Tried and True

At the L.L.Bean product testing lab, goods are pushed to the extreme

A Bean boot half-submerged in a bucket of water is starting to freeze. Nearby, woven fabric is being stretched, torn, and stained. Buckles are snapping, and nylon straps are straining under immense pressure. This is a normal day at the L.L.Bean product testing lab, senior manager Patrick Welch tells me, where fabrics, materials, and goods are tested to ensure that every item is of the highest quality, and to ascertain how new products will function in their intended environments.

About 75 percent of the lab’s work is focused on developing new products and materials. Four technicians test roughly 12 samples at a time. The tests vary in duration and by product. A single item could be subject to 15 different tests, depending on its end use. For example, a down jacket’s ability to retain heat is tested by infrared imaging, and its wicking properties are also checked to determine how it reacts to moisture. Additionally, a specialized tool will test for heavy metals and restricted substances—“things we don’t want in our products,” says Welch.

The lab also does destructive testing. Bean boots are frozen into blocks of ice to check for leaks and cracks. Backpack shoulder straps are tested to hold 500 to 600 pounds before the stitching or another part of the strap starts to give out. “Nobody is going to be carrying that kind of weight on their back,” says Welch. “But it shows how extreme the testing is: we go to find out at what point it will break and fail.”

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