Making a Better Women's Pant: Red Ants Pants

Montana Living

Rugged and durable women's clothing from a Montana woman

Shooting from the hip has a whole new meaning for Sarah Calhoun, founder of the Montana-based clothing company Red Ants Pants.

Calhoun has taken out the starch, the binding front waistband, the panty-baring-oversized-backside and the dragging crotch to put the girl into the women's work pant. Thwarted not only by ill-fitting pants but also by existing manufacturer's decision to turn a blind eye towards this growing working women's niche, Calhoun did the only thing possible - she started Red Ants Pants, a manufacturer of work pants based in White Sulphur Springs.

Sarah Calhoun red ants pants


Women who wear Red Ants Pants vary from union welders and carpenters to backyard gardeners. Calhoun's heavy-duty pants come in two basic cuts - straight and curvy - and over in 70 sizes. Her design features include a gusseted crotch - meaning you won't tear the center out climbing over the fence or jumping across a puddle. She has also contoured the waistband so the front sits below the belly and the back of the pants fit comfortable against yours.

Sarah Calhoun red ants pants woman tractor


These chocolate brown pants are made of 12-ounce cotton canvas with reinforced front leg panels and seats. Though born in New Brunswick, Canada, Calhoun grew up on a llama farm in Cornwall, Conn.
Calhoun's love for the outdoors led her to a degree is in environmental sciences. She spent several years working with Outward Bound as an instructor, she worked on trail crews and in various manual labor jobs including log peeling, grooming ski trails and sewing backpacks. She had little business background before starting Red Ants Pants, and most of her experience has been in the field, product testing. Her first notion to start a clothing company came one evening at Bozeman's Leaf and Bean coffee shop.

She was reading a book about starting a small business, Calhoun says, when a man that she was sharing a table with happened to notice the book she was reading. They struck up a conversation., and that man happened to be Richard Siberell, a 20-year veteran of clothing manufacturer Patagonia. Siberell gave Calhoun an earful of business advice and some industry contacts. He was my voice of experience and is a fantastic mentor," Calhoun says."

He gave me that nudge I needed to jump in head first." Just two years later Calhoun opened the doors of Red Ants Pants in White Sulphur Springs, a small town of about 1,000 people south of Great Falls.

With a lot of hard work you should get there," Calhoun says. "And about those mistakes you'll make ... just don't forget to learn from them."

At first glance, White Sulphur Springs would seem to  be a difficult place to start a line of clothing. But the Red Ants Pants business model is to sell directly to the consumer. Though most of her sales are over the Internet and via phone, a few of her customers actually make it into her brick store in downtown White Sulphur Springs. "I like having that connection to my customers," says Calhoun. Over the years the building has housed a saddle shop, cafe, laundry, post office and today it is the hub for this successful Montana start-up. Most of Red Ants Pants' marketing has been word of mouth.

Fortunately for Calhoun, once one of her customers puts on her pants they are her best marketing tool.

"People recognize the authenticity of the company, and a made-in-the-U.S.A. product is hard to come by any more," says Calhoun.

Calhoun and Red Ants Pants have a deep bench of mentoring professionals aiding in her endeavor. This community includes Al Dibert from the Montana Manufacturing Extension Center, which is a statewide manufacturing outreach and assistance center that assists manufacturers. The extension center was instrumental in helping Calhoun with her pricing model, while her mentors aided her in finding a factory in Seattle where the Red Ants Pants are actually made. "It was difficult to find someone in the U.S. that would risk working with a small company" says Calhoun. Of all the hurdles she faced, she said finding a manufacturer was one of the hardest.
The enthusiasm that her products have received shows she has found a market niche."It just didn't make any sense to me that companies in this market couldn't come up with a well-designed product," Calhoun says. It was out of necessity that I started this company.

And it is her passion for making a pair of work pants that actually fit a women's body that keeps this company's products flying off the shelf. It hasn't been all easy. Yet she had the self confidence to move her business forward. With a lot of hard work you should get there," Calhoun says. "And about those mistakes you'll make ... just don't forget to learn from them."

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