Where would the outdoor industry be without the passionate makers and tinkerers crafting their own gear in basements and garages? This very cottage industry practice gave way to the birth of outdoor recreation gear’s golden era in the ‘60s through the ‘80s. Instead of taking out ads in the back of Backpacker or Summit magazine like the previous generation, today’s make-your-own-gear (MYOG) community thrives on Reddit and Instagram.
It’s through these very nerdy (and awesome) internet channels that Portland, Oregon hiker, musician, and nursing school student Ryan Windus began growing his garage-sewn project of ultralight and ultrawarm fleece hoodies in early 2020, and officially launching as Senchi Designs in October 2020.
Now released one super limited, handsewn batch at a time, the brand’s unisex fleece hoodies sell out in a flash to a following of crazed ultralight gear heads with a thirst for the lightest, most exciting gear in a fashion that feels eerily similar to the kind of energy we’re more accustomed to seeing in the streetwear world.
[Editor's Note: The next Senchi Designs drop is scheduled for today, 17 March]
As proud owners of both a very early iteration and a more official Senchi ourselves, the FM team has witnessed Senchi's growth from byproduct of a curious Reddit commenter to LLC weilding business in real time. "The entire Senchi project has been a pretty organic process," Windus assures.
At the onset, Windus bought his first rolls of Polartec Alpha fleece off eBay and made initial prototype patterns from cereal boxes with the sole intention of sewing a lightweight hoodie for just himself, inspired by the hard to come by hoodies made by Kiwi brand Macpac.
Upon sharing his initial experiments with the r/Ultralight community, it became immediately apparent that he was onto something. The hoodies find their niche in layering systems well known to thru-hikers and other core outdoorists—those looking for a unicorn layer that can breathe and provide ample warmth, while adding as few ounces to base weights as possible.
“When you strip away nonessentials, you can create a piece that’s more simple, beautiful, and functional.”
On discussing layering, Windus tells us: “The hoodie has incredible insulative properties under a shell, and is highly breathable on its own—these are two seemingly contradictory qualities for one piece of gear, yet when integrated in your layering system, does both perfectly.”
So, little by little, he started sewing small batches of his hoodies and selling them over the internet until the demand had outgrown what one man with some free time and one sewing machine in his garage could handle.
With a surging growth of fans, Windus brought on a friend to help out and manage the business in early 2021. With this change came the opportunity for him to focus on developing new products and running the brand itself: communicating with customers, making fun content for the gram, and interacting with cool, like-minded folks (ahem).
Senchi Designs hoodies use various weights of Polartec Alpha fleece, an active-insulation fabric designed first for U.S. Special Forces and their need for a highly-breathable insulator that holds up through whatever covert activities they get up to. As it turns out, the airy featherweight fleece works pretty well for the peace-loving thru-hiker too.
Though Senchi’s helped expose the preciously lightweight fleece gospel to a wider audience, the rest of the industry is taking their sweet time to embrace Alpha as a face fabric due to its delicate nature.
The hoodies themselves are as light as they are minimal. The flagship Wren ($75) hoodie uses a 60g/m2 Polartec Alpha fleece, which puts a size medium at just 3.8 oz (107g), less than the average banana. No form of adjustments or pockets to speak of, just a slim body paired with raglan sleeves and a snorkel-shaped hood. This is the hoodie that’s carried the brand since the beginning, and only in 2022 have new models been added into the mix.
Expanding on the Wren, Senchi adds a variant using a 120g/m2 Alpha fleece on their Merlin ($110) hoodie for hikers looking for a little extra warmth and features. Not only is the heavier material heftier in insulation weight, but it’s also more resistant to damage like tears from branch snags. The addition of a kangaroo pocket and half zip add a lot of daily trail convenience and only a little extra weight–the large weighs a very manageable 8.2 oz (232g).
Then, there’s the Lark ($90) sitting in between the two using the 90 g/m2 Alpha fleece featuring a half zip, but no pocket. Each hoodie is packaged in a Senchi Bag, a multipurpose wash bag made from a very finely woven nylon mesh fabric that both protects the hoodie during washing and reduces microplastics mixing into your stormwater.
The benefits of #ultralight gear aren’t confined to lower pack weights, but also to a wholistic reduction to the bare minimum that’s needed to enjoy your outdoor experience. Windus is well indoctrinated in this ethos and has a deep appreciation for a simple design that he exercises with Senchi.
"The traditional train of thought in outdoor gear design is that adding multiple gadgets/zippers/pockets to a piece adds usefulness or value," shares Windus. But "I actually find these things add unnecessary bulk, and more stress points for things to break. When you strip away nonessentials, you can create a piece that’s more simple, beautiful, and functional.”
Though Senchi’s production has increased since its beginning, the demand for their hoodies is still impressively high. A release from the brand usually consists of a few different hoodie models in colorways that don’t often repeat in future releases. Instagram followers receive several days of advanced notice, and within just a few short minutes of the online sale opening, the whole lot is completely sold out.
Sure, Senchi could make some moves to beef up quantities, but they’re committed to keeping the sewing close-to-home and sustainably growing the brand without simply prioritizing pure profit. But, considering the care given to design, production, and scale, it’s impressive that the brand can offer its locally-made apparel at such reasonable prices.
By now, you’ve probably asked yourself the golden question–what the heck is a “senchi” anyway?! The name is a carry-over from Windus’s instrumental music project of the same name. A misheard lyric from Justin Bieber’s single Confident was the source, “lipstick on my satin sheets,” heard as “lipstick on my senchi.” Now that we’ve heard it his way, we can’t un-hear it.
Now that you’ve got the lowdown on Senchi Designs, give ‘em a follow on their Instagram and catch all the updates on future hoodie drops.