Snow came early to the Canadian Prairies this year. By Thanksgiving (in early October), the city of Saskatoon had seen 30 centimetres of snowfall in just three days. Farther north near Prince Albert, and in places close to the Montana border, 40 centimetres fell. The temperature at night across the region was already well below freezing.
Winter in Canada is long, as it is in other northern countries. And when you live in a cold environment, there are essential pieces of gear. A warm hat is among the most important and could be the ultimate symbol of cold-weather culture.
In this country, we even have a unique name for it. Many places have knit hats, but no one calls them tuques except in Canada.
There are many styles and variations to the tuque. They all have pros and cons. But we wanted the best. The only way to get that was to make it ourselves.
Our First Venture
Frontier is a design studio. We collaborate with clients to help them with their design challenges. But we’re also a ventures group. We have the ambition to start projects that we believe in. Our goal is to bring a new product or service to market from conception to completion. We are particularly interested in designing things that support creative exploration. The Frontier Tuque is our first attempt.
We saw the opportunity to design something uniquely Canadian with strong cultural heritage that also has room for improvement. We knew we needed to start modestly and focus on designing something relatively simple because it’s our first foray into this kind of project, and we had to be sure we could deliver. Our approach has been to apply our design process of research, strategy, prototyping, and execution in service of something better.
Design is far more than what a thing looks like. It is about it how it works, how it came to be, what it is made of, and who made it.
The result is a product conceived over 18 months of research and development. It taps into the knowledge and skill of fashion experts, local makers, and even linguists. It is an exploration of Canadian history, material science, fabrication techniques, production processes, and economic systems. It stands for quality over affordability as a way of uncovering and understanding the hidden systems of commerce around us. As much art project as viable commercial enterprise, The Frontier Tuque is an argument against disposable fashion and for a return to craftsmanship in every sense.
The Frontier Tuque is both a question and a statement. The question: What happens when design is applied to an existing object in order to improve it in every possible way? The statement: We have created a winter hat that we believe could be the world’s best. And we mean best in all of its manifestations. It not only performs better than others, it is socially responsible, taking absolute care that making it doesn’t cause harm to anyone or anything along the way (no matter the cost). It proclaims that design is far more than what a thing looks like. It is about how it works, how it came to be, what it is made of, and who made it.
We love tuques. We love the winter that makes them indispensable. We love their potency as a historical symbol of our country. We love that they are part of a rite of passage for anyone crazy enough to move here. Even the word tuque is uniquely Canadian.
It’s designed for city or country. It’s designed to look good and last a long time. Most importantly, it’s a warm and dry hat that isn’t itchy.
Research & Discovery
Even for the most future-forward products or projects, we often start by looking to the past. A thing’s origin and humble beginning can tell us something about its fundamental reason for existing — its purpose and benefits. The tuque is said to have originated with the coureurs des bois, French and Métis fur traders, who kept their woollen nightcaps on for warmth during cold winter days. We shared highlights from our historical research in Frontier magazine Issue 1 (pages 8 to 11). We explored the etymology of the tuque and the fierce debate about its correct spelling. (We opted for the distinctly Canadian version instead of toque or touque.)
We consulted with a range of experts from a variety of fields for insight and to help build our design strategy. This is the starting point for our research on any project. We learn from others and combine their knowledge. If we consulted only experts in tuque-making, we’d end up with a tuque that already exists. When we question basic assumptions and create new possibilities, we find new territory for opportunity. The key is to find unexpected experts; people who may not have an obvious connection but whose insight can contribute in a valuable way. We spoke with specialists in fields of biomimicry, product design, fashion psychology, physiology, and technology (also detailed in Issue 1).
At every point, we asked: Would this decision result in the world’s best tuque?
As part of our competitive landscape research, we collected dozens of tuques from established retail stores, boutique brands, and a few from our own closets. We examined fibre composition, how many layers and seams they had, their speculated durability, and whether they worked on all of our team members’ heads. To avoid bias, we also sent out a survey asking people about their key needs for a better tuque. The responses covered everything to do with fit, a low itch-factor, and of course, the right amount of warmth.
Materials & Construction
We started a long process of sketching, prototyping, and iteration. We debated the nature of tuques and how we might possibly achieve our stated goal of creating the world’s best tuque. That rallying cry became a way of keeping ourselves honest. It helped us make decisions. At every point, we asked: Would this decision result in the world’s best tuque? The answer often reminded us not to mess with what works and has worked for a long time. We quickly narrowed our focus to materials and construction. How could we ensure warmth in a new way while keeping it stylish and neutral enough that it could fit with what you wear every day?
A big breakthrough of the project came when a Frontier researcher, Yehezkel Lipinsky, came across a uniquely Canadian material called qiviut. Qiviut is the wool of a muskox. Unlike sheep’s wool, which requires shearing, the qiviut is collected by combing the muskox’s soft underwool. Our goal for the project was to create a truly Canadian and all-natural product rather than importing materials or using synthetics. We were amazed by qiviut’s natural properties and began looking into the best way to source it. Muskox are generally spread across the most northern parts of Canada, Alaska, and Greenland. Some roam wild, while others are raised on farms. We learned that farmed muskox don’t exist in Canada. The qiviut we selected is sourced from muskox hides collected from Inuit hunters in the Northwest Territories and regions in northern Quebec. Hunting happens from November to May, as this is the best time to collect hides based on the amount and quality of hair. Our yarn producer receives the pelts and hides, and combs and dehairs them in her mill, located south of Quebec City.
We spoke with Jennifer Lam — an established knitter, spinner, and co-chair of the Great Northern Arts Society in Inuvik, Northwest Territories — who shared insights into the importance of local hunting practices, including muskox, and how knitting and crafting are still tools of survival for many in the North. The muskox is used to its fullest when hunted — it’s a source of food and its materials are used in products and apparel required for dealing with the harsh elements. According to Jennifer, they also offer a socio-economic means of survival, with many (and mainly) women in the Northwest Territories still crafting for a living. “It provides an essential economic buffer and bridge to make it to the end of the month. Nobody is getting rich off it, but their products are of exquisite and luxury quality.”
After deciding on materials, we shifted our focus to construction. After many iterations, we settled on a double-walled tuque, with a qiviut-blend interior, a fine merino wool exterior, and a single thickness brim. The external layer would act as a barrier from the wind while keeping body heat in. Our yarn has excellent insulation and sweat-management properties. It will keep you warm, even when wet, and feels luxuriously comfortable and soft against your skin. Its simple and iconic form covers the ears but isn’t too tight. The result is a winter tuque that works just as well in the wilderness as in the city.
Our qiviut-blend yarn comes from Adstock, Quebec, a municipality in the Chaudière-Appalaches region. We came across Cottage Craft Angora — a small mill owned and operated by Lorraine Weston for 14 years, including 10 in the muskox fibre business. Lorraine provided us with countless yarn samples and was responsible for spinning the raw qiviut fibre into three-ply yarn used for the interior layer (35 per cent qiviut, 35 per cent cashmere, and 30 per cent merino). She also dyed the yarn our signature red, which taught us that qiviut fibre dyes darker because of its natural brown colour.
Each Frontier Tuque requires 183 metres of merino wool for the exterior and 137 metres of qiviut blend for the interior. We developed 100 tuques for our intentionally small first-production run.
Each Frontier Tuque is hand-knitted by Jacqueline Schiller, a Toronto-based master knitter, painter, and tattoo artist. We’d initially met Jacqueline at Romni Wools, a yarn shop in Toronto’s Queen West neighbourhood, before deciding to collaborate on the project. While only 29 years old, Jacqueline has been knitting for 26 years (she knitted a sweater at age three). She has a small studio where she uses a 1980s vintage Superba knitting machine for both the interior and exterior layers, and then does the crown shaping and assembly by hand.
Tala Berkes, a Toronto fashion designer and our project lead, remained in close communication with our makers throughout the design process, heavily weighing in on the material, tuque construction and fit, quality control, branding, and product styling throughout the design and production process.
Testing & Performance
Sending prototypes out into the field was a critical part of our process — made difficult with the timing of our samples being ready during the heat of the summer. While we also tested it ourselves in the northern Ontario wilderness, we focused on finding tuque testers who work in cold places in the city. The feedback we received from early prototypes informed our final design decisions.
The most common feedback was that the tuque is “very warm.” One tester described how the tuque “kept me toasty while I was counting beer and organizing the beer room. I would love to take it fishing with me on the stream.” While the tuque is warm, we heard feedback that it’s “surprisingly not too warm.” Furthermore, “the fabric breathes so I didn’t sweat much. When I did sweat, I felt like the tuque didn’t sop it all up and turn into a sweat sponge.” Our conclusion, though, is that it’s not a hat to wear when it’s hovering around zero degrees Celsius (32°F). This tuque is at its best when worn in colder weather.
We made a point to keep any brand presence on the tuque minimal, integrating custom embroidery with the form and construction itself. We strongly believed that instead of using the Frontier logo, it was an opportunity to build a new story and tone for this product. Our approach still builds from our Frontier brand, but charts a new path of its own that our team is extremely excited about.
Paul Kawai, our design director, is an avid hiker and camper. With his partner, Lena — also a graphic designer — and their dog, they’ve hiked dozens of trails throughout Canada and abroad. A key design feature of these trails is what are called blazes, an extremely simple system of outdoor wayfinding. The most common form of this system employs painted rectangles, usually applied to trees and rock features along a given trail. These blazes can communicate a few meanings based on their arrangement. For our purposes, we were most inspired by what’s known as the Start of Trail arrangement — three blazes arranged in an upward triangle, confidently pointing the way forward.
The emblem for Start of Trail became a metaphor for our first venture project, the start of our own discovery and learning. We’ve subtly embroidered it on the brim of each Frontier Tuque as a reminder of the possibilities that follow when we take the risk to begin. Whether you’re hiking a remote rocky peak or diving deep in the trenches of a creative project, this tuque is made for adventure.
The vast majority of the goods we buy are tailored to our consumer culture and the balance between performance and price. Price usually wins. If it wears out in a few months or a year, just buy another one.
Making something that works really well and also lasts a long time is expensive — too expensive for most.
This project is an experiment. What happens if we return to a singular focus on quality and performance? And what if we do it in an entirely ethically sourced and manufactured way? Cost is a relative term. The cost of this product may seem high, but the cost of not approaching the product design process in this way is higher because of the associated harm it can cause in countries where labour is cheap and working conditions are terrible.The Frontier Tuque is the result of a process that respects all those who have touched it. The cost reflects that. It’s a different way of thinking about a product.
We do not know if our tuque will ever be financially profitable. The price was not determined with this in mind. Traditional retail pricing takes the manufacturing cost of the item and doubles it to establish the wholesale price, then doubles it again to arrive at the retail price. This protects retailers from the inevitable losses when products are left unsold at the end of the season. They are able to make some money even when the retail price is cut.
We did not follow the standard formula. Since The Frontier Tuque isn’t a product that will be updated each season or each year, there will be no reason to mark down excess stock.
The cost to Frontier for locally sourced materials and local labour, all of the highest quality, is roughly $79 per tuque. This does not include the lengthy research and development process to develop the product, or the marketing and sales co-ordination that a project like this requires. If we were to do that, the cost would be substantially higher, and we could fall into the trap of the traditional retail pricing model. While we’re not going to recoup our costs, at least not initially, The Frontier Tuque will retail for $195. We have set our price based on what we believe the value of the product to be when compared with its competitors. It’s a small market, but most hats of this kind retail for $250 or more.
Still, our goal is to keep the tuque as affordable as possible. We stand behind the price because of the time and effort we’ve spent on it and the value we believe it offers. We’re certain that the quality, performance, and research built into this hat far exceeds that of any other winter hat anywhere.
It’s not financial profit we’re focused on. It’s the learning that has come from the process. This is invaluable to us. We have learned how products come to fruition. And we have learned how our own design process can be applied to a new project from the ground up. We also believe that this experience could profit others who have a similar conviction of purpose and commitment to quality. This new knowledge is our future.
Get updates on the project here.