Demand surged for her six-inch Kula Cloth reusable $20 pee wipes for women when TP got scarce.
Twenty bucks for a piece of fabric shaped like a pot holder?
What’s up with that?
“It made people look at how they use toilet paper, and how much they used,” Allison said. “A lot of people switched to using Kulas at home.”
The coronavirus outbreak was the break Allison needed for Kula Cloth. Sales increased from about 375 cloths in March 2019 to over 2,000 in March 2020 — and continue to climb.
REI started selling her product at stores nationwide in October and soon ordered a second batch.
Kula Cloth might just be the inspiration you need to get out of your comfort zone.
There are other “pee cloths” on the market.
“I don’t own the idea,” Allison said.
She put a brand to it, with trendy designs to flaunt them, as well as marketing such as “Ask me about my pee cloth” stickers.
Kula Cloths look pretty, not toilety. The bonded fabric is specially made. The inside is soft, absorbent and antimicrobial. The outer printed side is waterproof with a reflective stripe for those middle of the night trips to the bushes.
It folds in half and snaps onto a backpack as a decoration and a declaration.
The word Kula means community in Sanskrit.
Seeing another person with a Kula “is an instant connection,” Allison said.
It opens conversations about peeing on the trail, which of course to guys isn’t a big deal. The issue of toilet tissue can be an obstacle to those who squat to pee. It’s as much psychological as physical.
Kula Cloth made the Washington Trails Association’s list of favorite gear in 2018: “It takes the pee cloth to a whole new level,” the story says. “It’s a particularly great product for anyone who wanted to try a pee rag, but felt a bit squeamish about the idea.”
Lisa Holmes, an Oregon hiking book author, never ventures out without a Kula snapped on her pack.
“The design is one of the outstanding features,” Holmes said. “It is easy to use.”
A reviewer on outdoor site garagegrowngear.com wrote: “I actually carry it with me a lot, as I do a lot of driving for work and would rather pee in the woods than a gas station bathroom.”
Another put it this way: “TP shortage due to Covid-19 pandemic necessitated rationing my last two rolls. Never did I imagine that my outdoorsy pee cloth would get me thru these difficult times..”
Allison moved in 2004 from the East Coast to be a park ranger at Twanoh State Park on Hood Canal.
She and her husband, Aaron, a BNSF trainmaster, have climbed all five of Washington’s volcanoes. On some wilderness treks he sometimes brings his ukulele and she her violin. Other times Allison and a friend who plays keyboard hike to the top of mountains with instruments in the middle of the night and change into dresses to perform sunrise concerts.
Allison started teaching backpacking classes about 10 years ago with Washington Outdoor Women.
“I’d go out into these beautiful alpine areas, and then invariably you’d come around a tree and then there’s a whole bunch of dumped toilet paper,” she said.
She researched “leave no trace” options for toilet paper and made what she calls an “ugly little pee cloth.”
“I bought a blue scrap of fabric and a piece of microfiber and I attached it to my backpack. I loved it,” Allison said. “Instead of having to pack in and out gobs of clean toilet paper and then dirty paper, it was so freeing and so easy to use.”
She wondered why it wasn’t a standard piece of gear for women but doubted her ability to make it one.
“I was a railroad cop at that point. I had no idea how to sew,” she said. “I thought, ‘I don’t have enough money, it’s going to fail, people are going to think I’m an idiot.’ I talked myself out of it.”
What she calls “a spiritual awakening via pee cloth” stems from a spin-out in 2017 while returning from a Stevens Pass snowshoe trip.
“I hit some black ice and spun out across the highway into the path of a semi-truck. In that moment, this part of my brain recognized that all this stuff I had wanted to do in my life, I was paralyzing myself by fear,” she said.
“If I experience zero fear in the face of my own mortality, is it possible all this stuff I am afraid of in my life I am just making up in my head? The things that you tell yourself are only that way because you’re telling them to yourself. I wasn’t afraid anymore.”
She chased her dream, plugging away one square at a time.
“Instead of arguing for why I couldn’t do it, I learned how to sew a straight line,” she said. “I’d buy scraps of fabric and sit for hours and hours sewing squares.”
Friends and female backpackers tested prototypes. Allison applied for the “Shark Tank” TV show in 2019 but wasn’t chosen. She forged ahead, turning to those more adept behind the wheel of a sewing machine.
“I knew I didn’t have the skill or machinery to do this on any scale,” she said.
She contracts with a Pennsylvania company to produce the stock prints, such as bee, galaxy and the s’more patterns. A Colorado studio designs the artist series and specialty designs.
Orders are processed by a Texas fulfillment company. Cloths have been shipped to places such as Slovakia, England and New Zealand. A dog sled company in Alaska recently ordered custom prints.
She does the customer service and oversees projects from her Arlington home.
Allison said a year ago her fabric supplier said she needed to order 500 yards minimum at a time. “When your product is 6-by-6 inches, 500 yards makes tens of thousands of Kulas and it’s not an inexpensive fabric,” she said.
But she took the plunge.
It turned out to be best thing that happened, she said, because fabric supplies were cut off the first six months of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“As a joke a year or two ago I went into REI with a Kula and hung it on the shelf and I took a picture of it,” Allison said. “I never pitched it to them. They reached out to me. It has grown from me making these horribly ugly things that didn’t look like squares to weeks ago, I shipped out my first order to REI. Things have a strange way of working out.”