Other Resources

I started this project a long time ago with recurring flare-ups of interest. My friends, being the good friends they are, asked me who else is doing the same thing. After all, if I’m not doing anything that’s different from someone else, why not let them do a better job. I also believe that I improve only through good healthy competition. So, here are other sources that have similar ideas.

Downrange Gear makes a limited selection of (as best I can tell) extremely useful tactical gear widgets. It seems to me that someone used a whole lot of gear for a long time in the real world, then figured out what those missing little things are that turn good into awesome. Perhaps not the most advanced website on the Internet and sales seem to be calculatedly limited, but neither of those things detract from the importance of what’s on the site.

Mil-spec Monkey has an interesting collection of gear for sale. I have yet to figure out a pattern other than, “everything is cool,” which alone is probably more than a good enough pattern. This site is very first-person and informative, much like the site you’re reading right now.

 

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PALS and MOLLE

This is a cornerstone of building tactical gear. Everything seems to have this stuff on it.

Glossary

Let’s start by making sure we’re on the same page with the vocabulary:

  • PALS: Pouch Attachment Ladder System, a system for attaching modular equipment, like pouches, to load-bearing equipment, like packs.
  • MOLLE: Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment, a PALS-compatible system that’s a trademark of Natick Labs, often used interchangeably with PALS.

The, “L,” in PALS is, “ladder,” which means that the name for all the webbing attached to a pack or harness is called a ladder. I call it a grid often.

I also use the terms, “pouch,” and, “pack,” in a fairly generic sense. The pack is the thing that attaches to the body or whatever else is going to host the modular system and the pouch is the modular piece that attaches to it. Therefore, in these pages, a pack may not be a pack at all, and could be a harness, car seat cover, etc. Similarly, a pouch need not be a pouch and could be an admin panel, a patch panel or ring, among many other things.

Modern tactical gear is mostly made using Cordura as the primary fabric. See here for more discussion about that.

Most of the references to this system on this site refer to PALS instead of MOLLE. PALS is a generic system and MOLLE is a trademark. While the two are generally interchangeable, intellectual property requirements necessitate using words like, “MOLLE-compatible,” while PALS can be used freely. I am not an employee or otherwise representative of Natick Labs, which holds the trademark on MOLLE, and I mean no express or implied connection to the trademark. The term, “PALS,” is also shorter!

Dimensions & Operation

The basic layout is most easily covered in this post. It’s a pretty simple deal: 1-inch webbing, spaced with 1 inch between and tacked every 1-1/2 inches. This is all attached to something. As long as the dimensions are correct, it doesn’t strictly need to be made out of webbing. Raven System is an example of the same thing in laser-cut fabric; if it holds the stuff, it should work.

There are two main modes for attaching pouches to packs. The traditional method, which seems to be the less common and derived from the ALICE system, uses clips, usually plastic, to join the two. The more common method uses webbing straps attached to the pouch. Both use the same concept. The webbing on the pack and pouch are the warp and the clip or strap are the woof and the pouch is woven with the pack at the desired location on the ladder or grid. Mil-spec Monkey has an excellent page on connection styles.

This raises some immediate observations:

  • The minimum number of straps or clips for a secure hold is two. This is fungible, depending on the circumstance. If the gear is small enough and designed to hold something light enough, it’s possible to secure it with only one. Also, if the pouch may shift because it is narrow, or won’t shift because it’s flat enough and small enough, one may work.
  • For two straps or clips, at 1-1/2″ per ladder attachment, a pouch must be just over 3″ wide. Smaller special-purpose pouches may diverge from this rule.
  • In order to achieve a secure hold, the pouch must attach to 2 rows of pack grid and donate 1 row to the weave. Once again, some smaller and special-purpose pouches or attachments may break this rule.
  • The minimum height of a pouch is just under 5″. This is 2″ for the pack-donated grid, 1″ for the pouch-donated grid, and about 2″ for attachment. This is the general case and there are exceptions.
  • A basic pouch is therefore 3″ x 5″ at a minimum. Anything smaller requires either some creativity in attachment or a less-secure hold. Neither of these options are necessarily bad, depending on the purpose of the pouch and the expected conditions for use of the system.
  • Traditionally, pouches that have straps use 5/8″, “heavy duty,” snaps to attach the straps to the bottom of the pouch.

Once again, to set up a standard, let’s assume that a pouch is 3″ x 5″ and has two straps with snaps, and everything is made of webbing attached to fabric. This will be the starting point for discussion.

Variations

With an established normal, we can now discuss variations. Most of these variations are not mutually exclusive. That is, a pouch or pack may exhibit more than one variation. These variations are also in no particular order but are numbered for reference.

  1. The entire ladder, on either side — pouch or pack — may be made of fabric with holes cut to allow attachment of straps or clips. Webbing may be eliminated in this way. This is more common on packs than pouches. It also allows some other benefits.
  2. A pouch may not have straps. This would necessitate using clips. This is more common with smaller pouches where the added space required for attaching straps — this is about 2″ — is a significant portion of what would otherwise be the entire vertical dimension of the piece.
  3. The ladder may be made of double-density webbing. That is, instead of spaces between webbing, another row of webbing may be installed. This adds more options as to the specific placement (vertically) of the item on its counter. This is somewhat common on packs, where employing this technique allows pouches to be installed in a finer-grained configuration.
  4. The straps on a pouch may not use 5/8″ metal snaps. Velcro is a common alternative but there are others.
  5. A pouch may have more than 2 straps. Very wide pouches may have more straps across and very tall pouches may have more straps down. This is fairly common on pouches that hold hydration bladders (think Camelback), which tend to be tall and use 2 sets of straps vertically.
  6. There may be straps on a pack instead of a pouch. This is less common but it’s been done.
  7. A pack may be structurally little more than the strap itself. This is fairly common in attachments with a 1″ Velcro patch panel on top and a D-ring at the bottom, with just some webbing holding everything together. Examples of this variation abound.
  8. The support mechanism may use non-standard dimensions.

Discussion of Variations

I will briefly add more notes to some of these variations. The nature of variation is that it is limited only by the creativity of its creator. Therefore, I’m likely to post more about this in the future. In this discussion, you may find it helpful to reference the list of variations above, with, “V2,” meaning the second item on the list, for example.

First, V7 is a very open category. A carabiner isn’t technically a pouch but if you’ve got one and you want to clip something to your PALS gear, simply slipping it through some available spaces gives you a de facto pouch. There’s nothing stopping you from using rope, a pencil, a toothbrush, or whatever else you have in your hand, to replace a clip or strap. Night vision optics use infrared light and many materials have specific reflectivity, desirable or undesirable, to infrared light. If you’re trying to be invisible in the dark to someone with NVGs, a plastic carabiner may be a fantastic attachment option. If your MOLLE gear breaks down because a bullet clipped it, a piece of scrap you pick up off the ground may be a quick solution to getting yourself back in the game.

V1 has some similar properties. The webbing used for a normal PALS ladder may be reflective of infrared light, while there are fabrics that have been developed with the same strength properties as Cordura, that aren’t reflective of infrared. Using a V1 system with this sort of fabric may make a wearer more invisible to someone using NVGs. A single piece of fabric with the correct properties may also be significantly lighter with comparable strength than what would otherwise be a fairly large quantity of webbing. V1 can therefore reduce the weight of an overall system.

V1, V8 and V4 are useful for less tactical gear that uses a PALS concept. Tactical gear usually comes in a narrow range of colors, those that are more useful in tactical situations: dull greens and browns, black and some camouflage patterns like MARPAT and woodland. V1 allows creation of a PALS grid in non-standard colors. For uses that aren’t tactical but still use the concept of modularly attached gear, V1 may provide more desirable color choices, V8 may allow smaller or different gear configurations, and V4 may provide necessary support without the need for extra hardware.

Conceptually, a boonie hat with foliage loops on the crown is similar to V8. In this case, the hat is the pack. The loops in the hat have been used for more than just foliage. Similarly, a PALS grid could be used for more than just pouches. See the discussion on V7.

V8 brings up the concept of specifications and standards. If it’s to be gear to specification, V8 isn’t an option and there are likely many more things to worry about.

Notes on Successful Construction

This is, once again, a broad subject that’s likely to have a great deal of additional material in various posts. Nevertheless, here are some general notes:

  • When designing a pack, sticking either to the norm or using V3 is your best bet.
  • When designing a pouch, design the straps and the ladder on the pouch to best meet attachment needs. The attachment on a 4″ x 5″ pouch is probably best a single row of webbing with a tack in the middle and two straps as close to the edges as practical.
  • The space between two straps needs to be one of the following: less than 1/2″, 1-1/2″ to 2″, 3″ to 3-1/2″, 4-1/2″ to 5″, etc. The correspond to straps in adjacent verticals, spaced by 1 vertical, spaced by 2 verticals, etc. There is a, “no-fit zone,” where straps fall within the tacks on the ladder and will not attach easily. Multiply 1-1/2″ by the number of verticals between the straps (zero or more), then add 1/2″ of tolerance.
  • Most commercial gear seems to use 4 rows tall as the longest space for a single strap.
  • The widest human-worn pack ladder I’ve seen is 7 spaces wide. If I was designing a pouch this wide, I’d likely use 3 straps across to secure it. A pouch that has little structure of it’s own — no stabilizer — should probably not extend further than 2 empty spaces between straps. Even with structure, 3 empty spaces is probably a good limit, although allowing an extra space at either edge is acceptable for some structured packs.
  • Allow slack in the straps for weaving. How much? As a rough calculation, multiply the thickness of the webbing used — generally about 1mm to 3mm — by the number of pack-donated rows that the pouch will attach to. 1mm is close to 1/16″, so for a 7″-tall pouch with 2mm-thick webbing, add 3/8″ of length in the straps. There is 6″ of useful ladder weave in a 7″ space, or 3 pack-donated and 3 pouch-donated rows. 3 x 2mm is about 6/16″, or 3/8″.
  • My experience is that the tolerance on either side of the ladder (pouch or pack) is remarkably loose. Soft materials and the fact that everything is woven together gives about a 1/8″ tolerance per element. If a particular ladder row is off by 1/16″, the piece should still function.
  • Snaps are my least favorite method of attaching straps to a piece. I make a lot of gear with a V4 variation. Some of the newer heavy-duty offerings from Velcro seem to hold much better than snaps anyway. I’ve had a large number of snaps break off in various ways and figuring out exactly what kind of stabilizer to attach is complicated. Even cheap hook & loop (Velcro knock-off) requires no stabilizer and comes in any color under the sun.
  • Make sure webbing is completely and strongly tacked to the ladder backing. I usually use a 1mm/1mm zig-zag stitch for attaching webbing. V3 makes stitching much easier: simply start at the bottom and stitch through to the top. Consider extra stitching at the edge seams.
  • My most successful pieces use a heavy base — usually Cordura but sometimes duck — for the attachments with a lining of some sort. The lining supports the fabric and separates the rest of the piece from the construction stitching, which is often unseemly but also delicate. With a lining, there’s a much lower chance of losing part of the PALS construction stitching.

Conclusion

While this is by no means a complete resource for everything PALS, it should provide a good starting point for someone experienced in the sewing arts to design a pattern that will work.

 

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Marking fabric, on the cheap

TL;DR: don’t use ordinary colored pencils in place of tailor’s chalk pencils, but children’s washable markers work really well!

When I started sewing a lot, I dug up some tailor’s chalk pencils from the bottom of my sewing bag. Until then, it had just been for the random alteration and I’d used pins to mark everything. It took me a couple of weeks of regular project work to grind the four that I found into little nubbins.

They worked generally well. Aside from the fact that the lead (chalk, I guess) inside broke somewhat regularly, they marked well and I never had a problem removing marks from fabric. Getting to the shorter end of the last one, I went online to buy more.

That didn’t work out well. Even with a little searching at all the places where I usually buy discount supplies, the cheapest one I could find was well over a dollar. Even at my local retailers, everything rang in over a dollar with coupons and sales. I started to look for other solutions, things that would work even better.

My first stop was water-soluble markers. The sewin g varieties are supposed to be pretty good, although I had read that sometimes they don’t come off perfectly if you press over them. I press a lot and I don’t want to have that problem. Even without that, those were even more expensive: the cheapest I could find was over $3 retail. I know markers aren’t very durable with felt tips and I don’t expect that these would last very long.

So I looked somewhere else. Going by association, the tailor’s pencils looked just like regular colored pencils. The first package I bought was at the dollar store, brand name, Crayola, 10 in a package for exactly one dollar (plus tax). I didn’t even bother testing them, I just went ahead and used them. The only project I was working on at the time was a muslin pattern.

Somewhere in here I was at Wal-Mart for another inevitable fabric-buying bender (the prices are so low!) and I decided to take a peek at the school supplies aisle. My goal was to see if I could get colored pencils for the same price at the dollar store — I could — but I discovered something even more interesting: children’s washable markers. I remember using these as a kid, I guess my mother didn’t want me getting real marker all over my clothing. This struck me as a coincidence, that they’re specifically designed to wash out of clothing and other things that children are likely to draw on. Best of all, they’re a dollar for a pack of 10.

The Field Test

Yup, I’m still an engineer. Check. Here I was with all these pencils and now some washable markers, questioning whether or not these were adequate replacements for the real (expensive) deal. How hard could this be to test? Surely, not much. I set about to design the test.

First, I do a lot of work both on cotton fabrics and on synthetics. I wasn’t in the mood to be too precise, so I selected a large swatch of some nameless stretchy synthetic I had a lot of and a decent swatch of my pattern muslin. I figured those would be the things I was most likely to make into patterns anyway. I did need layers — part of the benefit of fabric markers is the ability to bleed a mark through a single layer or multiple layers to mark a single spot — and I was going to have to wash this whole deal. Washing muslin means the edges definitely need to be finished, otherwise the stuff shreds in the dryer.

After a little bit of hemming, I had these:

stretchy synthetic

white muslin

This didn’t take long. The synthetic would have been so much better if I’d attached some stabilizer to it but this was just a test. That didn’t really need finishing either, which was good because I found out that I’m still not very good at sewing a single layer of that stuff without stabilizer. The synthetic is 3 layers thick and the muslin is 4 layers thick. I added a single seam down the long end of each of the test platforms, just a bare stitch (the serger stitch imitation that my machine does) on the synthetic and a straight foldover hem with a turnover ribbon finish on the muslin.

Here’s some more detail:

four finished layers

three layers with a sad attempt to finish the edges of the center

Now the fun part: scribble all over them! Actually, this is not fun for me, I’m fairly obsessive and there’s nothing that tickles my fancy better than fresh, clean, pressed fabric. In white, no less. But that wouldn’t really test anything.

I didn’t wash anything before I started. I figured that there may be something in some of the detergent I use that helps to prevent stains. I made sure to hold the markers on the fabric good and long in at least some of the scribbles, ensuring I had solid, dark marks through all the layers. I used a few different colors, thinking that there may be some variability in the permanence of different colors. I tried both the colored pencils and the markers. Then I decided to put a small mark from the tailor’s chalk pencil as well, as a control. Good experiments need control. Finally, before washing, I (dry) pressed everything good and hot, as hot as I dared with the fabric — that’s maximum temperature for the muslin and a notch and a half lower for the synthetic — for a good long time, 20 seconds with steady pressure.

What I ended up with looked like some awful abstract art:

the test pattern

Now into the wash. It was delicates day, which means cold wash with Oxy-Clean on a handwash cycle, followed by low heat in the dryer until everything’s dry. Luckily, I had plenty of other work that day so I didn’t sit by the machine waiting for the cycle to complete.

Results

First and foremost: the markers didn’t even wait to start to fade. The marks started getting duller as I was pressing them. I can’t say that they were so light that I’d worry, but they weren’t as vivid or strong. They faded more on the synthetic than the cotton, making me glad that I’d done a test with both fabrics.

Next, the colored pencils. This was the biggest disappointment. Those marks didn’t really wash off at all. I’d marked every layer of both fabrics and the marks looked remarkably similar pre-wash and post-wash. Conclusion: don’t use ordinary colored pencils in place of tailor’s chalk pencils.

Then came the coup: the washable markers were exactly what they were billed to be, completely washable. No color, no bleed and no stain survived the wash. Even the top layer, that had gotten the heaviest application of marker (in order to get it to bleed to the lower layers), washed out completely. If I’d not had pictures of the marker scribbles, I wouldn’t have ever known they’d existed. Conclusion: children’s washable markers make fantastic fabric marking devices.

Of most interest, however, was the tailor’s chalk marks. They dulled significantly through the wash, but they didn’t come out completely. I would imagine that successive washes may remove more, but I was expecting them to wash out completely. Conclusion: be careful with tailor’s chalk pencils, they don’t wash out completely on the first wash.

For those who require photographic evidence:

post-wash results

And so there you have it. A 10-cent washable marker seems to be the best fabric marking device. They come in wide or fine point and plenty of colors. The only significant problem I can see here is that they don’t come in white, so I’m going to have to resort back to the conventional tailor’s chalk pencils when I do projects with black fabric.

 

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