Fashion trends come and go – from polyester jumpsuits in the 70s to a mirage of fluorescent color in the 80s – but here in New England, we’re a little more practical. As the oldest region in the country, we’re rooted in truth with what works well and is built to last.
Ryan and Nancy Hannigan understand that one thing never goes out of style: staying warm. The son-mother team in Stafford Springs operates a small, family run business combating the cold with intelligent fabrics and practical design. Their work began when Ryan was just 16 years old. At the time he gained an interest in the outdoors and with the love of hiking and backpacking, came the search for the perfect fabric. He first learned of vapor barriers from Stephenson’s Warmlite, a small little company in New Hampshire, and then went on to invent new fabrics. Ryan began to experiment, reverse engineering products he found in major retailers. “Years and years ago, he had an idea to create some mittens, so we went to EMS and picked up a pair," remembers Nancy. “He came up stairs with all the pieces in his hands saying, "Mom, I need help." I said, "This is your project." Not too much time later he came back with the most beautifully crafted mittens. My jaw dropped. He had never had a sewing lesson. It’s a God given gift because he just makes the most incredible things."
What Ryan has co-created is called VaprThrm® fabric, the antithesis of a “breathable” fabric, which allows moisture to escape. With that, heat goes out as well. Contrarily, VaprThrm® insulates in two ways: by blocking evaporative heat-loss and by protecting your insulating layer(s) from getting wet with sweat.
"When wearing a wicking, waterproof breathable fabric you are often overdressed and unaware you’re sweating," explains Ryan. "When you stop moving, the wetness takes on the ambient temperature and you get colder and colder. A lot of people think that’s just how it goes. With our product it holds the heat close and keeps sweat out of the insulation."
After a period of experimentation, Ryan and Nancy became a LLC in 1998 under the name RBH Designs. The timing was perfect, just at the point when Nancy’s job was downsized. It took her about four days to figure out what she was meant to do. RBH is everything you would expect (and hope) for a small business to be. When you call, a friendly voice answers – that’s Nancy. Personable and warm, she takes a genu-ine interest in who is calling and their experiences wearing VaprThrm® fabrics. Ryan works in an adjacent building from the 1700s farmhouse office; the repetitive hum of working sewing machines greets you at the door. Although the space is not open to the public, it’s cozy and inviting. Collapsible tables run parallel to one another, each custom-ized to fit a particular type of sewing machine. What looks like large cookie cutters serve as the “stamp” for cutting out patterns and on another shelf, spindles of colored thread provide options for custom embroidery.
The space may be modest, but what’s produced here is amazing. Ryan describes his products as “conscious clothing.” Rather than looking for a fabric to save you, this product is more intuitive. When you sweat – vent or take it off – rather than expecting it to breathe. VaprThrm® consists of three synthetic layers laminated together. The special fab-ric is created to their specifications by particular textile mills and then everything is made to order at the Stafford Springs workspace. Ryan’s love to create has produced a large product line with garments includ-ing gloves, hats, socks, active wear, ponchos, jackets and vests. Spe-cific VaprThrm® Therapy products are designed to provide therapeutic warmth helping to alleviate aches, pains and spasms. Their collabora-tion with American Woolen fabrics – the iconic textile mill in Stafford marries functional warmth and distinct fashion elements.
While their handmade products would keep anyone warm and toasty in New England, their products have seen many notable expeditions and are a popular choice of worldwide adventurers. The Shackleton Foundation ranked RBH number one on the “Top Ten Things To Take To The Pole,” saying, “the gear is made to a very high standard, is com-fortable and very, very warm.” Sean Burch, an American explorer and adventure athlete has tested the products on some of the highest peaks in the world, including a 1,200-mile trek on Great Himalayan Trail. The 8-time Guinness Book of World Records holder attributes much of his success to the weight-to-warmth ratio of RBH products, which he’s used for years.
"From the top of Mount Everest to grandpa in a convalescent home, our products are made for anyone who doesn’t like to be cold,” Nancy says earnestly. The nature of his seasonal business allows Ryan to pursue his other passion, craft brewing. He’s concocted a number of unique brews uti-lizing ingredients that fly under the radar, like holy basil, milk thistle and chaga. His beers are bright and as imaginative as his inven-tions, like keg and growler koozie prototypes. The sleeve with Velcro closure uses VaprThrm® technology to insulate each bever-age container with American Woolen fabric on the outside. Ryan and Nancy are also branching out with an artist signature series and custom embroidery projects, like their most recent for the Stafford Cidery, slated to open this year. Ultimately, Ryan would like to open a little store and a brewpub, a place to “chill” and have a place for community. He says he “wants to be connected."
While RBH products are built to last for what seems like forever, they do come at a premium. But like the old adage goes, you get what you pay for.
"Performance and quality are definitely part of it,” says Ryan when explaining his thoughts on RBH Designs versus mass-pro-duced goods. “I guess you could call it idealistic, but this is appre-ciating labor. Textiles have been kind of sent down the river and have been undermined for decades. Customers have been condi-tioned to buy cheap sewn goods at steep discounts; it can be hard to compete with that. This is an appreciation of the craft."
A pair of gloves can take him a half a day to create, an intricate jacket the better part of two. Big companies make a bunch of products then have to unload them – that’s why they offer such heavy discounts. Here, Ryan keeps just fabric, producing items when an order comes in. It’s a different mindset. The fabric has so many applications from blankets to apparel, and he can tweak and tune products as needed.
It’s easy to see why Ryan and Nancy get along in Stafford Springs, a town rich in textile history, but also a close-knit com-munity. They love producing warm garments in the country set-ting and in just a year have made themselves right at home.
“I always felt a little out of place in our old town, we’ve met more people here in a year then we ever did in decades there” says Nancy when talking about her former upscale Connecticut town that will remain nameless. “I love, love, Stafford. Here, I’m home. We’re not going anywhere.”