The aim of our company is to produce maximally functional products which can stand in extreme conditions of world´s highest peaks and at the same time adapt to the needs of customers. Our products are custom made to the conditions and purpose for which it will be used.


« back on news23.01.2020

Down jackets and sleeping bags by Sir Joseph® are celebrating their 45th anniversary.

What is the story of the first down equipment by Joska Rakoncaj?

Josef Rakoncaj, the founder of the family company Sir Joseph®, has worked his way up to eight thousanders from the rocks of the Bohemian Paradise and has completed countless climbs or first ascents of mountains and rocks all over the world. He became the first man in the world to reach the summit of K2, the World's Most Feared 8,000 Mountain, twice without oxygen (in 1983 and 1985).

Czechoslovakia 45 years ago (in the 1970ties). The time when Josef Rakoncaj started his Alpine and later Himalayan odyssey. It was practically impossible to get quality sleeping bags or clothes that would protect climbers from extreme conditions and at the same time allow for free mobility on difficult climbing ascents. That is why Josef Rakoncaj started making his equipment literally by his own hands. The first pieces just for himself. However, similar equipment was soon required by his fellows and friends. 1974 he started unofficially selling self-made down jackets and sleeping bags. Taking advantage of his extensive experience from expeditions, he was modifying cuts, developing practical details to facilitate climbing in demanding terrains, and seeking new functional and lightweight materials.

It has been 45 years from the first sold down pieces and Joska (familiar nickname of Josef Rakoncaj) speaks about the very beginning of his production and founding the company and establishing Sir Joseph brand®.


What clothes did you use to wear for climbing and how about sleeping in the mountains before you made your own first equipment?

For winter ascents in the Tatras but also for the north face of Matterhorn in 1972, we were wearing standard nylon windshells over a bonekan jacket. Bonekan was a kind of predecessor of today's fleece. There was practically no other insulation or protection from snow and water, no membranes, nor today's functional underwear. Flannel, bonekan and windshells which had to be enough for us. My sleeping bag was only half a kilo, a kind of Japanese synthetics. A man could survive one bivouac, but we wanted better insulation. At that time, a "good" sleeping bag filled with synthetics weigh some 2.5 kg. I have one old piece at home, but it is too big to fit into my backpack, so it was impossible to climb with this one on my back.

Where could one get or buy such equipment?

Anywhere. Whoever if they went abroad, bought for the others and brought back what they got ... perhaps sleeping mats. Unfortunately, good things from abroad were expensive, and climbers had no choice but to make their own equipment and help each other. We made what we could ourselves. The only problem was to get the right material. In order to have good insulation in high mountains, to be able to carry it on back and still be able to move, it was necessary to start making down clothes and sleeping bags. Feather or down is still unbeatable insulating material in terms of insulation, weight and packability.

What did your first equipment look like and what was it made of?

First, I made a down jacket and then a sleeping bag. I bought the outer material at Javoz textile company in Jablonec at that time, it was Japanese material. It was used for windshells and other things. It was such a strange pink colour, but most important was, it was downproof and didn´t let down get through. I put a cotton lining in my jackets to make them more breathable. For the inner construction of the sleeping bags I discovered and first used a thin perforated Norin, traditionally used for curtains, to save as much weight as possible. The same principle is used today. I put about 400 grams of feather into the first jacket and a kilo in my sleeping bag. It was at that time just perfect for harsher winter conditions, the Tatras and the Alps. Then I made sleeping bags with 1100 grams or more for the Himalayas. It was again the question how much warmth a man requires and how many kilos wants to carry on back.

And where did you get the down? From your Grandma?

No, my Granny would never let her duvet into the Himalayas:) I was checking ads and replying. For example, because of only two kilos of down I drove to Prague (which is about 100 km) to buy the down. However, the quality of down varied, so it had to be sorted before use. I developed and made a kind of "blower". It consisted of 4 chambers, and with the help of a vacuum cleaner and an electric motor all the down was blown through. The principle was quite easy, a lighter feather would fly further into the far chamber. This way I had a kilo of quality down in 8 hours. The quality down went into jackets and sleeping bags and I used to take the waste feather to fertilize the forest in the rocks in Klokočí (the Czech Paradise) :).

When did you start selling and providing equipment to the Himalayan expeditions?

The first jackets and sleeping bags were sold in 1974 and later, and then the equipment for the first expeditions, that all was undeclared work and illegal. I worked as a developer at Dioptra Turnov and all forms of a private business were prohibited during the former regime in Czechoslovakia. After my working hours, I was inventing and sewing at home in the kitchen using a portable sewing machine Veritas (for Kčs 3 ,000.-). The first expedition I equipped was Kalanka expedition in 1977 (the Himalayas). It was about twenty jackets and twenty sleeping bags. We had to pay the expedition costs ourselves, about 80 thousand (the average salary at that time was about 35 thousand per year). The others did high-altitude jobs and other moonlighting to supplement their income. I was supplying the equipment instead of paying. For the 1981 Nanda Devi (the Himalayas) expedition it was about ten jackets and ten sleeping bags.

Making twenty sets of jackets and sleeping bags for expedition is hard job moreover after work, in the evening. Sort out some 30 kg of feather, multiplied 8 hours, and get the necessary material…

Well, there was even more to do. I made up to 80 pieces of equipment a year. Before the expeditions, I usually went on sewing to 1 a.m. It took 7 hours to cut and sew up one down jacket, then I was blowing the feather and then another hour spent by filling the jacket with down and finishing it. Similar applied for sleeping bags, but gradually I managed the whole process in 3 hours to produce a sleeping bag.

In addition, to get the feather and all the necessary material, zippers and …

The first sleeping bags were made without a zipper. Even today, for mountain rescue units in Europe, we sometimes make a similar model of a shorter sleeping bag which features neither a zipper nor a hood. We call it "Elephant Leg". They get into wearing a down jacket and can sleep. When I ran out of the first material from the Japanese, I went to Kolora Semily. We cooperated to develop and produce a brand-new material according to my needs. The most important thing was it was downproof and of course it´s weight. At that time, we developed a reliable outer fabric with 52 grams per square meter. Today our sleeping bags are made from materials of 50 to 28 grams per square meter. These have been produced by the Japanese for 20 years according to our specifications.

The development of material, the production (hand-made in the evenings :)), testing your products yourself in the Himalayas - these were a piece of cake for you. I assume that even the demand and advertising were no problem.

Of course, no advertising could be done, no one could say in public they had a jacket by and from me, I had to suppress this. For a long time, however, it could not continue as undeclared work, and in 1980 I finally obtained a so-called work permit from the National Committee. Every year I reported my earnings and they just taxed me. Since 1990 (immediately after the Velvet revolution in Czechoslovakia) I have worked as a sole trader and later as Sir Joseph company.

How did the name of the brand Sir Joseph® originated? What were the first jackets and sleeping bags called?

I have been using the Sir Joseph® brand since 1977. It comes from Kalanka (6931 m, Garhwal Himalayas). The jackets and sleeping bags didn´t have any names. People just realized they needed a down sleeping bag or a jacket for either winter or truly winter conditions, and I made them. At that time, there was no comfort/limit temperature rating. Sleeping bags or jackets are as warm as much down is inside. It has always been true, even today. But today we have it measured.

How did your collection continue to improve and expand?

I made new things according to my own needs. Such as down suits or thermal insulated gaiters. Either I developed myself, or learned by watching on expeditions with the Italians, French and so on. In 1981, I think, I had down pants and a sweater-like jacket with a short zipper borrowed from Jarýk Stejskal (also a member of Czechoslovakian national climbing team). These were by the British. I took these as an inspiration and made the pieces accordingly. To some of the first models of sleeping bags I tried to add the silver thermal foil under the outer fabric to reflect the heat inside, but it didn't last long, the seams didn't have enough flexibility. Then I tested it myself on expeditions, then step by step improved and started selling. I had my first imported material in, let´s say, 1992, material with coating by Kolon from Korea. I used it to bivouac sacks and windshells.

How long did you manage to sew everything by yourself and when did you start employing other seamstresses?

Until 1989, I made everything myself but immediately after the revolution (1989) I started to be self -employed. It was my dream not to hurry from one work to another, no to be sewing late into night, but to be able to concentrate fully to production. One-by-one I started headhunting seamstresses from Jablonec Javoz, two at first and then others. I can say I had the best seamstresses in the country.

You still have :) Immediately after the revolution, you hired seamstresses to set up Sir Joseph®?

I used the seamstresses, but they first used to sew at home. I prepared the material and cut the pieces in my workshop and took them to sew home. Later I hired 3 rooms for cutting and storing. We were growing slowly. I founded the first company with Agostino da Polenza, I also climbed K2 for the first time with him in 1983. The company was named OROS, named after the Greek peninsula and the mountain. I took care of the production and he exported the products to Italy… and what did it bring me? Zilch :). We were working together like this for two years. Then I decided to be self-employed again. In 2004 I restarted the company and renamed for Sir Joseph®. We have been at the current place in Turnov, the Czech Republic, for almost 20 years.

Thanks for a really interesting chat and a nice piece of history. 45 years of development and production, a lot of things have been tested and the products have been brought to the present. What has changed the most?

We could go on talking for another hour :). In general, things and materials are getting lighter and lighter, and literally with every new collection we improve the cuts and details. At the beginning, I was sewing the same pink sleeping bags and jackets for two years, all of the same material I was able to buy and people didn't mind because there was no competition. Today we make twenty models of sleeping bags and ten models of down jackets, all come in minimum of three colours so that everyone can choose… and it is still not enough :). What remains is a small family business, and although we have high tech machines for some processes, most of them are still handmade, just like 45 years ago.


More photos from our history at our Facebook page here: