Many countries have a national hat. In Turkey, it's the fez. In Russia, its the Ushanka fur cap. In America, it's the baseball cap, or, perhaps, the 10-gallon cowboy hat. And in Canada, it's the tuque (a word believed to be derived from the Spanish word toca): a close-fitting knit cap that has been a symbol of French-Canadian nationalism since at least the 1837 Patriotes Rebellion, when it became a maple leaf twist on France's own liberty cap.
Leave it to a Canadian design firm like Frontier, then, to embrace the tuque as a way of expressing their national heritage through design. The Toronto-based design firm just launched the World's Best Tuque, a perfected version of the knit winter cap that aims to be, in the words of founder Paddy Harrington, a "living manifestation of the design thinking process, by showing what happens when an interdisciplinary design studio asks fundamental questions about what an existing product can be."
Frontier didn't set out to fundamentally change the definition of the tuque. Rather, it started by looking at existing tuques, and doing a deep dive into the problems that tend to crop up in a product category no one ever really thinks of as "design." After examining dozens of tuques ranging in price between $20 and $200, Frontier identified a number of common problem areas, ranging from scratchiness of material to sweat absorption to a lack of elasticity—not to mention a lack of warmth.
The studio started by identifying a material that would give them the perfect balance between elasticity, warmth, and moisture wicking. For the outer layer, Frontier is using merino wool, but things get more interesting when it comes to the inner shell, which is partially made of musk ox wool, otherwise known as qiviuq. It's a distinctly Canadian material. The word itself in Inuinnqtun, the language of the Inuit peoples; consequently, it's a type of fiber usually only harvested in Canada's far North. It's also extremely luxurious: a rare fiber that doesn't shrink in water, is softer than cashmere, and is eight times stronger and warmer than sheep wool.
By combining qiviuq with merino wool and cashmere, Frontier was able to come up with a blend which, it says, is a perfect mixture of warmth, moisture wicking, and elasticity. Why elasticity? "In our testing, we discovered that a lot of tuques, which are meant to be one-size-fits-all, are too tight," says Harrington. Not only can it make some tuques uncomfortable, but it can make wearing a tuque with a pair of glasses painful, since the material pinches the arms into a wearer's ears. The material is also perfectly breathable, making sure the tuque doesn't become soggy with sweat like other knit hats.
All told, Harrington says he's confident that a World's Best Tuque can last 20 years with care, which should help justify its $195 retail price. None of this, though, really explains why Frontier felt like it had to perfect the tuque to begin with. To that question, Harrington says its a way of showing his firm's values outside of client work. "We wanted to take all our knowledge, and put it into this basic question about what a ubiquitous object like a tuque could be," he says.
And none of this has to do with the fact that the designers in his studio are Canadian, and tend to wear a lot of tuques? "Okay, you got me," says design director, Paul Kawai, "The whole studio is made up of tuque-wearers. Some stereotypes are very real."