Wolfsong Wear clothes carve niche in outdoor market
BAYFIELD -- Mary Thiel never planned to run a clothing company.
But her experience making her own cold-weather clothes led her to start one.
It all began when Thiel and her husband, John, took up dogsledding back in 1997. She made a pair of woolcoats to wear while they mushed their Siberian huskies through the forests above Lake Superior.
“We were looking for the right kind of gear that functioned well for that specific activity and I ended up making it myself,” said Thiel, who grew up in Minnesota.
Within a few years, the couple had started the “Wolfsong Adventures in Mushing” company, taking clients out for rides on sleds pulled by their dogs. Their outings now include overnights and winter camping.
It wasn’t long before customers were asking where they could get the coats and other gear that Mary was making. In 2000, she began selling her clothing, dubbed “Wolfsong Wear.” Both companies took their names from their dogs’ nightly howling serenades.
She said she models her clothes after traditional Arctic wear.
“I try to keep things simple and functional,” she said. “The clothing is cut generously to be more comfortable than other winter clothing gear that’s out there.”
She said she uses wool because it is natural, breathes better than synthetics and keeps users warm even when they are zipping over the snow.
“With a big down parka, you stay really warm,” she said. “But when you start hooking up the dogs or running up a hill beside the sled, your body temperature goes up and you end up drenched in sweat. But if you take off your jacket, you’ll freeze.”
With wool, she said, the body temperature is moderated and the user doesn’t get as sweaty.
“The main thing we were going for when started making our clothing was comfort, function and adjusting to a person’s rising and falling body temperature,” she said.
Thiel, who employs two other Bayfield women to help with the sewing, sells her gear from a catalog, the internet and stores in Bayfield and Eagle River. She declined to reveal annual sales, but said her company makes around 300 total pieces annually.
Wolfsong Wear now produces jackets, parkas, vests and waxed canvas coats that can be worn on their own or over wool garments. Wolfsong seamstresses also make snowpants, hats and mitts – both wool and big leather musher mitts – as well as some children’s clothes.
“When we run our dogsledding tours, customers are dressed in wool, wax canvas and musher mitts so they are seriously warm,” she said.
She said the best seller is the parka, which goes for $499. She called it the “premier” piece of Wolfsong clothing.
“It gives the most coverage and comes all the way down between the hips and the knees, giving good coverage to your behind,” she said. It’s also lined with Polartec 300 and has a full hood with a fur ruff or trim.
Jackets and canvas shells sell for $289, while the vests go for $159. Wool mitts cost $59 and the big leather musher mitts cost Canvas shells are in $289 range. Wool mitts are $59 and big musher mitts are $129.
All of Wolfsong’s wool comes from a Woolrich mill in Pennsylvania.
“We’ve worked with them from the start,” she said. “Though they’ve moved their clothing manufacturing to China, they still maintain one in this country that supplies us and a few other small companies.”
Though fans call Wolfsong Wear clothing attractive in an outdoorsy way, Thiel said she doesn’t design her clothing to be fashionable.
“We’re not a fashion boutique,” she said. “We use the best materials we can find to maintain high quality. As for the designs, they come from our own hands-on use of them every day of the winter. And because we are small, we can tweak things and have total control over design and manufacturing process.”
She said many of Wolfsong Wear’s buyers are from the Twin Cities, though she sells to others around Wisconsin, the Midwest and then the rest of the U.S. On occasion, she’ll get international orders.
She also has a booth at Bayfield’s big apple festival held each fall, which attracts up to 50,000 people.
“That was how we initially got into this market, along with the dog sledding business,” she said. “Because our clothing sold well at the apple festival, we figured we could make it go as a company.”
Thiel said she has no plans to ramp up production.
“We decided over the years to stay small so we can keep our hands on every step of production,” she said. “That’s the way to maintain quality, rather than having someone else make the clothing for us at a distant factory.
“It makes us feel good to see people wearing our clothing in Bayfield,” she said. “And a lot of the locals who will be racing in the big Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race (set to run this year Feb. 1-3) will be using our gear.”
But Thiel said most people buy her apparel not to mush but to use every day to walk to work, go snowshoeing or skiing or simply walk their dogs.
“We’ve been doing this for a while, but I’m still humbled that people like what we make,” she said.
-- By Brian E. Clark