Johnson passed away in Boulder. Another of the great Pioneers now gone.

If your main question is, "Can I still order Frostline Kits," please skip to Page Bottom for the latest on this mysterious subject!

If your main interest is in finding MODERN companies which can supply you with the fabrics and down that you need for outdoor sewing projects, click here to visit my page about that important subject, which also includes my "Essay on Down," re: the origins, care and storage of down gear! Next, if you've got a piece of gear that needs quality repairing, please click here to visit the page that I've compiled about that important subject!

For a brief summary of Frostline Company History, skip to here.


Frostline!

The name brings back a flood of memories: A flame of a fierce independence; a joy in a creativity that won't allow itself to be "bound by a box." Fun with other sewing nut friends caught up in a gear-making Revolution. And a special pride in owning and showing off great, personalized gear despite being a college kid and young adult on a very small budget.

That was the Frostline draw: To make your OWN gear, to customize it as much as one had the imagination and perserverance to try. To add your name, to add those perfect pockets you always dreamed of onto that daypack that is lacking; in fact, to add all manner of hardware/software anytime, anywhere, to anything you can sew or glue it to!
Then there was that insane pleasure of taking a plump tube of down and secretly boosting the warmth of your existing climbing parka, and the cry of dismay from the surprised spouse who arrived home and discovered the living room atmosphere alive with tiny white down clusters! (the Frostline down-filling technique took some time to develop expertise in using!).
Click here for a story about the ultimate joy of building one's own gear!

My personal kit-building successes included: a "Bighorn" down sleeping bag, a shell parka or two, a down vest or two, a dog pack, a fine 3-man tent, I think called the "Ridgeline," a bright orange teardrop daypack, a pair of red gaitors, two pair of insulated winter pants, and probably a few more creations that I have forgotten...... Most of these exited my sewing room with several alterations and additions to customize them to ME, my spouse, or my DOG. In the most radical cases, I would even buy a garment kit and then completely replace the inner or outer material with stuff of exotic colors, a more pleasant "hand," or even add a hood to a kit that lacked one, using the design from a previous kit I had sewn! Some of these kit creations I still have and use today, such as the classic daypack shown to the left, now truly a piece of vintage gear to be cherished! (Image copyright Bruce B. Johnson 2005).

The early Frostline gear line-up included all the basics such as parkas, tents, and sleeping bags, and, over the years, expanded to include many related items, for example my Fall/Winter 1995 catalog lists such items as soft luggage, bicycle panniers, short pants, tote bags, and a growing line-up made of the trendy new material called "pile" (which of course has gone on to revolutionize outdoor clothing wardrobes).

NOTIONS: Frostline also offered a wonderfully extensive collection of raw materials and "notions;" eg. every kind/color of nylon you could dream of, zippers, tubes of down, buckles, zippers, drawstring clamps, snaps and grommets--- you name it and you could buy it and get to work revamping those inadequate non-Frostline products.

Several of us amateur designers went beyond cosmetic alterations and explored new concepts of warmth, strength and design. I, for instance, still have and use a pair of baffled down pants which incorporate a vapor barrier and a sitting zone composed of less-compressible polarguard.... Did I form a company of my own and sell ten thousand of them and patent the idea? No, but what fun I had, and others actually did go on to enter careers designing gear within the growing outdoor products industry of the 70's and 80's; as an example, Wayne Gregory worked running a Frostline store for Dale Johnson in about 1976. It was in Newport Beach, Caifornia. This was before Wayne launched Gregory Mountain Products in 1977 (click for more re: Wayne's history).

Frostline spawned a generation or two of GEAR CREATORS, and this is one of the Company's big contributions to the Gear Revolution...... Frostline also spawned a huge collection of assorted imitators. Some of these kit companies (eg. Altra, Camp 7's Calico Kits, and Holubar's Carikits) were neighbors right in the Boulder/Denver area, while others sprung up all over the U.S, most during Frostline's prime years (1970-1980).......
the list is long, and is found below.... An interesting sidelight is the fact that one of the very earliest kit companies did not produce clothing at all-- it was a branch of Andy Drollinger's A16 pack company which produced a "Do it yourself, External Pack Frame Kit" in the early 1960s, mostly sold to BSA troops (Boy Scouts of America).


MORE HISTORY OF THE COMPANY


FROSTLINE KITS was founded in 1966 by Mr. Dale Johnson, in Boulder, Colorado; however, both Dale and his wife Julie Johnson had been in the Boulder outdoor equipment scene for several years already, most prominently with GERRY MOUNTAINEERING. Mr. Johnson had learned the business after graduating
college in Boulder and entering into an approximately 5 year long business relationship with the pioneering outdoor company "GERRY Mountaineering," and its innovative owner, Mr. Gerry Cunningham.. Frostline's first real catalog was mailed in 1967, a simple affair with photos and text in light blue, sporting a tent and sleeping bag on the front cover. The Frostline kits were an immediate hit, and the Company constantly grew and expanded, adding both retail locations, and expanded manufacturing plants; thus, collectors find sew-on Frostline labels that show three different locations: the earliest "Boulder," the next "Broomfield" and the last "Denver."-- The ability to project market trends is something that we can learn in the best online MBA programs or at any other noteworthy business program taught by the masters of education, but we can never be exact. The same went for the businessmen of the equipment kit industry. They tried their best and some like Dale just happened to get out at the right time.

COMPANY PICNICS! Frostline as an employer was so loved by its employees, reports Founder Dale Johnson, that for years after the original company under Dale Johnson had dissolved, its former employees were still holding annual "Frostline" picnics!

The outdoor equipment kit industry thrived for over a decade, reaching its high point in the later 1970s.. One source states that between the two big kitmakers (Frostline and Holubar/Carikits) sales approached 50 million dollars annually (this is a figure that I question)..... Frostline boomed with sales doubling every year for some ten years. For Frostline, their kit catalogs were extremely successful, and eventually there were also 18 Frostline retail stores. Mr. Johnson ran Frostline until 1978. At that point, the company was still a great success. Dale stated proudly, "I sold it at the perfect time." He sold to a big corporation--- the "Gillette" of razor blade fame. But the growth bubble was soon to pop.

Under Gillette management, Frostline did not do well. In addition, several insidious factors had developed in the American economy that were a real challenge to Gilette. By 1982, Gillette tried to sell Frostline, but there were no buyers, and so Gilette liquidated Frostline in 1983 (source: Dale Johnson interviews). Dale reports that a customer in Grand Junction, CO learned of the liquidation, bought the remaining assets of Frostline, and tried to start over (the buyers were Eddie and Shirley Clements, who filed new business papers with the State of Colorado February 1984). But, according to Dale, the "new" Frostline suffered a long period of hard times and declining fortunes. ..For one thing, the extensive Frostline production facilities had long since been eliminated, and the manufacture of any new kits was very problematic from a number of standpoints...... the company's location as Grand Junction, in Western Colorado, hundreds of miles west of its original location.

Why would such a booming market for kits collapse? I myself had stopped buying kits during the 80s; but I always assumed Frostline was going strong, and was nurturing along another generation of enthusiastic kit builders. Unfortunately, I was wrong; ever since the late 1970s, the kit market had been going downhill. According to Dale Johnson and a top Holubar/Carikits person, the main reasons were that economic hard times in the 1980s were forcing more and more American women (the main market for the kits was always women, not the occasional nut-case men like myself) to take up "real" jobs, therefore with less time and energy for kit-building. Secondly, cheap outdoor goods from abroad (chiefly the Orient) began to pre-empt a big segment of the Frostline-Holubar kit market, mostly, I would guess, that segment who were buying the kits to save money (as opposed to those of us who bought the kits more to innovate, create and modify gear for hard-core mountain and expedition use). In any case, both Frostline Kits and Holubar kits went bust somewhere in the early 1980s timeframe.... Along with them, most of the numerous smaller kit companies also bit the dust, examples include: Altra Kits, Makits, Country Ways (at least their Frostline-like products), Cascade Kits, Calico Kits by Camp7, Sundown Kits, EMS Kits, REI Kits, Symmetry Kits of Vermont, Timberline Sewing Kits of New Hampshire, The Daisy Kingdom ski wear kits, and Plain Brown Wrapper Kits.


BRIEF SUMMARY OF THE OVERALL HISTORY OF FROSTLINE KITS

1966. Founded by Dale Johnson in Boulder, Colorado. By the early 1970s, the Company is vastly expanded and has a big manufacturing facility in nearby Broomfield, Colorado.

1978. Dale Johnson sells the company to Gillette Corporation. Now Frostline has a huge, modern factory headquarters in Denver, Colorado.

1983. Approximate date when Gillette sells off its Frostline holdings.

1984. Company trademark and many goods and manufacturing supplies bought by a small group of investors in Grand Junction, Colorado including Eddie and Shirley Clements. Grand Junction is hundreds of miles distant from the company's original location in Boulder. On 2/15/1984, it's legal name became "Frostline U.S.A., Inc."

1994 (approx.) a brief business arrangement with McCall Patterns.

2000. The company has failed and is bought up at the last minute by Bob and Catharine Flowers of Grand Junction, Colorado. It's new legal name became "Frostline Kits USA, LLC."

2001. The Flowers issue the first new catalog in years. This new catalog becomes the last-ever Frostline catalog.... Frostline remains in the Grand Junction, CO area, in the very town that was the birthplace of Marmot Mountain Works (see link), and is also the long-term home of Jerry Wigutow's company, WIGGYS, the supplier of Lamilite bags and jackets.

mid-2010. The apparent final end of the Frostline. Most reports indicate that for all practical purposes, the company had ceased to function 1 to 3 years prior to this time.

February 23, 2012. Dale Lloyd Johnson, founder of the original Frostline Kits company, passes away in Boulder, Colorado.


LAST KNOWN ADDRESS and PHONE # OF THE COMPANY, circa 2001: "Frostline Kits and Notions. 2525 River Rd. Grand Junction, CO 81505. 1-800-548-7872" .


Frostline Notes of Interest!

January 2009. Various reports had reached me that reinforced theories about the failing status of Frostline Kits; eg. in January 2009, a correspondent eagerly forwarded two websites to me, both of which seemed to show a functioning Frostline in Clifton,CO.... I phoned both locations, and both led nowhere; one being a "disconnected, no new number," and the other being apparently a completely erroneous listing; in fact, a local correspondent found a store selling pianos and clocks at the supposed location!


2010-2014: As of July 2010, the last known owner of Frosltine Kits moved far away from the company's Grand Junction location. As of September 2012, there is continued good evidence that Frostline as a maker of outdoor sewing kits is finally gone for good. I will continue to post updates whenever I hear more. READERS: PLEASE HELP ME COMPLETE THE FROSTLINE STORY. IF ANY OF YOU LEARN MORE, PLEASE EMAIL ME (oldgear@oregonphotos.com).



Yak Works
was a great company out of Seattle in the late Seventies and Eighties Don Wittenberger was a 
principal there

Classic Labels

I am developing a page full of classic, old equipment labels and readers are welcome to contribute. The link to that page is below.

The REI label to the left is a classic, representing one of the first companies in the USA to supply climbers and backpackers: this REI label dates from sometime in the 1960s, well before the era when the little climber's cooperative of Seattle exploded into the corporate giant named Recreational Equipment Inc...Click here for my REI page.... You'll note the tent shown is a primitive guy-lined A-frame, and the ice axe is wooden-shafted and with the old-fashioned pick/adze-- the axe in particular is a sign that this label dates from well before REI's neighbor in Tacoma had perfected the metal-shafted axe (Larry Penberthy's MSR, aka Mountain Safety Research). (image contributed by Monte Dodge). Click here to visit my page of classic, old equipment labels.

 

Main Page: Essays and pictures about the Pioneers of the Outdoor Gear Revolution, 1935 to the Present, 45+ pages, five History of Gear books published, and still expanding!

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Last Revision 01/19/2014


Note: there has not been a cold wave in Oregon to fully equal the Dec. 1972 cold wave that is the subject of this story. Only 1989's cold wave sent the mercury lower in Oregon, but that cold wave in some respects was not as severe or widespread. And with Global Warming an acknowleged reality, 1972's cold wave will probably never be equalled again (see gear-making story below).

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GEARMAKER FACES COLD WAVE

We stood staring at the block of ice filling the toilet in the bunkhouse. Dave puffed frosty clouds of vapor as he exclaimed, "You're insane, why don't you come stay at my Mom's place with me until this is over, it's already zero, and the radio says it's going to get a lot colder!" We had worked together for two months, trail-building under harsh late-fall conditions, but now his voice had an edge to it that I had never heard before.

How could he know that there at Allingham Guard Station I was struck by the spark of a great adventure before me? "You go, I'm staying," I said decisively, and we went our separate ways. He pulled his few belongings off his bunk and with a "Good Luck," he was gone. Brillant sun streamed through the trees, and steam rose off the swift Metolius River nearby as I set to work gathering together all my camping and backpacking gear from the bunkhouse's closets.

As I drove up the River a few miles to my chosen campsite among the big ponderosa pines, my car radio was ablaze with warnings about the worst arctic cold wave to hit the Central Oregon High Desert in decades."Twenty below" by tomorrow morning the announcers all proclaimed. But I was not frightened, I was excited to test my gear against such odds! I had sewed custom gear! What a chance! There was the sleeping bag overbag that I had constructed that needed testing! There were my heavily-modified Frostline down pants, now fully-baffled, and with the vapor barrier interiors and full-crotch zippers. And of course the cozy warmth from the 4 oz. extra down I'd stuffed into the top-side baffles of my REI sleeping bag would be a pleasure of the highest order! So what if I would be alone for five frigid days, 5 miles to the nearest help at the Camp Sherman store? All loneliness was dispelled by the simple joy of watching flashing rainbow ice crystals floating down out of a deep blue sky. And the fact that it actually did hit 28 below zero on the coldest night was just more excitement! My customized gear worked great!

Story copyrighted Bruce B. Johnson 2007-2014

Read about Oregon's 54 below zero coldest town

Read more about the 1972 Cold Wave in Oregon

Links to some of my other outdoor adventure stories:

"Mountain Night on the Skyline Trail"

"Old Trail"

"Dark Lake of My Dreams"