Compass: Charting the Evolution of Outdoor Gear  


Early Winters' Bill Edwards

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Omnipotent 1151

The following is mostly comprised of responses from email correspondence with Bill Edwards, who

designed, for Early Winters, the first outdoor products made from Gore-Tex laminate fabric, amongst other


I was with EW for 12 years, from 1974 to 1986, from employee number 3 to

one of the last out the door before the Seattle operation was shuttered.

I was [the third] employee at Early Winters, after Bill Nicolai and Helene

Hood, the sewing machine operator. I was a registered architect who decided

to take some time out from architecture and make tents with Bill (and climb

mountains and test gear). Aside from the Omnipotent (a Bill Nicolai design)

and the Earth Station (a Bob Howe design) I designed all the other tents

(Light Dimension, Winterlight, OP SL, Pocket Hotel, Starship, etc..), the

GoreTex rain shells and lots of other apparel, first aid kits, camp kitchen,

etc. and even some footwear and hard goods. It was an exciting time to be

in the outdoor business. I was with the company even after it was sold to

Orvis, but left for Smith & Hawken (a gardening products company) after

Orvis sold Early Winters. After Smith & Hawken I was recruited to Norm

Thompson where I came into contact with Early Winters again.


I bought EW Omnipotent #13 from Bill Nicolai before I joined him at EW. It was from the first batch that he made in a friends basement.

The story is that the design for the OP tent was due to Bill Nicolai and Pete Williamson having an ‘A’ frame tent blow apart in a storm in the Pickett range

of the North Cascades. The OP design is a logical engineering alternative to the conventional ‘A’ frames of the day. Use a barrel vault instead of the ‘A’

profile since it is more space efficient and can bear more weight. Reverse the structural roles of the waterproof rain fly and permeable inner tent. Tension

the outer shell making it the structural part of the tent and hang the inner vapor permeable liner (Omnipotent) rather than make the permeable fabric the

structural component and vainly attempt to tension the outer rain fly over it (‘A’ frame). Reversing the roles makes the tent stronger and more able to

resist wind and snow loads.

The first tents had ventilation holes made with a soldering iron. When I came on board, the first thing I did was to upgrade all of the OP tent patterns and

construction processes. I developed a fabric drill which made a cleaner vent hole. Since we drilled the ‘tension plates’ in stacks the drill would heat up and

fuse the perimeter of the hole. It was a real cottage business, as I cut cloth, drilled the vent holes, glued and strung pole sets, etc.

The first tents had five tension flaps in front. Since we got some complaints about the guy lines being an impediment to ingress and egress I redesigned

the flap configuration making it three larger flags, eliminated two of the guy lines. The later OP tents all have three tension flaps in front.

The ‘spun’ poles were actually wrapped fiberglass fabric poles made for EW on custom mandrels by a fly rod maker in California.

We continually added improvements to the Omnipotent. The vestibule was something that I added later in the evolution of the OP tent because we never

wanted to violate the integrity of the floor with cook hole.

Alpine Guild

Anecdotally we were friends with two of the original founders at Marmot, Dave Huntley and Eric Reynolds and sold their bags for a while, and also sold

Dan Shurman’s Synergy Works parkas. An early outdoor company that is still in business here in Seattle is Feathered Friends. I have several of their

down sleeping bags and consider them among the best in the world, if not the best. I have known Peter and Carol Hickner since 1972 when they were

making sleeping bags in the basement of their Seattle rental house.

The Alpine Guild consisted of Early Winters. Feathered Friends and Crescent Downworks, all small entrepreneurial outdoor businesses, designing and

manufacturing better outdoor tents, down bags and down clothing than REI and Eddie Bauer. I designed this banner for the Alpine Guild and Carol Hickner

(at the time Carol Yeatts) of Feathered Friends sewed it up from on hand nylon tafetta. It hung in the front window of our shop at the foot of Queen Anne

Hill at 300 Queen Anne North, where we all worked, until the guild disbanded and Feathered Friends and Crescent Downworks went on to open their own


We were the boutique businesses of the Seattle outdoor scene during that period, [and exhibited in] the Coliseum at the Seattle Outdoor Show in the

early 70's. Bill Nicolai and I performed a demo of the Omnipotent on stage, during the show, where Bill took the microphone to extol the features and

virtues of the Omnipotent while I set one up blind folded in less than a minute from stuff sack to completely set-up tent. Jim Whitaker, renowned

mountain climber, who was associated with REI, was in the audience that day. Curiously, he did not seem amused by our stage act.

Early Winters remained at that little 300 Queen Anne North shop until we came out with the first commercial Gore-Tex product, the Light Dimension tent,

and were forced to find a larger space for manufacturing due to increased customer demand.

I am also good friends with Larry Horton of Rivendell Mountain Works, in fact we climbed the Black Ice Couloir on the Grand Teton together. Rivendell

made the Bombshelter tent and the Jensen pack (the precursor the Chouinard Ultima Thule).


The first [Gore-Tex] product was the Light Dimension, introduced in 1976. After that we introduced the Winterlight and the Sleep Inn. It was only later

that we started using the Gore-Tex doors on the OP tent, partly for performance and partly to use up smaller pieces of Gore-Tex.

Early Winters [had the first seam sealed Gore-Tex garments]. We bought the first Pfaff seam sealing machine from W.L. Gore when they introduced the


I'm wore one of the two Gore-Tex anoraks that I made specifically for this trip. I sewed these prototypes using the same tent laminate that we used to

make our Light Dimension tent. These garments were the predecessors of the first commercial Gore-Tex shell garments, which we made at Early Winters.

Bill is wore the other prototype Gore-Tex anorak. His one had a zippered front pocket while mine had a Velcro closure.

Yes, the Light Dimension shape was inspired by the Stephenson [Warmlite] tent. I had developed a tent design and patterns prior to the Light Dimension

which had coated fabric and a differential venting system. It was supposed to be a more affordable lightweight back packing tent to compliment the more

specialized and expensive Omnipotent. We called the new tent the Potent and made only three. The venting system was not effective at preventing

condensation, at least here in the moist Pacific Northwest. So the Potent was shelved as a failure. The design was relegated to the archives until we were

introduced to Gore-Tex by a Gore engineer, Joe Tanner. Since we already had most of the pattern work completed I revised the Potent patterns,

eliminating the vents, and we quickly sewed up and tested the prototypes for the Light Dimension. I don’t know about Nicolai but I never got any advice

or communicated with Jack Stephenson at all. I imagine that if Nicolai received any advice from Stephenson he would have mentioned it to me. After all

I was the one making the patterns and readying the product for production and I can’t recall receiving any outside advice.

The front of the Light Dimension (Winterlight, etc) was conceived to make entrance and exit from the tents easier. Many potential customers would

complain about having to step through the guy lines that tensioned the Omnipotent to get in and out of the tent. I never experienced that as a problem

but we recognized it as a barrier to sale and came up with a more accessible entry for the Light Dimension. With regard to usability in rain and snow, you

will note that Nicolai and I used a Light Dimension on the Ptarmigan Traverse (see the photo galley) where it rained and snowed for several days. We

didn’t consider the door to be a problem. You just get in and out quickly and zip the door shut. Also we used an OP tent on that trip in the Sierras into the

Evolution Canyon (also in the galleries). During that three day snow storm it was blowing so hard that the door design of the OP tent was effectively no

way better than the Light Dimension in keeping out the weather when opened. We’d open the door to leave the tent and the snow would blow right in.

Again, get in and out quickly and zip the door shut.

Demise of Early Winters

[Is the story about The Last Watch's warranty returns issue accurate, as a contributing factor in the bankruptcy which lead to the sale to Orvis?] Not the

primary cause, perhaps a contributor. The Last Watch was a marketing triumph but an operational disaster. No watch could live up to the claim of truly

being the last watch you’ll ever need and good enough for a lifetime guarantee. It was ridiculous. We sold a lot of them but got a lot of returns that

ranged from legitimate to complete abuse. They just kept coming back. I inherited the problem and went to Switzerland to the big watch show in Basel to

look for a replacement vendor and watch that could better live up to the performance promise. I found a much better watch but not even the replacement

could live up to the lifetime warrantee. It was a campaign doomed to failure. It however was not the main cause of the financial state that led to the sale

to Orvis. That was due primarily to over mailing the summer 1983 perfect bound catalog. The expense was up front and the sales plan was not achieved

which put us into a cash flow crunch. That led to the sale.