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Summer 2005 Issue
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    Nothing Says NOLS Like Wind Pants
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Nothing Says NOLS Like Windpants
By Ted O’Callahan
If there’s one piece of NOLS clothing that has been on every equipment list, it’s the NOLS windpants - those baggy, sometimes zippered creations that hold up against just about anything. And with that endearing back patch, it’s hard to imagine anything more recognizably NOLS.

Paul Petzoldt and genius seamstress Thelma Young developed the first NOLS windpants using rip stop nylon. Those first prototypes were green, shapeless, and slippery enough on snow to give students some good rides.

Thelma and a crew of seamstresses did the sewing in-house until the late 1970s. NOLS then started experimented with various commercial options. In the mid-1980s, several NOLS locations returned to using their own designs made at local sewing houses. At that point, windpants made a series of evolutionary leaps as instructors migrated around, selecting the best features from each local design.

Amazingly, the folks doing the designing and ordering didn’t realize they were making history, so the exact date the now-familiar NOLS windpants first went out on a course is lost. But by the late ‘80s, the rip stop nylon was gone in favor of water-resistant ripstop nylon reinforced with cordura patches. Cinch ties at the ankles were replaced with zippers, and given the large numbers of people headed into the wilderness, the bright colors were toned down.

NOLS has made an estimated 20,000 pairs of its signature windpants. There have been some experiments with color, and NOLS Alaska ensures diversity in the design pool with a mutant form featuring a pocket on the front of the thigh and extra long zippers running to above the knee, but it is the traditional side pocket, green on green NOLS windpants that remain most popular.

Given that NOLS windpants rarely have the most flattering fit and probably aren’t truly high fashion, their enduring popularity is a bit of a mystery. But in a time when bells, whistles, and a brand name count for so much, perhaps these simple, sturdy windpants stand out precisely because they get the job done without fanfare. Perhaps it is their very anti-style that gives them such quiet cachet.

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