Sewing Machines and Whitewater Rafting
The first time Santos Vargas used a sewing machine he was a sophomore at the University of Idaho. Prior to that, the closest he came to a needle and thread was watching his grandmother sew as a child growing up in Yakima, Washington.
The first time he went whitewater rafting was before his junior year at U of I. Now 24, Vargas is a product coordinator at NRS — a Moscow-based company that produces a variety of outdoor gear and apparel — where sewing machines and rafting are part of his everyday life.
Discovering Apparel, Textiles and Design
Like many students, Vargas wasn’t sure what he wanted to do for the rest of his life when he was considering college. He chose U of I because of the close proximity of the Moscow campus to his family and the offer of a scholarship to run cross-country and track and field for the Vandals. When he arrived at U of I he decided to major in business.
“I just thought, I’m going to go into business because if I get a degree in business I’ll be able to find a job somewhere,” Vargas said.
It was during his sophomore year Vargas knew he needed to make a change and wanted to do something more creative. He began to search for different options at U of I.
“I like creativity and being able to make something,” Vargas said. “I just thought of the things I was really interested in. Being an athlete and wearing all that different apparel, I thought why not focus on athletic apparel and go into that industry. I knew I wasn’t going to be an athlete forever and I wanted to stay connected to the world of athletics in some form.”
Vargas discovered the apparel, textiles and design program in U of I’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and decided to make the switch — even though he had no prior experience or knowledge in the field.
“I had no knowledge of textiles so it was fun to be able to start at ground zero and build all of that knowledge up in a program like they have at the University of Idaho,” Vargas said.
Stepping into a program he wasn’t familiar with had its difficulties — like learning how to use a sewing machine.
“I was kind of really scared of the sewing machine just because I didn’t want to have like a finger sewn off,” Vargas said. “I’ve seen my grandma sew dozens of times and it just seemed like something that was super technical and super-fast. It was more just getting over the intimidation factor of using the sewing machine.”
The course structure for the apparel, textiles and design major helped Vargas piece together the skills he was lacking. The faculty in the Margaret Ritchie School of Family and Consumer Sciences also played a key role.
“A lot of what did help was the experience that the faculty had,” he said. “I think it’s a lot easier to learn from someone if they are credible. They just had so much experience there between the faculty that it makes it easy to pick up and not so hard to make that transition. I think that is what helped get over that intimidation factor.”
Discovering the Outdoor Industry
Vargas decided to stay in Moscow the summer between his junior and senior years and applied for a job with NRS, fulfilling orders in the warehouse. He didn’t have much experience with the outdoor industry up to that point, but two summers spent with the company opened his eyes to new possibilities.
“I had never rafted before. I didn’t have any interest in the outdoor industry and I started working here because I needed a summer job,” Vargas said. “I slowly got introduced to this culture of the outdoor industry and that made me realize that maybe there is an opportunity somewhere else. That I don’t have to work for the Nike and Adidas’ of the world.”
During his final semester at U of I in 2017 the company approached Vargas about a new position that they were adding to the product team.
“It kind of lined up perfectly,” Vargas said. “I graduated and then the next week I started working here full time.”
Vargas wears many different hats in his role as product coordinator — everything from design to research and development to reviewing prototypes and arranging samples for the sales team.
“Not every day is the same,” Vargas said. “As much as I love the design part, I love that everything is kind of seasonal. Every day looks different and every part of my year looks different.”
The first project Vargas worked on was the redesign of the company’s river duffle bag — a project he never envisioned taking on.
“That was a challenge of its own because I had never designed a duffle bag before,” he said. “Right away I got thrown into the fire with something like that but it was good for me because it pushed me to do something outside of apparel.”
Although Vargas came into the apparel, textiles and design field with the idea of one day designing gear for athletes like himself, the culture that he has encountered in the outdoor industry has set him on a new path. He now enjoys paddleboarding and whitewater rafting. The outdoors have helped to fill the void left after being a competitive athlete for so many years.
“After working in the outdoor industry, I want to stay in the outdoor industry,” he said. “I thought I was going to do solely athletic gear, but now applying that to the outdoor industry is kind of similar. You still have that active motion. We sponsor athletes like professional kayakers. The people that are out there on whitewater and competing in these events, you still have to prepare them and provide them with the gear they need to perform at the highest level. In a sense, I’m still doing what I thought I would be doing.”
Article by Amy Calabretta, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
Published in November 2018