Bags, but not as we know them… Is it heresy?
Some initial impressions, by Peter Clinch
Bags aren’t the original Rohan garment, but they are one of the early examples and if one piece of clothing was called on to encapsulate the brand’s history it would very probably be Bags on the pedestal. They’ve been steady sellers and very influential, inspiring numerous “Bag-a-likes” from competitors and several related garments in Rohan’s own ranges: Convertible Bags, Double Convertible Bags, Easy Fit Bags, Action Bags, Hot/Warm/Winter Bags, Bags Shorts, Dry Bags, Epic Bags… Some have been more popular than others, but none up there with the originals and Rohan are understandably wary about tarnishing what has become something of a Sacred Cow, so I was pleasantly surprised to hear a stretchy version was finally seeing the light of day a few years after I’d dropped the notion in to a conversation on the Rohantime Forum.
I like stretchy trousers: Back when I reviewed some Troggings I dedicated a section to why stretch and trousers are excellent partners. I also like Bags: for me they hit the sweet spot compromise between smart enough, hard wearing, comfortable, quick drying, easy care and practical better than anything else. Good range of colours too! But they’re not perfect, with the lack of stretch taking their flexibility down a notch. Though the cut is close enough to be reasonably smart the same cut limits freedom of movement a little and ironically that’s why one thing I’ve never used them for is hillwalking, an activity with which they’ve probably been more associated with than any other.
With the above in mind it struck me that changing the Airlight for something like the fabric in Escapers would possibly make a good thing even better and so I suggested it and crossed my fingers… There was a positive reaction, but some humming and harring about, well, stretching the Bags brand a bit too far. And then, rather out of the blue, there was a note on Rohantime that they’d be out later in 2016, and now here they are. Rohan’s marketing folk asked if I’d like to try a pair, and with reactions about the toilet habits of bears in woodland springing to mind, of course I wanted to try a pair!
Shortly afterwards a pair showed up. I’d gone for the Kingfisher Blue option (there’s “Coal” if you want something more sober, but the blue ones aren’t as blue as an actual Kingfisher and shouldn’t draw too much attention to themselves). The zips are matched to the fabric rather than the all-black currently gracing Bags (they’ve varied between black and matched over the years), and the Rohan logo is almost the same colour as the material, making it much more discreet than the Bags’ contrasting one.
Taking them out of the bag the first thing to announce itself is, unsurprisingly, the different fabric. If you’ve looked over Escapers or Trailblazers it’s the same stuff, now called Multiflex Light™. It’s light and stretchy (along the grain two-way rather than full four-way) and when you hold a thickness between finger and thumb it’s thinner than the overall feel leads you to expect. Compared to Airlight it has a much more textured feel, which is unsurprising. Airlight was originally made as a comfortable down-proof quilt fabric so it has a very tight weave in fine fibres and consequently a very smooth hand, but stretch fabrics tend to only get that smooth when they’re pulled taut; release them and they pull in to less lateral space and feel a little rougher as a result. What’s important is how it feels against the skin, and sat still I’d give Airlight the edge, but not by much and the Mutilfex Light is still soft and pleasant. There’s also the caveat of “sat still”, and when you’re moving the stretch comes in to play. With Airlight the fabric slides smoothly over your skin, but with the Multiflex Light it doesn’t have to, it just stretches with you and no sliding is necessary. Comfortable as Bags are to walk in, I think these new ones are better.
Multiflex Light is polyamide/nylon with some elastane for the stretch rather than the polycotton of Airlight. It’s been treated with Rohan’s Dynamic Moisture Control coating, which spreads water quickly through the fabric. If you drop some water on it rapidly soaks in and spreads out, very much the opposite of a DWR coat. This is good if the weather is too: sweat will soak in, spread out and quickly evaporate, cooling you down and helping prevent the clammy feeling that DWRs can engender.
Pour some water on to the DMC Multiflex Light and it soaks straight in and spreads out, just as it should.
The flip side is that in drizzle you’ll soon have uniformly wet trousers… a bit like Bags in that respect (only more so), but also like the originals they dry out very quickly.
Pour water on to Airlight and some soaks in, some pools up. Despite the cotton content Rohan actually have their drying time tests with Bags at 4 hours and Stretch Bags at 6, I’d guess there’s just more “sponge effect” from the fabric texture.
Some of the marketing for these is bandying “soft shell” about, though if your idea of “soft shell” extends to dealing well with damp and dreich you need to realise that the DMC coat means they’ll behave very differently in a cloud to a pair of Troggings with their DWR finish.
You can see the water beads up and just sits on Troggings. What you can’t see is that most of what I poured on just ran straight off. This is obviously preferable if you’re standing in a cloud, but if you’re standing in hot sun it’s your sweat that will stay as drops of liquid, not incoming precipitation.
That’s the material covered, how about the tailoring? They’re not quite the same as Bags, with a couple of minor fettles that take heed of the stretch. First up, the legs are a little closer cut, and the knee patches have moved up (the fabric doesn’t slide up any more when you bend your leg, so the knee patches are always over your knee whether the leg is straight or bent).
Bags in red, Stretch Bags in blue, with the knee patch seam much higher on the right.
32″ Short Bags in gold, 32″ Short Stretch Bags in blue, with the narrower leg cut of the latter evident.
The area around the hips has been tinkered with a little too. Over the years I’ve found there’s a degree of natural variation in size, with my Bags and Bags Shorts all notionally 32″ but some snugger at the waist than others. The Stretch Bags seem to sit in the same spectrum, and with only one sample I can’t reasonably say the fit is clearly much different. One thing that has changed in this area is the construction of the gusset that expands the top pockets, or is tucked flat by the popper. The change can be seen in the photo below…
Bags in red, Stretch Bags in blue, the gusset on the left extends to the waistband but on the right only as far as the zip on the front pocket. As a result, the two halves of the popper on the Bags are a few centimeters apart but less than one cm on the Stretch Bags.
I’d be interested to know why this has been changed. The front pockets, aided by the stretch fabric, can still take quite a lot of stuff without rendering walking impossible, but it’s more of a squeeze to use them as handwarmers and the limits as to what will go in are lower. A paperback novel easily sits in a pair of Bags, it won’t go in the Stretch ones without a fair degree of contrivance.
Though the Stretch Bags’ pockets hold a fair bit, they won’t take as much as those on the Bags. (That’s James Clavell’s “King Rat” fitting easily in to the Bags Shorts, not enough room for “Shogun” though!
This change also renders the popper pretty much superfluous where on the originals it makes a tangible difference between more space or more sleek. Given that a poppered-up stretchy pocket still holds more or less what these hold with popper undone, but an original-size expanded and stretchy pocket might be expected to hold quite a bit more (and would be easier to get a hand in) it seems a shame the change has given us a little less rather than any more of what we had before. Whatever, as noted, the pockets do still carry plenty of stuff and you still have the half-dozen options you’ve always had with Bags, so while I’m a bit curious about this it’s certainly not a deal breaker.
With this review as a “first impressions” of something I’ve only had for a few days, this section is consequently rather brief. For the most part they do as the originals do: what you want, without otherwise announcing themselves very much. One area where the new ones are clearly ahead is cycling, thanks to the stretch, and the really very good freedom of movement the fabric allows mean these ought to do just fine for climbing too. If you are climbing I suspect (but have not tested it!) that the new fabric does rather better for tear strength than Airlight too.
I’ll have to leave longer to really get to know them, and to comment on durability. I take about a decade to trash a pair of Bags, so it might be quite a long wait! Existing users of Trailblazers and Escpaers may will have more useful insight than me on how well the fabric fares in the wild, but there’s nothing about its feel suggesting that it won’t last well.
So when it comes down to it, why am I happy in these but not so much in Escapers or Trailblazers, and how do I rate these next to Bags?
The first of these questions boils down to pockets: While I like the cut of the Escapers I’m not a big fan of their mesh pockets, and I like a secure pocket each side up front in general purpose trousers. The Trailblazers have thigh pockets which I personally regard as an ugly and unhelpful mis-feature. Clearly I don’t hold the only views on a good pocket setup, but for me and the way I like to distribute my stuff the [Stretch] Bags pockets work very well… and the others don’t. On the other hand, the Trailblazers have the insect repellent coating which may well appeal, and the Escapers do have cleaner lines (with the extra stuff in Stretch Bags I’d have guessed Escapers would be cheaper, but they’re actually slightly more!)
Comparison to Bags is in the context of having been wearing Bags regularly for over a quarter of a century and never having found anything else to quite fill their place. It’s largely down to the obvious similarities that these might finally be the trousers that I’m happy to say will do everything that Bags will do acceptably well. I think if it’s a case of sitting around for most of the day (at my desk, on a long train or plane journey) the static comfort of Airlight will win it, but if I’ll be much in the way of mobile there’s a good chance I’ll be reaching for the new ones.
Would I change anything? I’ve got through a few pairs of Bags over the years, but I never go through the knees so I’m actually quite ambivalent about the knee patches, and I can’t see why that wouldn’t be true of the Stretch ones too. However, taking away the knee patches would, I imagine, be a step too far. They wouldn’t quite be Bags without double knees, and I suspect when it comes to selling them being Bags counts more than my thoughts about the knee patches.
There’s the reduced pocket expansion panel, and time will tell whether that bothers me or not, but if you’re going to have a popper to flatten the lines it would make sense to have it where it actually does something other than remind you of the originals, and lengthening the gusset to that of the originals will make using the front pockets as hand warmers a bit easier (especially if, like me, you’ve taken to keeping a ‘phone in there). While the stretch helps make up for depth it doesn’t work quite so well on the length of the panel.
Aside from that there’s not much to do: had Bags been wanting they wouldn’t still be selling well after decades. Perhaps alternative finishes (such as the Insect Shield), and over time a selection of alternative colours is all that springs to mind.
Take a great design that’s stood the test of time, combine it with a great fabric that suits that design quite well and it’s not really surprising that what comes out is a worthy addition to Rohan’s range.
Note from Rohantime: It is the intention that all first reviews of new Rohan gear on Rohantime will be undertaken by Rohanists who have an understanding of outdoor gear, the fundamentals of keeping warm, dry and safe on the hills, an appreciation of Rohan’s core values and how they are expressed in the clothing and a working knowledge of similar products that are available. These reviews, will represent a fair and balanced evaluation.
Reviewed by Peter Clinch
Read more about Stretch Bags