You don’t have to be climbing the corporate ladder to dress for success. A successful day, clothing-wise, in the life of a stone mason can include staying warm and dry, protecting your knees and preventing toe or foot injury. You may be confident that you are not going to drop a chisel on your foot, and should a trowel slip out of your hand, it won’t hurt much bouncing off your leg or foot. But, like defensive driving, you do not know what the other guy or gal on the jobsite is going to do, and part of your personal protection plan includes defensive and sensible workwear.

Jacob Davis, a Nevada tailor in the early 1870s, was approached by a laborer’s wife to make a pair of pants that didn’t fall apart as easily as available work pants. Who knows how long he thought about this, but Davis decided to try using rivets to hold them together longer at points of strain like pocket corners. Needing a business partner to launch his invention, he wrote to Levi Strauss, who operated the western branch of his family’s dry goods store in California. Strauss grasped the potential, and the two men received a patent in 1873.

These early pants were made of denim, the classic workwear fabric even back then, but they were called waist overalls or overalls. They were wildly popular with workmen, miners, cowboys and no doubt stonemasons as well for the durable fabric and riveted construction.

Only a decade and a half later, in the Midwest world of steel, steam and locomotives, Hamilton Carhartt started producing overalls with two sewing machines and a one-half horsepower motor in a small Detroit loft. “Since 1889, Carhartt has continued to build best-in-class apparel for hardworking people,” relates Deb Ferraro, Vice President of Product Development at Carhartt. “To ensure our products continue to meet and exceed workers’ needs, we built a community of more than 2,000 hardworking men and women called the Groundbreaker Elite Crew to help us create our next generation of products. We constantly work with them to understand pain points around their gear so we can connect them with products to provide their ideal experience. These volunteers review advanced product concepts, participate in live chats with designers and field test products they help create.”

Across the ocean yet another clothing enterprise for workmen and women was founded. Björnkläder is one of the oldest workwear trademarks in Sweden. “As early as 1905, Björnkläder began to produce durable, protective and comfortable workwear for all kinds of professions and occupations,” says North American Sales Manager Lena Johansson, based in California.

Trends among working construction tradesmen include an awareness of knees, protecting their feet – the whole foot, not just the toe – and using tool pockets rather than tool belts. “What we have noticed is that a lot of professionals are tired of jeans and the trend seems to be cool to wear practical and good looking, functional workwear,” Johansson notes.

The Carhartt executives observe more brands entering the workwear market, but no other brand with the same genuine connection to hardworking people. “We are noticing an emphasis on performance and technology in the workwear space that focuses on flexibility and endurance, similar to technologies previously only in sports gear,” Ferraro explains.

One somewhat recent development is pants with knee pad pockets. “If you are working a lot on your knees, we highly recommend our pants with built-in knee pad pockets which can accommodate different knee pad thicknesses,” says Johansson. The knee pad pockets are inside the leg, so gravel cannot get in between the knee pads and your skin. Björnkläder’s carpenter pants have reinforcement at the knees, and its new styles of pants have stretch in the crotch. The company also offers water resistant pants and a tool pocket vest with padded shoulders, as well as hi-visibility and flame resistant workwear.

Technologies being incorporated into Carhartt work clothing address comfort, temperature, fit and movement. The Groundbreaker Elite Crew has been instrumental in advancing quality workwear into the 21st century. Among the developments are:

  • Force Extremes® increases comfort in a wide range of conditions, from hot to cold. Wearers stay dry and on the job longer without having to switch their gear. Fabrics made with 5® technology dry up to five times faster than other fabrics, making this Carhartt’s fastest-drying gear.
  • Full Swing® technology provides maximum range of motion by combining uniquely engineered stretch panel features. More than a century ago, Hamilton Carhartt designed workwear through feedback from the rugged men connecting our nation by rail. This is found in an innovative line of jackets, shirt jacs and pants that fit closer to the body with maximum range of movement to help workers move freely.
  • Rugged Flex® is another durable stretch technology which provides ease of movement on the job.
  • Storm Defender® waterproof breathable technology stops rain from penetrating, but allows sweat to escape through a membrane.

The new kid on the block, so to speak, may be Duluth Trading. Started in 1989 by two tradesmen brothers with a tool tote dubbed the Bucket Boss®, the company focused on tool storage, organization and transport. It issued an 8-page catalog illustrated by a friend to save money and was housed on a refurbished barge on the waterfront of Lake Superior in Duluth’s shipping district. They decided to expand, and according to the website:

Every product was field tested on job sites by a grizzly bunch of construction workers, dock hands, cycle riders, old hippies and other hard-as-nails characters. If those guys couldn’t break it, the brothers added it to the line. Everything Duluth Trading offered was designed and tested by tradesmen.

The turning point for Duluth Trading may have been in 2002 with the introduction of the Longtail T® shirt. Fire Hose® workwear uses the rugged canvas once used to wrap fire hoses, and Easy-moving F.O.M.TM [Freedom of Movement] shirts and pants facilitate bending and stretching on the job.

Sherpa and flannel lining, along with 3MTM ThinsulateTM and other insulation fillers, make outdoor winter work more bearable. A few tool companies have raised the bar on cold weather clothing with heated products. Bosch markets a women’s jacket with three heat zones powered by the Bosch 12V battery platform, which powers their cordless tools. Milwaukee Tools also uses its battery technology for cordless tools in outerwear for men and women and for casual gear as well as workwear.

From underwear to outerwear and all those layers in between, creative workwear designers and manufacturers are listening and responding to calls for more comfort and durability. “If you are a professional, you should look like one. Use smart and practical clothing. Listen to your body’s signals and use ergonomic and safe workwear,” Johansson advises.

Words: Joanne M. Anderson
Photos: Carhartt, Faceline/Björnkläder
Cover photo: michaelmjc
Joanne M. Anderson is a freelance writer and magazine editor with more than 1,000 articles and blogs in print. She especially enjoys home improvement and building topics. www.jmawriter.com