A Conversation with Rothera Cycling

Interview

The cycling cap has become an iconic item of cycling apparel in the last decade. Where it once used to be a throw away team item – an extra area for sponsors logos pre-helmet days – it is now a desired item. The likes of Rapha changed the desirability of the cycling cap, but there had always been a steady flow of makers and users over the years regardless of fashion.

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The cycling cap is now a combination of trend and function. The original was just a cheap cotton cap designed to last a race and sold to the general public at little expense. The cycling caps we see today are well made, often in interesting or technical fabrics, much better looking, but not as cheap as before. The price is still not high though, and I think these are the reasons for the growing trend of cycling caps. The cap marks an individual as a cyclist [a serious one] and is often affordable against other cycling items – therefor an easy way to gain identity. Once found though the user soon realises how functional and useful the cap is. Good on hot days to keep the sun off the head and soak up the sweat before it ends up in the eyes and good on colds days to keep the head warm and provide a little shelter from the rain (especially the more technical caps). One such maker of hats is Rothera, based in America, hand-made either to bespoke designs or his own designs for purchase anywhere in the world. I got a chance a chance to speak to him about his work and how it got started…

How long have you been cycling?

I’ve been cycling since college so about 2004, started as way to get around Boston and quickly escalated.

How did you end up making cycling caps?

Around the end of June 2009 I was laid off from my first adult job as a college admissions counsellor, so I decided to take my severance and buy a plane ticket to Paris and follow the Tour de France. I spent July living in Paris with some Grenoblois friends and another close American friend traveling to different stages of the tour. Since I started cycling I’d always collected caps, but in France and living on a shoe string budget they were the most affordable souvenirs to collect at each stage. When I got back from France the collection of caps I had amounted was impressive, but between wearing them and traveling they were already falling apart. I decided that I could do better, so I sat down at my mother’s old sewing machine and decided to make my own. I had no idea how to sew, but I quickly figured it out and since then have refined the patterns and materials used.

Is the caps a full-time thing?

As of now the caps are a full time thing. Over this winter I was planning to make them a hobby and started going on job interviews but nothing panned out and simultaneously the caps started to pick up so I’m playing it by ear.

How long does it take to make a cap?

From cut to finished it takes about 45 minutes per cap, but it’s a bit faster than that since typically now I work with about 12-15 caps at a time. The winter caps take almost twice that since it’s essentially 2 caps as it has a fleece liner, plus the finishing stitch consists of stitching through 3 folded layers with the exterior, fleece interior and ear flap, so it’s a bit trickier.

I really like hand-made [as opposed to mass-produced], each one is slightly different, so each one is the only one. Why do you choose to make by hand?

Making the caps in house and by hand really allows me to play with the size and customise each one. A large number of customers come to us because the average cycling cap won’t fit them and since we make everything here I’m able to add an inch here or take in an inch there. I also just added a new machine that does some really nice embroidery script so I’m trying to work up an easy way for people to add custom lettering to their cap.

Are you getting many orders? How many are custom orders?

I’d say half our orders are custom. We get a fair amount of orders through our website, but due to working on a shoe string budget there’s no real advertising so it’s mainly word of mouth, organic growth. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of custom work for bicycle clubs and also bike shops who generally request a handful of custom caps in their wholesale orders to match their shop or team colours, which is a lot of fun. Recently I did a run of caps for the Wisconsin based CX team MWI that were pretty loud, in an awesome way.

So do you do any fabric research are you constantly thinking of new things to do?

The fabric we use is pretty important. Aside from the RealTree camouflage which I’ve only found in cotton, there isn’t a cap on our site that doesn’t have some kind of performance aspect to it. Most of our caps are made from a nylon ‘All Weather’ fabric that feels like cotton, is light weight and moisture wicking but maintains the benefits of nylon making it extremely durable, odour resistant, wrinkle free and wind resistant. It also has a water repellent coating and a UPF rating of +30. I love being able to present a cap that for all intents and purposes looks like a ‘normal’ cycling cap, but then it has all these great qualities there when you need them. My younger brother recently texted me saying: “Whoa, just got stuck in a downpour on my bike and my head is dry, is this hat water repellent?!” Yes it is. I also love this fabric because it really takes a beating and it’s machine washable, so when your wife/girlfriend/boyfriend/mother etc. harasses you about your dirty, sweat stained cycling cap you can just throw it in the washing machine.

Otherwise some of our fall/winter caps are made from wool, which is naturally moisture wicking and odour repellent but harder to track down styles and weights I like. I generally err towards the side of earth tones, houndstooth, tweed, herringbone and suiting wools.

Are you thinking to produce other items?

I’m itching to start making other products, but I’ve got my hands full with caps at the moment so at this point I’m content to put all my energy into this one product and make it the best product it can be, rather than throw other distractions into the mix. That said I’ve made about a half dozen handmade jerseys and have tons of ideas design wise that I’d love to bring to life in (near) future.

How are the global sales? Outside of the U.S who is buying your caps?

We just sent a large order (50+) caps to Japan, but that’s our first venture there and I’m hoping it’s going to be a fruitful one. I’ve always loved the Japanese cycling scene from the fixed gear guys, to Japanese cyclocross and roadies, so I’m hoping to be able to represent more there. We also do a fair amount of business in the UK, and we’ll be manufacturing caps for the cycling apparel Vulpine, who are London based and make some really impressive garments in form and function. .

So what are your inspirations?

Inspiration comes from all over the place and one of the great things about cyclists is there are those who like the more subtle classic style of caps like an all black cap with black highlights, but then there are also those who enjoy really over the top loud styles. Two of my favorite recent caps were inspired by the cycling history, they’re a Lanterne Rouge and Maglia Nera caps. I particularly love the Maglia Nera, which was an all black jersey awarded from 1946-1951 to the last rider to finish the Giro d’Italia, so I made an all black cap with a thin Giro pink centre stripe bordered by 2 wide black racing stripes and “Maglia Nera” embroidered on the side in pink.

What do you see that you think will make a nice cap or fabric?

Visually it’s hard to say, I’m a sucker for all those classic wool suiting patterns–houndstooth, tweed, herringbone, but really it’s the feel of a fabric that lets me know if it will make a nice cap. Depending on the season it needs to have a certain weight to it, also I look for fabric that has a little bit of stretch, which makes it extra comfortable, but not too much since that makes it more difficult to sew. But when it comes down to it I really need to have the fabric in my hand to know if it will stitch up well, although sometimes I’m surprised. I recently made a few caps out of seersucker, which really felt too soft and lightweight in a fragile way to work well, but I stitched it up and visually it’s a really clean, classic looking cap that’s also extremely comfortable.

Find out more and purchase Rothera Cycling caps here: www.rotheracycling.com

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