A company in Bend that helps people extend the life of their outdoor clothing and gear has been awarded $10,000 to create a progressive training program and buy equipment.

Rugged Thread, located in Bend, was one of 13 Oregon-based companies to receive the funds from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, as part of its Repair and Reuse grants.

Rugged Thread’s stated mission is to keep used outdoor gear out of landfills. More than 11 million tons of textile waste ended up in U.S. landfills in 2017, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That accounted for 8% of the nation’s landfill.

“If you look at the outdoor industry, most products are made from petrochemicals, which takes 250 years to break down. We are trying to keep things out of the landfill,” said Kim Kinney, Rugged Thread’s founder and CEO. “One of our mottos is to convert outdoor industry waste into a new economy, and develop family-wage jobs.”

Rugged Thread was founded in 2011. Kinney said her work to date has saved 30,000 pounds of waste from going to landfills. By 2024 her goal is to repair enough products to keep 30,000 pounds of textile waste out of landfills every year. Items typically brought in for repair at her shop include ski jackets, tents, sleeping bags, backpacks and other equipment.

The grant will be used to purchase an industrial sewing machine and develop a training program to create 16 skilled sewing jobs by 2024, said Kinney.

“I am excited that the state of Oregon is so proactive,” said Kinney. “I don’t know any other states that are doing that. They even reached out to us and suggested we apply for this.”

Living wage

Kinney said she pays a living wage that starts at $14 an hour. Workers who qualify for raises can earn $50,000 to $60,000 after three years of training. Rugged Thread currently employs eight people.

“Rugged Thread’s goal is to develop a certified apprenticeship program that will benefit other clothing and gear producers in the state by expanding the pool of trained sewists with repair expertise,” said Babe O’Sullivan, sustainable consumption specialist for the Oregon DEQ. “This is an important contribution to the outdoor industry workforce and opens up opportunities to grow other gear repair businesses in the state.”

Other Oregon companies that will receive grant money include Klamath Works Bicycle Repair and Reused Shop in Klamath Falls and Indigo Proof Denim Repair in Portland. All together the DEQ issued $125,000 in grant money.

O’Sullivan called the grants a win-win for businesses, the public and the state.

“Supporting the repair and reuse industries through investment in workforce development helps to create jobs and contribute to a more restorative economy. We’re able to invest in both environmental protection and human capital,” O’Sullivan said.

Humble beginnings

Kinney started Rugged Thread a decade ago in the garage of her home in Bend. She had a background in product development in the ski industry and began by repairing ski pants and jackets. Word got around and soon people started bringing in all manner of fabric goods for repair.

“I thought it would just be ski clothing, but then people started bringing me tents and backpacks and camper trailers and jeep top covers — just whatever people needed here. So I learned how to repair everything that was textile-based,” said Kinney.

Kinney said a vision to expand the company was born after Patagonia launched wornwear.com, a division of the company that allows shoppers to purchase refurbished Patagonia clothing and then recycle it again when the product is no longer needed.

Kinney now works with several outdoor gear companies to repair clothing and gear, including Burton. She outgrew the garage she had been working in and last year moved into a 1,600-square-foot industrial space.

The business slowed down earlier this year during the lockdown as clients curtailed business activities and potential customers hunkered down in their homes. Kinney used the time to sew masks for the community and build out the new facility for planned growth.

Room to grow

Rugged Thread’s biggest challenge is teaching and training high-skilled technicians, said Kinney. She will use the grant money to develop a documented and progressive training program.

The sewing equipment she plans to purchase with the grant money is rare in the United States and is mainly used in overseas industrial plants. The training program will be tailored to help new hires with limited experience in sewing but an interest in outdoor products and a desire to stay in the area.

“There’s not a lot of people out there who can sew. To get good at repairing things takes years. Training will help people get up to speed more quickly,” said Kinney.

Bend, with a vibrant outdoor sports scene already present, is an ideal place to scale her business, she added.

“Bend is an outdoor mecca,” she said. “We just think this is a great place to have a national -level repair facility.”

Reporter: 541-617-7818, mkohn@bendbulletin.com

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