Posted on

The History of Rohan Airlight Fabric

The history of Rohan Airlight
The History of Rohan Airlight
I am often asked questions about early Rohan. The how, what, where, when and why that underpin most articles with co founders of long established companies. During the course of these interviews over the last few years I have come to realise that early Rohan was much more about fabric innovation than anyone realised, even me!
Rohan, in the early 1970s would today be called a micro start up. Fuelled by a mission to change the way we all dressed for the hills and our rapidly changing life styles. It very soon became apparent that this was not going to be possible with the fabric choices available to us. We set about specifying the fabric’s and components needed for each item of clothing and getting them made. Surprisingly, this would be more difficult now than it was at the time. Most fabrics used in the outdoors today are produced in far-flung lands by large companies with their own R&D departments that dictate most of what is available to us. That was not the case when Rohan started.
The Yorkshire woollen mills where still making fantastic woollen cloth and the Lancashire cotton mills where still producing fine cotton products. The country had large and very powerful man made yarn and fibre producers. Clustered around them were small innovative spinners and weavers and with a little persuasion they were happy to be more experimental. We had deliberately located ourselves in Skipton. Near enough to the fabric manufacturing areas, an hour’s drive to the Leeds garments manufacturing industry and walking distance to the Dales. Perfect.
heritage-rohan 1975 catalogue
We very soon realised that we were in a chicken and egg situation. If we wanted to produce garments for the British hills that were fast drying, windproof and looked good we were not going to do it with that fabric choices available to us at the time.. We had to innovate and manufacture our own bespoke fabrics. So those early years were as much about fabrics as anything else. We learnt about wear, durability, colour, feel, handle, function and loads more from people who had a deep knowledge of fabric production.
The first two Rohan garments were notable exceptions to this. The Rohan Salopette and Striders made from Helanca which came from the ski industry. We can’t claim that one but we can claim to be one of the first using such fabric for the outdoor garments in the UK. It was not long before we specified our own Helanca fabrics, unique to us. Rohan and fabric innovation really took hold when our thoughts turned to jackets. The first jacket was the Starkhorn closely followed by Pampas. It was then that we realised we needed a new fabric. It became even more urgent when Trotters which very quickly evolved into Rohan Bags was more that just an idea.
Rohan Catalogue 1985 front cover
Taken from 1985 Catalogue. Click the image to read the text.
There are two outstanding example of all this – Rohan Windlord fabric and a fabric that is still being used today Rohan Airlight.
Rohan Bags evolved around the requirements of the Alpinist. They were already using Rohan Mountaineering Gear to replace jeans and other sundry trousers on the walk into the mountains. The trouser, to replace the jeans, had to be lightweight, tough, windproof and be capable of keeping all their treasurers passports money etc. secure when they hung upside down. That was Bags.
But we lacked a suitable fabric. Any fabric to be windproof has to be either very tightly woven or coated. tightly woven fabrics did exist called Ventile. A fantastic functional fabric made from 100% cotton and as such would not dry quickly enough for our needs.
The solution was simple, weave a very tightly woven fabric from cotton and polyester. The polyester would provide a fast drying quality. It would enhance durability, handle and strength. At about the same time the nation was busy throwing out the blankets and had fallen in love with sleeping under the duvet. The idea imported from mainland Europe. It struck us that the fabric shells of the duvet had to be very tightly woven other wise the down would shed. We decided to track down a company that made the shells. It just so happened that the company that produced the duvet also produced the fabric in Denmark. They where very receptive and produced the first sample of what was to become Airlight fabric. A very tightly woven, very high quality,  polyester cotton fabric. Using high quality Egyptian cotton and a light proofing. That was the start of a very long relationship with the Danish company that produced Airlight for many years in Denmark just for Rohan. During that time Bags and the Airlight range was made in Leeds.
Airlight has not changed. We did experiment with a ripstop version for a very short time but that’s another story.
Rohan Factory in 1970s/80's in Leeds
The Rohan Day Wear range that used Airlight flourished in the 1980 and 1990’s all made in this factory.

  • Hyde- The fist windshirt
  • Striders  – Airlight breeches soon became a firm favourite by cross country skiers and walkers
  • Moving On – The second wind shirt
  • Olfio, Sohao, Wild Vest – The outer shell of all three
  • Action Jacket
  • Pampas, Savannah, Prairie and Busker – All made from Airlight fabric.
  • Mariner and Voyager had overlays of Airlight.
  • Jekyll – early base layer
  • Rohan Bags
  • Shorts
  • Action Bags Mark 1
  • Chaps and the Mille Miglia children’s range

rohan day wear collection 1982
Examples of most of these classic garments are included in the Rohan Originals Gallery at Rohan Keswick. Recently Ben –  Rohan Keswick put together a lovely story of the History of Action Bags which shares some of the history of Airlight.

Read more about Rohan Airlight Collection 
Interested in Rohan Heritage? This will keep you occupied for hours  Rohan Flashback .
Long Live Airlight – Sarah Howcroft

Comments ( 0 )

  1. ReplyPhil Winter
    Please keep up with these articles Sarah - they are fascinating. I started wearing Rohan probably a couple of years after you started going - it was all done by mail order based upon your catalogues. I had the original Bags, Pampas (a beautiful design), Hyde, then Moving On and many others. You have reminded me of Jekyll as well - the twin with Hyde of course. The concepts were so advanced.
  2. ReplyAuthorSarah Howcroft
    I think it would make a better film than book. Names changed to protect the innocent of course.
  3. ReplySheila Thomas
    Very interesting and informative. I still have several of those early garments. I have found nothing that can replace my Action Jacket satisfactorily!
  4. ReplyOliver Craig
    I bought two pairs of bags trousers and an Atlas Jacket about a year ago and they have proven to be great on the hills. Light weight and well designed and have so far been very durable.
  5. ReplyBrian Libby
    Very interesting article. Having recently resumed lower level hillwalking after a couple of decades absence I've looked in vain for new walking breeches that match the quality and convenience of Rohan's original Striders. Bring them back!
    • ReplyPeter Clinch
      I suspect the market for breeks just isn't big enough these days to try. However, you can always get some Bags and chop them under the knee, adding a bit of velcro (or have a local alteration service do it for you) to cinch them at the bottom. For recreational walking I'd suggest the stretch version
      • ReplyBrian Libby
        Thanks Peter. Although I've just come across Ventile breeks I've now ordered a couple of pairs of Bags with which I'll use gaiters (as I do with my Craghoppers) if mud is likely to be on the day's agenda. The Bags selling points for me were fabric, choice of leg lengths, and practicality. Digressing slightly, the Airlight Summer Striders were way ahead of their time style-wise compared to some of the calf length leisure pants I see being worn nowadays.
  6. ReplySimon Kellett
    Still wearing my Action Jacket for walking: still very windproof and I like the lack of pockets around the rucksack belt area. Not sure what the colour was called (mid brown) but the contrast lovet. And its the model with a external zip cover.
    • ReplyPeter Clinch
      My Action Jacket has the Flashback coating on blue. I don't use it for "serious" walking so much but it's my go-to general purpose coat most of the year (not right now though!). Took the external belt out, never really saw the point. It needed some minor internal patching and a new zip pull last year (thank you Rohan Customer Services for the bits) and I've reinforced the stitching at the base of the main zip, but that aside it's soldiering on in excellent shape. If it ever came back in to the range it's still a fantastic light general purpose coat and wouldn't need much doing. Lose the belt, put a wire in the hood (a bit like more recent Pampas hoods) and maybe drop the rear hem a little. I once thought making both chest pockets Napoleon style would improve it, but now I think one vertical/one horizontal access is actually a good format when you've got stuff where not losing it is more important than ready access (e.g., car keys). Just hope the weather improves enough to use it (an Outpost Hat day in Dundee, it's *that* horrible!)