the rope road to more sole for our sandals made out of rope started after a winter season in Portland, Oregon in early 2001. Walking around in sandals made out of rope in the rain gets a little old- especially if its cold, so i opted to put some water barrier on the bottom of our sandals -not because they needed it, but just as a water blocker for those wet days in the northeast. Here we talk about our mistakes, failures, and success as i strive to find the perfect water blocker on the bottoms of rope sandals. It goes to show through this process that it can always be improved which keeps me and our nomadic family always inventing: from plastisol, to reclaimed rubber, to rubber tires, to Vibram and everything in between -which sure kept the boredom away.
Fall had set in on Portland, and i was doing the Portland Saturday market selling sandals out of rope, and my friend was splitting the booth with me who gave massages. A great mixture i thought, if nothing was selling i could at least get a massage or tied up! Once the sun disappears in Portland (October usually), the weather changes dramatically, or at least it used to back then- i have noticed a few different weather patterns in the northwest, as i am sure you have as well. when that sun goes behind the clouds, sometimes you may not see it for months. I remember a ski season in 98 in Washington state, the entire month of january Seattle witnessed only 4 hours of direct sunlight. For the first time in my life i couldn’t wait for a ski season to over. We had record snow, snowed so much that my board dragged on the snow while on the ski lift to the top of the mountain at Alpental. This same ski lift a month prior was 20 feet from chair to ground (at least). So about 20 feet of snow. As soon as the last day of ski season, i drove to Texas. i sat in the sun, for a long time.
So, this darkness that bloomed over what was a sunny bright northwest for most of the august that i was there, changed sandal sales dramatically- but they were still selling; so i was still setting up at Portland saturday market, i think even if they weren’t selling i would have chilled there, some great folks to spend Saturday morning with. it was about mid october, i had to start wearing long pants, and a sweater- a change that wasn’t too appealing but necessary. One day it started raining and didn’t stop, not that kind of rain that comes down on you like when you stand under the waterfall at white oak canyon in Virginia, but that rain that really isn’t rain. Its so light and comes at you sideways rather than straight down from the heavens, and you really never actually feel it hitting you, you just get wet, and soaked, soaked like after that morning shower in the middle of July in the base of the blue ridge mountains, you dry off in the air conditioning put a new set of clothes outside, and walk outside- which feels like you have opened up an oven door to the center of the door, but inside this oven is a million gallon drum of water that has been boiling for 3 hours and the water vapor hits your skin and almost burns it so hot, but just drenches your being; and even your new clothes.
This sole drenching cold water vapors from a gray sky in Oregon, did another thing- made my sandals super wet, which is usually ok because it keeps my feet nice and cool. However, in Oregon at this time of the fall, i didn’t want wet sandals all day long. They would trail water marks inside any dry place i would go. They would never dry in such a cold and wet climate. some people would say its just time to switch to another type of show. ok, quite possibly, but at that time of life i only wore sandals, and i was determined to fix this problem; or at least add something so my friends in the northwest could wear their sandals when it was raining.
That was 2001, not a lot of options for materials, or at least the materials i wanted to use. after doing some research on materials that would work, i began sampling and experimenting. i wanted something recycled or natural or both. That was only 15 years ago, but we did not have the options that we have now. none of the major shoe companies were using a biodegradable or recoiled sole yet; so i turned my focus to other places that were using recycled materials for more industrial purposes- but first some easily accessible materials to experiment. One of the difficulties with the material we use to make sandals is that it’s quite picky as to what kind of glue it likes to bond to- that’s me giving the rope a personality.
I think my first experiment- No, I know my first experiment was with duct tape. at that point in my life and many other people at that time in their life duct tape fixed and was used for everything; from water bottle holders for rafting, to wallets, to belts, to patching everything- slowly over the years i have made almost all of those things out of rope. So, naturally i put some duct tape on a pair of sandals. i never thought it would work well, just had to try it. well, it made the bottom of the sandal pretty gummy. but it kept the flexibility of the shoe and the lightness of the sandal, which became more important later down the road.
about the same time a friend suggested leather on the bottom like some moccasins, due to some life choices i didn’t try the idea, i like to keep our products animal free— but he tried it and it worked pretty well for him- for those of you who don’t have aversions to animal products and like to do things yourself.
Then i thought about that stuff that people dip tools into to make a rubber grip. it was called plastisol- not a great name, but gave it a try. smelled like a chem bomb that i might have enjoyed in my less than sober youth, but at this point i was trying to keep as many brain cells as possible. it bonded with the rope really well, and flexed really we’ll, and was lightweight. 3 out of the 4 things i was looking for, but i wore out really quick, like two days. so i moved on.
some obvious choices, was that similar of herache sandals out of Mexico, they use a rubber tire on the bottom; this would fit the recycled desire of my four desires for soling. we cut off some rubber off an old van tire, quite a grueling process; my hands looked like i had been mining coal for the day- which is when i realized how dirty tires were. Not knowing how that would affect some ideals and product integrity i moved forward. i attached the rubber tire with some glue i had; i had started collecting different types of glue to use on the rope to see what would work the best. the first attempt went surprisingly well, or so i thought. at first glance the new sandal seemed ok, a little heavy, and not as flexible, felt more like i had stepped in some of that red Virginia clay mud that doesn’t really come off your shoes and dries hard enough to make an adobe house out of. But still i was using a rubber tire. -oH the cleaning, that was my first big hurdle. i scrubbed the tire for hours, and black dirt just kept reappearing like it never left. i had gotten it clean enough, or so i thought, after a few days the tire started coming off. i realized the problem was from the tire grime. Not a 100% or even close to lightness and/or flexibility, i still wanted to see if it could be done for a back up plan, or for (diy) folks. Contacted a friend who knows a friend who makes a kind of hurache in Mexico to see how the cleaned the tire. i abandoned the project after learned how this was done. One of my largest concerns when either working on a new project or revising an old one is environmental impact. The bath that a company was using to clean tires for glueing was not something i wanted to be part of. The bath of acid would eventually end up in the rivers, therefore eventually ending up in the ocean. and i have a tendency of sitting on a plank of fiberglass really close to river mouths in the ocean, and i wouldn’t want that stuff on my skin or any of the other living creatures. Rubber tire project scrapped for almost 8 years, we revisited it again when working with my friend Jesse on the boot project. the tires on the boots would be sewn and glued, therefore not relying fully on a glue bond. it also matched the weight of the boot well, and flexibility achieved oneness with the boot. And to top it off, we could use a soap and water batch with steel brush cleaning as it didn’t have to be new. fortunately i had had a little experience with the rubber sole from years prior so understood the right questions to ask. Moral of this, keep notes- never know when a project will resurface again…. So i dumped the project with sandals at that point, but i had seen some rubber mats made from shredded tires being used on playgrounds.
With that in mind made some phone calls and found the manufacturer in Pennsylvania. They were cutting up tires mixing them with some kind of glue or epoxy and making fatigue mats and child friendly crash mats for playgrounds. i had them send me samples of different weight and thickness. This stuff was super heavy, might even be heavier than tires. it stuck well to the sandals, but came apart a little to quickly, i think it was designed to be landed on not drug across the earth.
-I almost forgot, one thing i really liked in the form of tires was bicycle tires, they were a lot lighter, didn’t need to be cleaned as hard, and super light. some of the pitfall were the width, most bike tires are not wide enough to cover mens sizes or our rope sandals. And collecting tires was not as easy as car tires would have been. and to do it on the scale that we were moving towards would have required new tires- and that would have killed the idea. So I gave up totally at that point on any kind of recycled rubber.
Now, there were a few companies at this point using some natural gum rubber, you would remember seeing it on some brands in mid 2000’s, it resembled the translucency of a steamy mirror after being at a festival all weekend and not showering and deciding while enjoying the hot water pour over you on your first shower in 5 days that perhaps you could let the water run a little longer since you haven’t used any for nearly a week-() And then you step out of that shower, blind because you took your glasses off to shower and you can’t see them mostly because you are blind, but also because it looks like a steam room inside your bathroom. you see the mirror, but all you can see in the mirror is a shadow through the translucency- that is what this natural rubber looks like. i did some research and discovered most of it came out of south America. so i ordered some samples, did a little research on how using natural rubber affects the trees it is gathered from, and from what i understood as that collecting rubber is like pruning flowers, it helps it regenerate. hopefully, i was not, not a victim of “web facts” or propoganda. The natural rubber bonded well to the rope on the sandals, and flexed great, but was way too heavy, this one made the foot feel like gravity had pushed all the weight from your upper body to your feet. it just took away the super light intergalactic experience i loved so much about our nomadic state of mind rope sandals. Natural rubber put aside.
Next, i was introduced someone who ended up being a really good friend and business partner with the soles on our rope sandals. He had purchased a lot of old sandal machinery from a company who had moved their production to china and left all the old machinery for pennys on the dollar. this was exciting because everything we needed was not far from our north carolina office, i could drive there in less the 8 hours. the rubber we used had this extra step that kind of fit into the original look of the sandals, we imprinted a 70’s style traction on the bottom. We even put a heel raise on the rope sandal. this worked and worked well, we ran with this for a few years. making the original jc with more sole. It was a little heavier than i was after, but it was solid and we could make them. People could now walk into port a potties without getting their feet drenched. I really enjoyed using the vintage rubber and retread, and learning all vintage sandal making- which is alot different then our rope making process. This learning began my mind to start thinking of other kinds of sandals we could make- for those who didn’t like rope. I know had the know how and machinery, and enjoyed working with another small group of people, this time in Florida.
Always improving, or attempting, the nature of my being on most things that i do, i guess that is the human in most human. Vibram was making soles for everybody in the outdoor industry and really making a big name for themselves in the late 2000, they already had a great name, but everybody started using them. why? they were advancing soles to new levels. they had the budged to experiment. I ended up switching out the rubber on the jc with more sole to a lighter vibram rubber. at that point it was one of the only rubber sheeting being made in the u.s, so i could order lesser quantities. a little more expensive but a little more durable, or so i thought- in the end both of those the original and the first vibram i used were pretty much the same durability. the name brand of vibram was pretty helpful for us. at that point nomadic state of mind was getting well-known in what was a counterculture festival and music world in mid 2005, now i’d say the music festival world is a little more mainstream, taking some of the authenticity out the festival, however giving more festivals gives more people a place to go….if we’d only drop the cameras so people could get naked at festivals again and not have to worry about having themselves posted all over the internet. And let out teachers cut loose for the weekend and not have to worry about losing their jobs because there was a picture of them “having fun at a festival”. So, new people who had never hear of nomadic state of mind, had heard of vibram and new that it is quality, and people who had never heard of vibram were introduced from us. It helped our brand expand. I settled on this rubber for a few years, and spend my r and d time on working on new styles. i was getting more inspired to create, especially with the business growing so much and more time being spent running the business then creating the business..
after a few years, i started getting frustrated with the weight and the not as flexible of the jc sandal with sole that i wanted. it was good, but we could do better; and hopefully there was more options out there now. So i got back on the phone with vibram and they told me that they had exactly what i was looking for. So i got a few samples. right away i was super stoked, this stuff came super thin or super thick, and remember for the last 4 years people are really stoked on barefoot shoes, so i tried the thick and the thin rubber. this is what i had been looking for, it was their new super flex, and that is exactly what is was, it did not take away the original feel of the sandal, and also is super light, due to the adding of neoprene. finally, i had something super light and flexible and more durable than either one of the two soles i had used before. This one was being made a vibram headquarters in Italy. so, i invested in a lot of sheets of the new rubber. we could cut it an put it on here.
And there you have it, for now super satisfied, it’s a little more expensive but is the best thing i have found yet that keep the integrity of the sandal. so should be all good?
Not quite. We had to do our first nomadic state of mind recall that first spring. we went full throttle and made alot of pairs with this new rubber, to start of the spring, with more lined up to be made. Week one, sandals flew out the door, weektwo- two emails saying the soles were coming off (ok,thats odd but maybe one of our guys made a mistake on 2 pairs). Not quite, the glue we had, had been expired and not working, it would seem to hold but after a few days come off. This stressed me out, my company has always been known for quality and i needed a plan quick. The next morning i wrote an email to everybody who ordered a pair of the new sole to please send them back at our expense and we will fix them. A lot of people thought their sandals were just fine, but i knew they weren’t, so i pushed to have all of them back. Fortunately we caught this show stopping event at the beginning before they really got out there. we took back the pairs we sold and had to rip the soles off of about so many sandals, clean the soles and clean the sandal and order new glue. Minor set back, fortunately, thankfully we have customers that have been with us for years and if something is wrong they let us know immediately. Wiped our hands clean, got some new glue and started over…. The new vibram is up to this point my favorite, keeps the lightness, flexibility, and you don’t even know it’s there. So, it won’t stop your sandals from getting wet if you walk through a pond- but thats not the point, the point is small water barrier, not something bulky. the traction on this new vibram is phenomenal- better than anything used up to this point. Valuable and expensive lesson learned here; but the outcome is great satisfaction on our jc.2, toe joe.2. So if you have not tried the sole yet…..check them out
jc style (colors: camel, sage, grey, and black)
This has been one example of how nomadic state of mind came and comes to decision. we want the best, we are planet wanderers and expect as close to perfect as possible. i don’t want to be left shoeless out in the middle of the desert because my sole came off any more than someone else does. i have made lots of decisions over the past 15 years that cost us a lot of money, either in research or pulling products that were just not exactly where i wanted them, but i would think any business owner would do that?
Thanks for listening.