The story of Sohao cannot be told without reference to the story of the Olfio. Early 1980s, Olfio and Sohao were introduced to the market in early previews as a Tech Pullover – the Arran sweater gone high technology. Below are the ads from March 1986 in The Great Outdoors magazine.
Both garments were definitely high-tech but had no likeness to the Arran sweater, other than they kept you warm. Both garments weighed under 600 grams each, were windproof, lightweight, dried very quickly, had a small pack size and lots of zipped pockets. Not the description of any Arran sweater.
Both Olfio and Sohao were constructed from Rohan Airlight and an Insuflex inner. This was the first of a number of fabrics in the Rohan Insu range. Insuflex was Rohan’s answer to lightweight synthetic insulation. The decision was made not to go down the fleece road and instead develop a lightweight and soft insulation wadding layer, unique to Rohan. This fabric was not only used in the Olfio and Sohao but also Hot Bags, Wild Vest, Big Kids Suits and the children’s range.
The polyester wadding was laminated to a thin cotton model knit. This stretched with the body and offered a high comfort factor. Most of the production was a strong gold colour, which gave the garments in this range a very distinctive identity. The combination of Airlight fabric and Insuflex provided a very windproof garment. It was a development trend that, if progressed, would have taken the company down a very different road. However, the seduction of fleece, as it did then, remains very strong.
The garment design of both Sohao and Olfio was progressive. Olfio was an over-the-head garment, Sohao front opening with an extended lower front flap. Early Rohan garment design favoured over the head jackets because they are so much more efficient. So, the answer was easy, make the Sohao design really progressive. That is why the Sohao looked like it did. Sort of reversed marketing.
The following is an extract from a Rohan newsletter dated 1985, I think it tells all…
Both Olfio and Sohao illustrated the commitment to design and innovation that was such a feature of all early Rohan garments. There have been no other garments like them since. The development trend of using ultra lightweight synthetic fillings is just starting to accelerate, over 30 years later.
The Sohao was used by Chris Townsend on the Continental Divide Trail in 1985. This is Chris’ words on his experience of the Sohao and Wild Vest on the trip…
“In the years between my PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) and CDT (Continental Divide Trail) walks, Rohan had developed new designs and introduced new materials, most noticeably a light, thin synthetic fill for insulated garments. Because Rohan didn’t make warm clothing in 1982, I’d carried a pile jacket and a down vest on the PCT. On the CDT I took Rohan’s new synthetic insulated Sohao Jacket and Wild Vest, a combination that was lighter and more compact than the PCT clothing and just as warm.
As the garments were shelled with polycotton, they were also windproof, unlike the pile jacket, and quick drying and reasonably warm when wet, unlike the down vest. These properties were important in the Rockies, especially when cooking and eating outside. Worn together the two synthetic tops kept me warm in below freezing weather whilst I was sitting outside waiting for the dinner to cook with no need to protect them from wind or rain. Today, similar garments are found in every outdoor shop. It’s only in the last decade they’ve become popular though, twenty years after Rohan first made them.”
Sarah Howcroft, Co-founder Rohan