Trade technology: Organic Climbing is reviving a small town’s sewing trade to serve a global market

March 29, 2022

Organic Climbing, a small business producing high-quality climbing gear founded by Josh Helke, helped to keep Philipsburg, Pa.’s sewing industry from fading to a memory. The small town once produced high-end products, including Starter jackets, a favorite of 90s kids, before many of the manufacturing facilities were moved overseas.

Organic Climbling was dreamed up near Price, Utah, founded in Laramie, Wyoming, grown in Minneapolis and reborn, in a sense, in Happy Valley. When Helke brought the company to Philipsburg nearly 15 years ago, the town’s once-thriving companies had dwindled to a few small sewing factories doing odd-job contract work.

“We’re the company that gets copied, we don’t copy,” Helke says. “We are first to the market with something. We will never take an idea just because it’s selling for someone else and do it.”

Within a couple of years, even those few remaining manufacturers were looking to sell equipment and close-up shop, creating an opportunity for Organic Climbing to absorb their employees and purchase their equipment. According to Helke, sewing equipment may be one of the few trades where older equipment is more desirable than new for the authentic, rare functionality of pieces to make quality items.

“Sewing equipment is really special,” Helke said. “There’s stuff from the 1930s or 1960s that’s pretty irreplaceable in the special things that it does. It’s the difference in appreciation of a craft versus a factory in China do it.”

Building a business on people, quality and innovation

“People are more than just labor.”

Appreciation for the craft is one of driving forces behind Helke’s operation. He comes from a family of artists and places tremendous value on skilled trades.

“It’s these skills that—coming from a family of artists like my family—I can’t help but see them,” Helke says. “People are more than just labor.”

Organic Climbing has grown to 31 employees by valuing its people and their skills and by training new team members looking to develop a craft. Helke learned to sew on his quest to start the business, and he’s passing that opportunity on to new team members. When the company started, there were many skilled and experienced people interested in opportunities; but the pandemic sparked a mass retirement among employees and the company started a busy season searching for new talent. Requirements for applicants went from specialty sewing to being comfortable with power tools and having a willingness to learn.

Now, Organic Climbing is training the next generation of the sewing trade.

“What’s cool for us is that we’ve grown and continue to grow while we watched the twilight years of mass production facilities leave, which is expected with globalization; but we’ve managed to grow by specializing,” Helke says, “We’re not making a product that goes to someone else who marks it up… we’re paying ourselves and employees to make a product that sells without all the extra hands in it… It’s allowed us to make a product in the U.S. and do it at a price on the market that, right now, is actually cheaper than a lot of imported stuff, but is still world-class quality.”

Advancing quality with in-house innovation

The temptation to outsource overseas is always dangling in front of Organic Climbing as a global company, but it’s off the table for Helke. He has invested heavily in sewing technology to keep quality high and meet growing demand. Quality has never been compromised for the bottom line--a commitment that has proven crucial during the pandemic. While other businesses stalled, Organic Climbing kept going.

“Even though we do have to ship stuff to get here, we’re not importing any product,” Helke said. “A lot of our competitors get things made overseas and we don’t, we have it made right here.”

“The value in a company like us is that we’re making a product that people are proud of,” Helke says. “People want to have a trade, people want to be proud of it. When you’re wearing a backpack hiking or climbing that you made… that is really cool.”

Innovative design is at the heart of the Organic Climbing product line, along with products made by its sister company, Nittany Mountain Works. The hustle entrepreneurship fuels Helke’s innovative spirit and his time in the outdoors fuels his creativity, keeping him a step ahead of other gear makers.

“We’re the company that gets copied, we don’t copy,” Helke says. “We are first to the market with something. We will never take an idea just because it’s selling for someone else and doing it.”

Small town, global reach, responsible production

Helke marvels at the fact that his business is sitting on an old strip mine in Central Pennsylvania making a product that can be shipped and sold through distributors worldwide thanks to the internet. The atmosphere of a place like Philipsburg, where you can have three generations all working together in a shared trade, is becoming less common every year that passes. Many small towns give way to distribution centers for large companies that can’t value their employees the way a small business can. Helke plans to be the exception in Philipsburg.

In a demonstration of its true love for the outdoors, Organic Climbing is also built on a deep commitment to the environment: its facility is powered by 5,000 square feet of solar panels and operates at near zero-waste by recycling almost all scrap materials to enhance its iconic colorful products. With a dedicated team and a passion for creating the best outdoor products in the most responsible way, Helke is working to continually innovate and improve the quality of gear.

“The value in a company like us is that we’re making a product that people are proud of,” Helke says. “People want to have a trade, people want to be proud of it. When you’re wearing a backpack hiking or climbing that you made… that is really cool.”

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