Outdoor Fabric Technologies 101 – The Idiot’s Guide
Outdoor fabrics are something most people take for granted. Most of you probably just walk into a shop or type into the Heinnie search bar and look for ‘waterproof jackets’ or ‘windproof coats’. There isn’t a whole lot wrong with that, but what is a waterproof coat really? What is it made of? How is it waterproof? There are loads of more detailed questions you can ask, which will give you a better understanding of exactly what you are buying, the quality of the clothing and what sort of use you can expect from it.
In this post we will look at two main areas: The types of outdoor fabrics, such as hardshell, softshell and Insulators. We will then also look at Brands and Technologies which you’ll see included in the descriptions of your fabrics. These technologies are what really makes the difference between quality fabrics cheaper fabrics.
Enough intro, let’s go . . .
Hardshell fabrics are generally made up of a laminate of fabrics that form a waterproof outer layer. These tend to make bigger coats and jacket, and generally aren’t ideal for weather where it may or may not rain. Many modern laminates will allow vapour to escape through pores which are big enough to allow moisture through, but small enough to prevent water droplets from penetrating through. Often you’ll see this referred to as the breathability of the clothing.
One of the most common terms you will hear around waterproofing is Gore-Tex. This is also the market leader in terms of waterproof fabrics. We have written a post that really takes an in-depth look into Gore-Tex, so instead of writing the same thing here to learn more about Gore-Tex, follow this link. There are a number of Gore-Tex fabrics out there which we explain in our other post, each are different, so it’s important to know which you need.
However, Gore-Tex isn’t the other player in the waterproof market. eVent is one of these other brands you should recognise. Like Gore-Tex, eVent uses an ePTFE membrane structure, however, that’s where the similarities end. The pores eVent use are slightly bigger than Gore-Tex which means for generally a more breathable membrane, however, they do not treat their membrane with an oleophobic coating which means skin oils can clog up the pores and reduce it’s effectiveness. This means that regular cleaning will be required in order for the fabric to maintain its effectiveness.
Polartec Neoshell is the final big player in this section. It again is made up of an ePTFE membrane, but is more permeable to air than Gore-Tex or eVent. This means that breathability is increased, but it also means that the material is less windproof. Air can move much each through the layers, either keeping you cool or making you cold depending on the conditions.
Although these are the big players. They are in no way the only ones. This is where the confusion happens. Many brands and companies have their own version of these membranes such as The North Face HyVent, Deer-Tex Membrane and
Hardshell fabrics great because of its waterproof nature, but do not expect every hardshell to be the same. As we’ve briefly covered, some have advantages and disadvantages over other types of ePTFE so do your research first.
Softshell is a much more difficult category to define. Generally though fabrics that fall into this category are lightly insulating with a wind/water resistant outer layer. This can includes things like a water resistant fleece or a thin nylon over-shell. Many people choose to wear these as a more general purpose fabric for non-extreme weather, and then if heavy rain were to fall a hard-shell could be worn over the top. Softshells are versatile but generally a ‘jack-of-all trades’ and not a specialist at any particular task. One final key thing to note is that breathability is generally much better in softshells than hardshells due to the materials and layering.
Nikwax Analogy is one of these which in the main is waterproof, however, due to not having taped seams it cannot be fully waterproof. The technology behind this is relatively simple and that’s what makes it so effective. The basics of it are that there are two layers, a pump liner which mimics animal fur, which draws moisture put to the micro-fibre outer, where it can be evaporated. In addition, the gap between these layers does also provide a small measure of insulation, which is always helpful.
Polartec Power Shield. A similar construction to the Nikwax. The main difference is that the outermost layer has been treated with a DWR coating. This helps remove water and snow from the surface which in turn keeps you dryer for longer.
Once again there are many types of softshell, far too many in fact for us to look at in any depth in a single post. Also the two version of softshell we have mentioned although are some of the most popular, there are lots of others.
If you want something that will keep you warm. We aren’t looking at base layers here. Instead we are looking at the insulating types of outer clothing you can wear. In particular down and synthetic versions.
Down is a type of duck feather. It expensive, but its awesome. It’s really lightweight for are warm. If looked after it’s also incredibly durable. If it isn’t looked after and is constantly wet or damp you will find that it isn’t very effective at all. In order to properly look after it, you should look at treating it with some sort of hydrophonic coating.
In terms of insulating fabrics that are synthetic there are three big players: PrimaLoft, Climashield and Thinsulate.
Starting with PrimaLoft. This was originally designed as a military alternative to down. It was designed to still be warm and usable even in muddy and wet scenarios. This fabric is essentially made up of ultrafine microfibres which trap air, this makes the them expand slightly and create a tight surface tension to stop water getting through the membranes. Specially related to PrimaLoft there are 3 main variations on the product. The top of the range fabric is ‘One’. The ‘Sport’ is the mid level and ‘Eco’ is the lowest. All are very good in terms of what they do, it’s just a case of material quality not build quality.
Climashield uses a combination of continuous filaments and hollow fibres to trap as much air as possible. This construction is great because it allows for the material to be continually stressed without pulling apart. The other major advantage of this synthetic material is its ability to be washed repeatedly without losing much if any of its loft.
Last but no means last is Thinsulate. You’ll often find this fabric used in gloves. It’s really warm, but it’s too big really to be used as a jacket or coat. That being said it’s extremely warm and doesn’t lose much of its loft when washed.
As a high level overview, we hope this has given you an insight into some of the different fabric types. However, many companies do use their own styles and brands names, but many work in the same way. It’s always worth a quick look on the manufacturer’s website to see what they are saying about the technology they are using in their clothing. The key thing to remember though is hardshell is waterproof. Insulators are warm. Softshells are partly warm, and water resistant (as a general rule of thumb).