How to Care for Technical Fabrics

From Washing Line in Iceland. Taken b...
From Washing Line in Iceland. Taken by myself in July 2005. – drw25 (talk) 16:20, 29 September 2006 (UTC) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How to Care for Technical Fabrics



Care Tips for Any Outdoor Technical Fabric.

The following tips apply to all fabrics mentioned in this article:

  • Read and follow care instructions provided with your garment. Basic care instructions should be either printed somewhere on its interior or on a tag stitched into a seam. (Sometimes these tags are hidden away inside pockets.) Additional instructions might be included on an information card attached to the item when new. If so, it’s good to save those instructions.
  • Specific manufacturer instructions overrule any general guidance provided here. Presume that the manufacturer understands the fabrics it chooses better than anyone. Following their instructions validates the implied warranty you have with the manufacturer.
  • Specialized cleaning products are available for most technical fabrics. Many manufacturers recommend the use of such products from companies such as  Nikwax. This is due to their ability to rinse cleanly from fabrics, leaving no residues from additives (which are common in super market detergents) that can diminish performance.
  • Close zippers, empty pockets, seal pockets and turn garments inside-out before washing. Doing so minimizes the chance that fabrics will get abraded or have colours dulled while being cleaned.
  • Wash heavily soiled items separately. Soil breaks into smaller particles and may wind up on cleaner fabrics, particularly if too little detergent is used, water temperature is low, the wash cycle is long or the wash load is large.
  • Synthetic materials (nylon, polyester) are easily stained by oily substances. Treat oil stains quickly or they can be tough to remove. Massage a cleaning solution into the affected area and wash in warm water (if manufacturer care instructions permit it) as soon as possible. If the stain remains after washing, do not machine-dry the garment.
  • Never use fabric softener (including tumble dryer sheets) with technical fabrics. Oils, waxes and fragrances in fabric softener cling to fibres and diminish their water repellency, breathability and wicking. This tip often surprises people. But performance fabrics and fabric softener do not mix. Before washing your garment check that you have no residue of old detergent, conditioners or softeners in your machine.



Caring for Waterproof/breathable clothing


Waterproof garments need routine cleaning and maintenance to perform at its best. An important but often overlooked maintenance step is the periodic revival of garment’s durable water repellent (DWR) finish. The face fabric (exterior) of all waterproof/breathable garment’s is treated with a DWR. By making the effort to maintain the DWR will improve performance on those rainy days.

DWR cleaning, maintenance and revival are briefly addressed later in this article.



Frequency of cleaning depends on individual usage. The makers of both Gore-Tex and eVent laminates encourage regular washings for optimal Water proof/Breathable performance. A general benchmark: Wash a waterproof/breathable (WP/BR) garment at least once a year, or more often when the need for cleaning is obvious (whenever the build-up of dirt or salt residue becomes noticeable). Washings enhance breathability.

Primary contaminants that impact WP/BR performance:

  • Dirt (reduces breathability and water repellency).
  • Smoke (invisible-to-the-eye particles can reduce water repellency).
  • Oils, including sunscreen and insect repellent (reduces breathability and water repellency).

Note: Many insect repellents include DEET, which acts as a solvent on some materials. Exposing WP/BR fabrics to DEET could potentially cause leakage at those contact points. Gore-Tex and eVent both say their membranes are not compromised by DEET, but it can’t hurt to be careful when applying it. Coatings may be more susceptible to DEET’s impact.


Specialized cleaning products (such as those from  Nikwax) are recommended for technical waterproof clothing by many manufacturers.

  • Why are they needed? Super Market detergents contain additives such as foaming agents, optical brighteners, dyes, enzymes and fragrances known collectively as “surfactants” (shorthand for “surface-active agents”). One of their effects: They reduce water’s “surface tension” so detergent-infused water molecules bind more readily with oil and dirt than with other water molecules, loosening oil and dirt from fibres.
  • The downside of surfactants: They can leave residues on fibres that can potentially impact fabric performance, particularly water repellency. They could even add a couple grams of weight to a garment.
  • The advantage of specialized cleaning products: They are engineered to rinse away thoroughly without depositing residues.

If you do use a supermarket washing product, follow any specific guidelines for such detergents provided by the garment manufacturer. Be vigilant to thoroughly rinse a garment to remove surfactant residue. (Two rinses are often recommended.) These additives may help your cotton jeans resist staining and appear bright, but they can negatively impact the performance of technical fabrics.

Stain removal:

  • If a stain is fresh, keep it wet, if possible. Or rub it with ice (but not bar soap).
  • In the case of tree sap or a gob of grease, use a dull knife or straight edge to scrape off as much as possible. Tips: Scrape IN from the edges of the stain to avoid spreading it further; while scraping, lift the stained portion away from no stained fabric.
  • Wash immediately. If remnants of the stain are still visible, wash it again before attempting to machine-dry the garment.

Washing method:

  • Use a front-loading washer or hand-wash WP/BR garments.
  • Avoid top-loading washers. The centre-axis agitator inside top-loaders can potentially snag a garment and stretch it.

Wash cycle tips:

  • Close main zipper, empty pockets, fasten any Velcro (a.k.a. hook-and-loop) closures on pockets and cuffs, and turn the garment inside-out. The goal: Avoid snagging or abrasion while garments tumble.

Rinse cycle:

When a standard laundry product is used, 2 rinses are usually advised to remove all reside.


Tumble dry, low heat or hang dry. Following manufacturer directions.


Things to avoid:

  • Fabric softener, including tumble dryer sheets. Oils, waxes and fragrances in fabric softener, as stated previously, diminish breathability and water repellency.
  • Chlorine bleach.
  • Dry cleaning (unless a garment manufacturer advises differently).
  • Open flames or intense heat (synthetic fabrics can melt).

Here’s some guidance for a few well-known waterproof brands:


. Note: always follow the garment’s specific manufacturer care instructions

Launder regularly for best performance.

  • You can wash your garment in pure soap or one of the specialist cleaning products available at many outdoor stores.
  • Wash in warm (40°C/104°F) water.
  • Rinse thoroughly; 2 rinse cycles are usually recommended.
  • Tumble dry, low heat.
  • Do not use fabric softener or tumble dryer sheets.
  • Some garments that use Gore-Tex also use silk or wool and require dry cleaning. When dry cleaning Gore-Tex items, W.L. Gore recommends requesting a clear, distilled solvent rinse and a spray-repellent.
  • For troublesome stains, contact W.L. Gore

DWR maintenance needed when water no longer beads up on a garment’s face fabric.

  • Machine-drying (tumble dry, low to medium heat) for 10-15 minutes after each washing.
  • If a washing is not needed, an iron (at a low setting). Place a tea towel between the iron and garment during touch-ups.
  • If the face fabric continues to show signs of wetness, use a DWR reapplication product from Nikwax.
  • Spray-on DWR products are usually preferred over wash-in products, leaving linings and membranes untouched.


Note: always follow the garment’s specific manufacturer care instructions for eVent laminates:

  • Wash regularly for best performance.
  • Use liquid detergent. (Specialized cleaning products are good; super market liquids are also acceptable.) The maker of eVent believes using liquids eliminates the chance that micro particles of powder detergent might lodge in the eVent membrane.
  • Wash in warm (40°C/104°F) water.
  • Rinse thoroughly; usually 2 rinse cycles are recommended.
  • No fabric softener or tumble dryer sheets.
  • Hang dry. (The maker of eVent makes no recommendations regarding dryers. If a dryer is used, close all zippers, turn the garment inside-out and monitor its progress to avoid overheating the fabric.)
  • Never dry clean.

DWR maintenance (needed when water no longer beads up on a garment’s face fabric

As mentioned above, the maker of eVent makes no recommendation regarding dryers, which is a customary method of reviving a DWR. If care instructions on the garment permit, touch up the exterior with an iron (on a low setting) to revive the DWR. Place a tea towel between the iron and the fabric during touch-ups.

  • If the face fabric show signs of wetness, eVent’s maker advocates the use a DWR reapplication product (available from Nikwax. Follow instructions on the product.
  • Spray-on DWR products are usually preferred over wash-in products, leaving linings and membranes unaffected.

Other coatings and Laminations

. Note: always follow the garment’s specific manufacturer care instructions

Launder regularly for best performance.

  • You can wash your garment in pure soap or one of the specialist cleaning products available at many outdoor stores.
  • Wash in warm (40°C/104°F) water.
  • Rinse thoroughly; 2 rinse cycles are usually recommended.
  • Tumble dry, low heat.
  • Do not use fabric softener or tumble dryer sheets.

DWR maintenance needed when water no longer beads up on a garment’s face fabric.

  • Machine-drying (tumble dry, low to medium heat) for 10-15 minutes after each washing.
  • If a washing is not needed touching up items with an iron (at a low setting). Place a tea towel between the iron and garment during touch-ups.
  • If the face fabric continues to show signs of wetness, use a DWR reapplication product from Nikwax.
  • Spray-on DWR products are usually preferred over wash-in products, leaving linings and membranes untouched.

Care for Soft Shells


The evolving soft-shell category has branched off into subgroups:

  • “Classic” soft shells: Stretchy, water-resistant garments designed for elevated breathability during aerobic activity in cool or misty conditions (but not in heavy or sustained rain).
  • Windproof jackets/shirts: Designed to buffer the body from wind chill while also resisting light precipitation. The addition of a windproof membrane (or other barrier) creates an impact on breathability that varies by individual garments.
  • Waterproof/breathable soft shells: These garments utilize a WP/BR membrane, so their breathability performance typically is no different than traditional “hard shell” rainwear. Their advantage: stretch, for flexibility.

Nearly all soft shells have face fabrics that are treated with a DWR finish. A DWR requires periodic revival to be consistently effective at shedding moisture.

  • Maintaining a DWR is critical for a soft shell, maybe even more than that of a hard shell. Hard shells are equipped with a Waterproof/Breathable barrier (either a laminate or coating) that prevents moisture from penetrating the garment’s interior even if the DWR has grown ineffective. Soft shells rely almost entirely on DWRs in order to resist moisture.
  • A few rare soft shells are constructed with very tightly woven face fabrics. Since they shed water by construction.


Frequency of cleaning depends on individual usage. Soft shells (classic soft shells in particular) are popular among fast-moving, high-exertion outdoor athletes, so perspiration, dirt and odour build-up can accumulate quickly. When they do, put them in the wash. All soft shells breathe better when clean.

Cleaning guidance for soft shells mirrors much of the laundering advice for waterproof/breathable garments already explained above. To summarize:

  • Primary contaminants: Dirt, body oils, smoke, sunscreens and insect repellents. DEET won’t melt soft-shell fabrics, but it can potentially diminish water repellency.
  • Specialized cleaning products: Some products are made specifically for soft shells.
  • Super Market laundry products: You can wash your garment in pure soap or one of the specialist cleaning products available at many outdoor stores.
  • Prewash stain removers: OK to use.
  • Washing method: A front-loading washer or hand-washing is preferred.
  • Water temperature: Cold or warm (40°C/104°F); stick with what the garment’s manufacturer advises.
  • Rinse cycle: 2 rinses, particularly when a standard laundry product is used.

General guidance for specialized soft shells:

  •  Machine wash warm (40°C/104°F), or according to manufacturer instructions.
  • Waterproof/breathable soft shells: Follow manufacturer recommendations; consider the use of a specialized cleaning product.


Tumble dry low or warm; 10-15 minutes or until dry to the touch; or hang dry.

Things to avoid:

  • Fabric softener, including tumble dryer sheets.
  • Chlorine bleach.
  • Ironing.
  • Dry cleaning (unless a garment manufacturer advises differently).
  • Open flames or intense heat (synthetic materials can melt).

DWR maintenance:

  • After each washing, machine-drying (tumble dry, low to medium heat) for 10-15 minutes.
  • Machine drying can also revive a DWR between washings. Do not attempt this, however, if the garment is soiled; heat can permanently set stains. Wash the garment first.
  • If the face fabric continues to show signs of wetness, reapply a DWR to the face fabric by using a DWR reapplication product from Nikwax.
  • For soft shells with no membranes, the use of a spray-on or wash-in DWR treatment. Wash-in products are simpler for this type of garment.
  • If using a wash-in product, consider pausing the wash cycle after a few minutes and let the garment soak in the solution for 30-60 minutes, then resume washing.

Reactivating Durable Water Repellent (DWR)


When a waterproof or water-resistant garment is new, any moisture that falls on its exterior (face fabric) quickly beads up and slides off, due to the presence of a durable water repellent on the fabric.

Over time, a DWR loses some of its effectiveness. Why? Dirt, body oils, perspiration, launderings and abrasion all have an impact. When water stops beading up and instead starts soaking in and creating wet patches on the face fabric, the fibres are absorbing water and the garment will feel heavier. The DWR either needs reactivating or reapplication.

This is an important maintenance step many people overlook.

Here are a few tips:

  • Washing, followed by machine-drying (tumble dry, low to medium heat) for 10-15 minutes, usually brings a fatigued DWR back to life.
  • If a washing is not needed, a short spin in a dryer might be all a DWR needs to regain its optimal water-shedding abilities. Just don’t skip the washing phase if the garment is dirty; heat can permanently set stains.
  • Items using eVent laminates can have their DWRs revived with a touch-up using an iron at a warm steam setting. It is usually a good practice to place a tea towel between the iron and garment during touch-ups.
  • When washing and heat do not restore the desired level of water-repellency, use a DWR reapplication product from Nikwax.
  • In general, spray-on DWR reapplication products are usually preferred over wash-in products, leaving linings and membranes unaffected.

Care for Fleece



Modern fleece garments are insulation pieces constructed almost exclusively from synthetic fibres (typically 100% polyester, a type of plastic). Such fibres are heat-sensitive. If a dryer is used, choose a low temperature setting. Synthetic fibres could potentially melt if exposed to high heat.

Some fleece or fleece-like garments are given DWR finishes to make them weather-resistant, making them quite similar to soft shells. Be sure to follow manufacturer care instructions provided with individual garments. Sometimes this information is hidden on tags inside pockets.


“Pilling” is a flaw that plagued early generations of polyester fleece. It occurs when fibres pull away from yarns due to friction or excessive time spent in a clothes dryer. These frayed fibres can form tiny clumps by the hundreds on fleece surface.

Modern fleece is pill-resistant thanks to improved finishing methods, the use of microfibers and other higher-grade fibres. Pilling is still possible (so be sceptical of claims of “no pilling” fleece), but the risk is significantly reduced.

Tip: If you own a cherished fleece item that appears hopelessly pilled, try shaving away the pills. Seriously. Take a disposable razor and lightly, carefully stroke the garment’s surface to shave away pills. This process dulls blades quickly, so several razors likely will be needed to complete the job on any sizable garment.

The following general guidelines can apply to most fleece and micro fibre products:


Frequency of cleaning depends on usage and how quickly you accumulate dirt, stains or odours. Synthetic fleece is a fairly robust fabric. Feel no hesitancy to wash it often.

Specialized cleaning products (such as those from Nikwax) are available for fleece, though super market laundry products or delicate-care products are usually acceptable e.g. Soap Flakes.

Residues are less of an issue with fleece. However, some detergents may include additives that could cause fleece to mat or compact, impacting its ability to insulate. If you notice this happening, change detergents. Also: Residues can possibly impact colour quality. Consider using a mild or specialized soap (soap Flakes) if a garment’s colour is important to you.

For an extra-high level of care:

  • Wash fleece items separately.
  • Wash in lukewarm water (unless otherwise specified).
  • Wash with like colours only, particularly if you’re very fond of a certain colour. (Use cold water in this case.)
  • Turn inside out (to minimize piling).
  • Tumble dry low or air dry; air dry if the fleece is older and at risk of piling.
  • A fabric softener can be an option on fleece garments with no membranes (unless manufacturer care instructions specifically prohibit its use). Fabric softener can minimize or eliminate static electricity in fleece.
  • A wash-in style of DWR re-treatment can work very well on weather-resistant fleece. It is especially useful on fleece accessories such as hats and gloves which are often exposed to snowfall or drizzle.
  • Machine wash warm.
  • Tumble dry low (or air dry).
  • No bleach.
  • Avoid fabric softener and tumble dryer sheets (possible exception: fleece-only items).
  • Do not iron.
  • Do not dry clean.

Fleece is sometimes bonded to laminates or wind-buffering barriers to deliver specialized performance attributes and may require special handling instructions. Definitely inspect your garment for specific cleaning and handling directions.

Care for Synthetic Base Layer


Synthetic fabrics used in wicking base layers (typically 100% polyester) are designed to transport moisture (sweat) and hasten its evaporation. They’re so comfortable and functional that they are routinely worn for workouts (indoor and outdoor) or daily use.

As a result, base layers are the technical fabric that most often lands in everyday laundry loads. This means they are commonly exposed to Super Market laundry products.

This is generally not considered to be a problem, though keeping them free of detergent residues could potentially give them a slight performance boost. Thus a specialized cleaning product (seek out choices from Nikwax) A thorough rinsing is advised. If your washer permits adjustable rinse cycles, choose the longest cycle available.


Decades ago, polypropylene was the synthetic wicking material in widest use. It fell out of favour due to its tendency to retain perspiration odours. Polyester eventually became the wicking fabric of choice, though some people grumble that it, too, has a proclivity to retain odours (though not polypropylene’s level). Tips for odour avoidance:

  • Wash base layers regularly.
  • If you wear a base layer on consecutive days (during a multiday hike for example), air it out at night. On warmer summer nights, you could rinse it out and hang it to air dry. To do this, collect water from a lake or stream in a container, carry it 200 yards from the water source and rinse the garment at that location, away from the water.


Frequency of cleaning: Regularly.

Follow any specific laundering instructions provided on your garment. Otherwise, general guidelines for this category include:

  • Wash in cold or warm water (with like colours).
  • Base layers can be vulnerable to snagging. Either separate them from garments that include zippers, clasps or openings that use rip-and-stick closures, or place them inside a protective bag during washing.
  • No fabric softener or tumble dryer sheets. Oils and waxes in fabric softener can diminish wicking performance.
  • No bleach.
  • Do not iron.
  • Do not dry clean.

Care for Wool


Merino wool garments designed for performance use are usually machine-washable. That’s not always so with woollen fashion apparel, where hand-washing is often required. Yet most merino wool items designed for athletic or recreational use (socks, base layers, tops) can be tossed in the washer. (Front-loaders preferred.) Always check manufacturer care instructions on any wool item before washing.


Shrinkage is one of wool’s enemies. Moisture, heat and friction are the principle forces that cause it. To combat shrinkage, merino wool used for performance-wear garments typically undergoes a “superwash” process (involving chlorine) early in its production cycle. This shrinkage-resistant treatment masks the natural scales on individual wool fibres.

When exposed to a slippery solution such as detergent, these scales (which resemble irregularly stacked cones) migrate in one direction—toward the root, a reaction that causes the scales of the fibre to lock together, creating a very strong, irreversible bond. As the fibres lock together, the fabric actually shrinks. This is called “felting shrinkage” and is unique to wool.

The superwash process, though, greatly minimizes felting shrinkage. It makes merino wool garments capable of safely weathering the agitation and spinning actions involved in machine washing.

Beyond felting shrinking, another type of shrinkage can impact wool—relaxation shrinkage.

Fabrics are knit under tension (a stretched condition). During initial home machine washes, water lubricates natural fibres, enabling them to return to a more natural/relaxed/less-stretched state. This is why a cotton T-shirt shrinks the first few time it’s washed.

The same thing happens with wool. Depending on the knit, wool garments are vulnerable to varying degrees of relaxation shrinkage.

The tighter the knit, the less potential for relaxation shrinkage. Base layers, for example, are knit tightly. Tight construction permits safe machine-drying with minimal risk of shrinkage. Fashion jumpers, meanwhile, have a looser knit and may shrink more. With Fashion Jumpers laying the items flat to dry prevents shrinkage.

Yet even the most tightly knit fabrics will experience a minor amount of shrinkage.

Odour Resistance

One of merino wool’s chief advantages over polyester (used in synthetic base layers) is its natural ability to resist odours. Of course, even wool’s odour-fighting ability can be overwhelmed by a week-long backpacking trip or too many hours spent near a smoky fire. In general, though, wool substantially outperforms synthetic materials in its ability to minimize odours.


Frequency of cleaning: wash merino wool regularly.

Super market laundry detergents are generally considered safe and acceptable for machine-washable merino wool. Avoid any that contain chlorine bleach.

Wool has a high resistance to acid, yet some detergents contain an elevated alkali content that, if used over an extended time, may weaken wool fibres. Other evidence indicates that, over time, the use of household detergents can cause light-coloured woollens to yellow slightly. It’s the same effect wool experiences if it is exposed to excessive amounts of ultraviolet light (direct sunlight).

Some wool-clothing manufacturers recommend mild cleaning products such as soap flakes. Producers of clean-rinsing fabric-care products for outdoor clothing (from Nikwax) offer wool-specific laundry washes. If a household detergent is used, consider choosing those with minimal additives, usually labelled Mild detergents may extend the life of merino wool products.

Wool is less resistant to abrasion that other fibres. Therefore never wash wool with any item that includes exposed hook-and-loop (rip-and-stick) fasteners on cuffs or pockets. For optimal care, wash wool items only with other soft garments, such as other knits.

Other points to remember:

  • Never use bleach.
  • No fabric softener.
  • Ironing is OK (as long as individual care instructions permit it). Wool in general exhibits a natural resistance to wrinkling and thus infrequently requires ironing. It is recommended that you use a low heat setting on your iron.
  • Dry cleaning is OK (as long as individual care instructions permit it). Wool items with a print or pattern usually do not permit dry cleaning.


In general, hang-drying or flat-drying is preferred. Refer to individual care instructions to determine if a dryer can be used.

Add no fabric-softening tumble dryer sheets when a dryer is used.

To speed dry time:

  • Lay the wet garment flat on a dry bath towel.
  • Roll the towel and the garment together.
  • Unroll the towel and let the garment dry flat.


If is fairly rare for insects to attack woollen products. Several specialized insect families (clothes moths and carpet beetles) are able to digest wool when in their larval stages. However, these species are more attracted to wool in its raw form than as a finished product. Some wool products also contain an insect-resistant treatment to deter attack.

A few suggestions:

  • Moths dislike light, fresh air and regular laundering.
  • Rather than use mothballs, keep all wool products in a wood-lined chest or closet.
  • Clean wool items after all periods of extensive wear. Be especially vigilant when food spills are evident.
  • After cleaning and before storing for prolonged periods, place items in an air-tight plastic bag (though some insects can chew through plastic).

Down Jacket Care


Washing down items is an event, a process, not something done casually. Many people choose to have a down-cleaning professional handle the task. (Do NOT dry clean a down item, however.)

Try not to keep you jacket in its stuffsac, or on a coat hanger.  Loosely packed in a storage bag in a clean dry space is the best place to put them away for the summer.

It is best to avoid getting your down jacket dirty, as washing is a fairly time consuming
process and does ultimately damage the fill a little. The fabrics and fill do eventually get dirty which will mean the jacket ends up not keeping you as warm as it could.

Always follow the washing instructions on the garment as we use a variety of
face fabrics and trims which need different washing treatments.


Here are general guidelines

Wash your down jacket by hand in lukewarm water, using a natural soap or even better a specific down soap which is available from outdoor stores.

When the jacket is wet, care must be taken to avoid tearing the baffles which keep the down in place inside the jacket. Keep the jacket fairly flat in the sink or bath when washing and only gently move the garment around in the water, avoid picking it up out of the water or wringing it in any way. Squeeze excess water out when rinsing by pushing the garment against the bottom of the sink.

It is really important to rinse the garment well, use a lot of water and rinse as much as you can. The worst thing to do is to leave traces of soap in the down as this will absorb moisture and dirt.

After the final rinse, gently squeeze out as much water as possible in the manner described above, then leave it to drain for a while.

Spread the jacket out to drip dry, then air, not just over the washing line but fairly flat on a rack if you can.

When the jacket is nearly dry you can tumble dry it according to the instructions on the garment, take care to use the correct temperature because some very light face fabrics need to be tumbled cold.

If all this sounds too much hassle, there are some specialist companies who can clean and repair down products.

WL Franklin
01142 686161
Mountaineering Designs
01539 536333


Care for Bike Shorts/Tights/Bibs


Fabrics used in compression clothing are typically a rugged breed of polyester blended with stretchy spandex or Lycra. It’s possible that cycling or triathlon shorts that include a chamois may require specialized handling. Be sure to follow care instructions provided with each garment.


In general:

Use a specialized cleaning product (examine the choices available from Nikwax or a mild detergent, preferably one which is chlorine free as the Chlorine and some detergents attack the Spandex and Lycra in the fabric.

Notes: Always follow the garment’s specific manufacturer care instructions

  • Mix water and detergent before adding the clothing.
  • Close any zippers, empty pockets and seal any Velcro closures. Turn the garment inside-out.
  • Cold or warm water.
  • Gentle cycle, if recommended on care instructions.
  • Rinse a second time if soap can be detected at the end of the cycle.
  • Hang dry, or tumble dry low if in a hurry.
  • No fabric softener or tumble dryer sheets.

Stain and Odour Removal

Some techniques offered here may conflict with manufacturer care directions. NOTE: Employ them at your own risk.

General Tips for Tough Stains

  • Keep fresh stains wet in cold water, then wash immediately. (Avoid hot water; it can set some stains.) Fresher stains can be removed more easily.
  • Do not rub a stain with bar soap; doing so may set the stain.
  • Rubbing a stain with an ice cube may be beneficial. Rub a stain outside-in to avoid spreading the stain.
  • Rub or blot stains with a white material (cloth or paper). Using a dark material may cause a new problem. Avoid using materials prone to causing lint.
  • Carefully scrape off any material that can be scraped off (again, in an outside-in motion), but do so only if you can avoid spreading the stain.
  • Do not allow stained garment to touch any coloured fabric.

Perspiration: Apply liquid detergent directly to the stain or soak in warm water with a pre-soak product for 15 to 30 minutes. Then launder. If the stain, try laundering again before attempting to machine-dry the garment.

Oil (such as sunscreen or insect repellent): Start with one of the following:

  • Treat with a prewash spray or liquid.
  • Pour a small amount of liquid detergent directly on the spot.
  • Mix powdered detergent and water to create a gooey paste.

Whatever treatment you choose, massage the solution into the stain. Using additional detergent, wash it in the warmest water allowable for your garment. After rinsing, inspect the garment before attempting to machine-dry it. If some portion of the stain remains, repeat the treatment without machine-drying.

Mud, blood, food (known as protein stains): If the stain is fresh, soak and agitate in cold water prior to washing. If dried, soak in cold water with detergent or a pre-soak product. Wash in warm (not hot) water. (Hot water can set some stains, particularly blood.) Inspect before attempted to machine-dry the garment. If necessary, repeat the soak-then-wash process for 30+ minutes before machine-drying.

Human saliva can be effective against blood. Spit on a blood stain and the saliva will break done the proteins in the blood. Rub it in with a finger or soft brush until the blood dissolves, and then wash normally. With wool, however, do not over agitate the stain; doing so could promote shrinkage at that spot.

Grass or ink (dye stains): Use hair spray; rub gently with white cloth or paper. Avoid excessive rubbing, though; it could spread the stain.

Red wine (tannin stains): Pour on some carbonised water or white wine; rub gently with white cloth or paper. As with ink, avoid excessive rubbing. Wash soon using detergent. Do not use a bar soap or soap flakes.

Nonchlorine bleach can be tried on severe spot stains, but it offers no guarantee of removal. Realize some stains simply cannot be removed.

Odours: washing usually removes most odours. If they persist, try storing them in a box or closet with an open container of baking soda or Sodium Bicarbonate, activated charcoal or calcium carbonate crystals. Another option: Sprinkle soda directly on a fabric and let it stand for a day or longer; eventually shake it off or use a hand vacuum.

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How to choose Insulated garments

How to Choose Insulated garments


How do we keep warm in chilly conditions? Add a layer of insulation. Insulating jackets, vests or pullovers are designed to trap body heat, hold it close to our skin and buffer us from colder external air.

Insulation is the middle layer of a 3-layer cold-weather clothing system. But with Down and Synthetic wadding combined with a shell fabric can be an outer garment.

  • Base layer such as a T-shirt or long underwear.
  • Insulation layer such as a fleece jacket or down vest.
  • Outer layer (weather-resistant shell) such as a rain jacket. Outer layers may also be insulated.

Typical insulation choices:

  • Down: nature’s best insulator.
  • Synthetic fibres: engineered to mimic down’s natural loftiness.
  • Fleece: usually made from synthetic fibres, though some wool jackets/sweaters exist.
Pros Cons Best for
Down Lightest
Most compressible
Most warmth for weight
Highly durable
Insulation lost if wet
Slow to dry
More expensive
Dry conditions like high   altitude or polar conditions.
Synthetic Water resistant
Fairly quick to dry
Less expensive
More bulk
Less breathable
Potentially wet conditions
Fleece Soft, breathable, stretchy
Dries quickly
Less expensive
Modest warmth
Most bulk
Vigorous activity in cool   conditions



Advantages: Impressive warmth for minimal weight. Goose down plumules (a mix of feathers and puffy clusters) exhibit a natural loftiness that is exceptionally efficient at trapping “dead” (none circulating) air and retaining warmth. Can be compressed into a very small shape. Luxurious feel. Long lasting.

Disadvantages: Loses its warmth-retaining abilities if it gets wet. Very slow to dry. Expensive.

Overview: Down garments make an excellent choice for dry, very cold conditions and are well-suited for moderate activity in dry weather such as skiing or snowboarding in powder. Also good for dry, chilly mornings when camping, belaying or backpacking. Relying on down in wet or damp conditions is risky, though; down garments must be carefully shielded from moisture.

Not all down is created equal: Down is graded according to fill power, which indicates how many cubic inches 1 ounce of down occupies when placed inside a container. (In lab testing, the typical container is a tube.) Down ranges from 450 to 900 fill power. Higher numbers indicate a higher quality of down, with more air-trapping ability. Down with higher fill-power numbers includes fewer feathers and uses bigger, more mature down plumules. Larger down clusters are more durable and can better withstand repeated compressing.


Synthetic Fibres

Advantages: Water-resistant, will dry much more quickly than down and even retains some thermal resistance when damp. Less expensive, too. The most advanced synthetic fibres (e.g., PrimaLoft) have drawn close to down in breathability, weight, texture and compressibility.

Disadvantages: Down still trumps synthetics in minimizing bulk and weight, though an innovator such as PrimaLoft continues to narrow the gap. Less durable than down, especially if repeatedly compressed.

Overview: A very good insulation choice if wet conditions are expected. It performs quite nicely in dry conditions, too, of course. Despite advances, synthetic insulation still can’t match high-end down for warmth in extreme cold. Nearly all synthetic insulation is made of polyester.

Like down, not all polyester is identical. The science of synthetic insulation fabrics continues to evolve. At the moment, the PrimaLoft family of insulations (explained in more detail later in this article) is widely considered the most highly evolved “species” of the synthetic world, often excelling other synthetics in weight and low bulk, though the differences are not always hugely apparent.



Polar Fleece fabric is construction contains many air pockets that work to trap warm air created by the body, insolating you and keeping you warm. The open knit construction allows air circulation and moisture to move away from the body by convection, which keeps you dry and comfortable during you activity.

History of Fleece

Malden Mills‘ original fabric was revolutionary because it was both lightweight and warm. It picked up less than 1% of its weight in moisture, and even when completely wet, it maintained its loft and insulating properties. It made an ideal outerwear fabric because it actively wicked moisture away from the body.

Today the term polar fleece is applied to a class of high technology, high performance products that offer tremendous warmth relative to their weight, that are soft to the touch, and that are able to wick moisture away from the body so that they feel dry even when soaking wet. This class of fabric includes both fleece and pile fabrics, even though the two fabric types are constructed differently.

Advantages: Very good breathability, making it a good choice when insulation is needed during vigorous, highly aerobic activity. (Down and synthetic jackets/vests are best worn for moderate to sedentary activities.) Dries quickly when wet, and maintains its loft under waterproof garments.

Disadvantages: Not for serious or prolonged cold. While most synthetic fleeces dry quickly, a few are prone to retaining water (and it’s not always easy to predict which fleece items are the exception to the dries-quickly rule). Fleece is also bulky and heavy when compared to down and synthetic insolation wadding. Wind can also permeate fleece pretty easily (which leads to chills) unless it contains a wind-blocking membrane (which inhibits stretch) or is worn under a jacket.

Overview: Fleece comes in various weights (light, mid and heavy). Heavier garments, logically, are better suited to colder conditions. Polartec is one of the best-known brand names in fleece. Its Classic fleece categories—100 (lightweight), 200 (mid) and 300 (heavy) —remain popular and are in widespread use. It’s Thermal Pro and Thermal Pro High Loft products offer next-generation benefits in terms of lower weight and reduced bulk. Some fleece-like pullovers are specially engineered to provide extra stretch, wind-resistance, water-resistance or some combination of all of these. Ultimately, though, even the heaviest fleece is not as warm as a jacket insulated with down or a synthetic such as PrimaLoft.

A recent trend: Fleece middle layers made out of actual fleece—natural, 100% wool, that is. Already a huge hit with active outdoor types in socks and base layers for its adaptability to cool or warm conditions and its odour-free nature, mid layers made from soft, finely textured merino wool are worth a look. Just be aware that heavier cuts of wool tend to dry slowly. One suggested use is as an alpine skiing insulation layer in dry conditions.

Buying and Wearing Tips

Anticipate the weather. Will you be going out in wet conditions? If you bring a down jacket or vest, be sure to also bring along a weather shield (usually a waterproof-breathable shell) so your down fill stays dry. Alternatively, a synthetic insulation layer offers a little more peace of mind. Regarding temperature, if you’re having a tough time deciding between a lighter or heavier garment, usually it’s best to opt for the warmer option. This offers greater versatility despite a minor increase in weight and bulk.

Understand the energy output your activity requires. Skiing or climbing in dry, alpine conditions? A puffy down jacket should work beautifully. Hiking in variable conditions? Go with fleece and, for very cool nights at high elevation, consider also toting a synthetic jacket.

Jacket or vest? It’s a matter of personal preference. Vests are often preferred by high-energy, high-metabolism types who understand their tolerance for cold and need a just-enough insulation buffer for their core. Get chilled easily? Carry a jacket.

Understand your individual variables. Your metabolism may cause you to feel chilly easily. Women often get cold more easily than men; older outdoor people regardless of gender, also with slender people. In all cases, make sure you choose a garment engineered to keep someone with your characteristics warm

Manage your layers. If you feel too warm during an activity, do not hesitate to open a zipper or strip off a layer. Or reverse those actions when conditions turn cool. Add a cap and gloves when temperatures turn cold.

Technical Talk

The remainder of this article features topics that may interest only tech-minded readers, but I think its worthwhile information to include.

A Closer Look at PrimaLoft

PrimaLoft (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Q: PrimaLoft keeps edging closer to down in weight, compressibility and texture. How is that accomplished?

A: It’s our fibre technology. It’s the size of the fibres, the design or the structure of the fibres, and the types of proprietary treatments we put on our fibres.

Q: PrimaLoft has a good reputation among retailers and in the outdoor media. Yet some shoppers have second thoughts about PrimaLoft because of its relatively thin appearance compared to puffy down jackets. Should they be concerned?

A: That’s something people in this industry are educated about—thickness does not necessarily equate to warmth. But it’s difficult for some consumers to see that picture. Why does PrimaLoft work? Because it has an extreme microfiber structure. Think of a funnel. With PrimaLoft, you can fit greater number of smaller fibres in that funnel than you can with larger fibres (typical of older synthetic insulations). We just trap more air spaces, so we don’t need as much volume to trap as much air.

Q: Is PrimaLoft close to being the equivalent of down?

A: You can get anywhere from 450-fill-power down to 900-fill-power down. Look at pinnacle (superior) down products—900 at the top of the pyramid, 450 and 500 along the bottom. Then look at the pinnacle synthetics, and PrimaLoft One is the best synthetic insulation you can buy. The pinnacle synthetic only crosses over to the down chart near the bottom end of the down pyramid. We usually equate PrimaLoft One as the equivalent of down in the 500 to 550 range. You could not replace a 900-filll-power down garment with PrimaLoft One and expect to get the same performance in dry conditions. However, wet down doesn’t even come close to the bottom end of the synthetic pyramid in regard to thermal performance. As soon as you get down wet, you lose a lot of its thermal properties.

Understanding Heat Transfer

Everything in nature moves toward equilibrium. Cold air cools a warm object, and the process works simultaneously in reverse.

Insulation experts like to point out that people don’t get cold, they lose heat. Our individual metabolisms create body heat. We lose that heat 4 ways:

  1. Conduction: Occurs through the surfaces we touch, particularly the ground below us. Ever sit on a snow drift or a block of ice? That chill you felt on your back side was heat loss caused by conduction.
  2. Convection: Air circulation carries away body heat. Think about standing outside on a 20F day while wearing fleece. Now think about the same day with a 20 mph wind. The cold air will blow through the fleece and displace the warm air, causing your body temperature to drop unless you add a shell. The shell by itself does not add any insulation, but does cut the wind. That cuts heat loss due to convection. Convection requires moving air. Air temperature alone does not cause convection; that would be conduction. The cold air temperature will cause your body temperature to drop unless you bundle up.
  3. Radiation: Our bodies are heat-generating machines. When our activity level slows, so does our heat-making ability. Radiation is why your face feels warmer than your back when looking at the sun. The air temperature is the same, but the radiant heat from the sun warms you. The opposite is also true when looking at space at night. This is why it is warmer to sleep under a leafy tree. Radiation is a complicated subject; even for engineering students find it to be a difficult concept.
  4. Evaporation: When we sweat, the moisture’s evaporation cools our skin. This is good when we’re warm, but less than ideal when active in cold conditions. Of course, humans are exhaling moisture and evaporating moisture from our skin all the time, not just when sweating. It’s just more noticeable during activity.

The Curious CLO

Home insulation is measured by a calculation known as R values. Garments have something similar, a lesser-known metric known as a CLO value. Believed not to be an acronym but simply a truncated version of the word “clothing,” CLO values were hatched in the 1940s and still used to gauge the effectiveness of insulated garments today, though they are rarely presented to consumers.

The CLO benchmark is 1.0, considered to be the amount of clothing necessary for an inactive human to feel comfortable at room temperature, which is considered to be 21C, or roughly 71F.

How much clothing is that? A fully dressed men’s business suit, of all things: shirt, tee, pants, jacket, socks, shoes. (Interestingly, the fabric of the suit was never mandated—just “a business suit.”) Consumers rarely see CLO numbers referenced on promotional materials.


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Waterproof Shell

Waterproof Construction (Layers)

Schematic diagram of composite Gore-Tex fabric
Schematic diagram of composite Gore-Tex fabric (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Laminates and coatings are relatively delicate, and abrasion can damage the laminate or coating. Thus waterproof fabrics employ some type of skin-facing on the inner and outer of the laminate or coating for protection and are described as 2-layer, 3-layer or even 2.5-layer fabric. Here is brief description of each type of fabric.

There is an assumption that while 3 layer offers the greatest durability, 2 layer is the more breathable. Under laboratory conditions this is certainly the case. In practise however, the lining and the air gap between the lining and the outer fabric on the 2-layer garments inhibits the transfer of moisture vapour. Effectively, the breathability of a 2-layer garment if the same waterproof membrane is used is similar to the breathability of a 3-layer. So, if breathability is comparable why specify on over the other? The deciding factor between 2-layer and 3-layer is durability. For  mountain sports where maximum durability is required, 3-layer is recommended.


2-Layer: The Most Affordable

These are comparatively basic garments, where a membrane or coating is applied to the interior of the face fabric (outer protection) creating two layers within the fabric. Often a loose-hanging liner, usually mesh, that is stitched into the interior of the jacket which protects the laminate or coating on the inside of the jacket. This suits many people, though some find hanging linings a little too loose and bulky-feeling. Two-layer jackets are usually a touch heavier than other designs, include more pockets and are primarily intended for day trips or urban activities. 2lyer is typically lighter and softer handle and is ideal for where comfort rather than durability is the requirement.

2.5-Layer: The light weight and packable.

These use a low-weight face fabric (first and outer protective layer), a polyurethane-based WP/BR laminate or coating (second layer membrane ) and a bare-minimum protective inner layer (more like a sheen than an actual layer, which is why it is considered a half-layer). Typically this inner layer is little more than a series of dots, a grid pattern or a spray of resins that provides a touch of slickness and abrasion-resistance. These garments, typically 500grams or less, are intended for ultralight weight travel and spacesaving for travellers. Walkers who favour more breathable soft shells as their principal outerwear often toss a 2.5-layer jacket into their packs just in case a deluge hits and they need full waterproof protection. If abrasion-resistance is not one of your key concerns, 2.5-layer garments deliver high performance for a comparatively modest price.

3-Layer: The Most Durable

Jacketsin this category offer rugged yet low-weight WP/BR protection. No coatings in general are used here, primarily  laminates, with a membrane tightly sandwiched between the face fabric and a body-facing liner. Designers here seek to shave grams and add refinements as minute as rounded zipper pulls to avoid any angular edges on the finished product. Jackets in the category offer a sleek, athletic fit and face fabrics that can handle less-than-gentle treatment. This makes them well-suited for serious climbers and backpackers. Products in this category aspire to high breathability, high durability and relatively low weight, but can be a more pricy.



Soft Shells vs. WP/BR Fabrics

Traditional soft shells: These offer a water-resistant, tightly woven fabric distinguished by excellent stretch and breathability.

  • Pros: A good choice for highly aerobic activity (backpacking, Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, trail running, climbing) where flexibility and breathability are prized; capable of withstanding lighter showers.
  • Cons: If a soaking downpour hits, the fabric will likely become saturated at some point and you will feel wet.

Soft shells with a WP/BR membrane: These offer more stretch than a WP/BR garment, but with a reduced level of breathability (though one usually comparable with higher-performing WP/BR hard shells). But wait, is a membrane-equipped soft shell really a legitimate soft shell? It’s an odd evolutionary step for soft shells, no question, since their initial reason for being was their sensational breathability (coupled with modest rain protection).

  • Pros: Good for the same activities mentioned above, particularly climbing in wetter environments (where the extra stretch coupled with better weather protection pays off).
  • Cons: When the weather clears, it will not be as breathable as a membrane-free soft shell.

Waterproofs: How It Works

How do waterproof/breathable rain jackets work? Which is best: Gore-Tex? eVent? Polyurethane? A laminate or a coating? Which is more breathable and comfortable?

These are basic waterproof questions that often require technical answers. We’ll do our best to provide explanations in language that non-scientists and non-engineers can comprehend.

How Waterproof/Breathable Fabrics Work

Waterproof/breathable (WP/BR) fabrics made outdoor headlines in 1978 when outerwear designed with a Gore-Tex laminate was introduced. Since then many other branded WP/BR laminates have been created (eVent, Sympatex, many generics).

WP/BR fabrics are engineered to juggle 2 tasks:

  • Repel precipitation (to keep you and your clothing layers dry).
  • Provide an escape route for perspiration vapour (to accommodate evaporative cooling and maintain a comfortable body temperature during exertion in rainy conditions).


How is this accomplished? It requires some inside-outside work on the main fabric.


The interior (underside) of WP/BR waterproof uses one of the following technologies to become waterproof and breathable:

  • Laminates (which include Gore-Tex and eVent) are formed when a WP/BR membrane is bonded to the underside of a garment’s face fabric, as if wallpaper was applied to a wall—in other words, membrane (wallpaper) + fabric (wall) = a laminate.
  • Coatings are liquid solutions that provide WP/BR characteristics when spread across the interior of a garment—like applying a super thin coat of paint to a wall.


All waterproof exteriors (also known as face fabrics) are treated with a durable water repellent (DWR) finish. Even waterproof classified as water-resistant (which includes soft shells) carries a DWR finish. Here are some DWR fast facts:

  • A DWR affects only the exterior of waterproof and is separate from a laminate or coating.
  • Its purpose is to protect the face fabric from becoming saturated, weighing it down and causing any sensation of dampness.
  • A DWR accomplishes this by causing water to bead up and roll off the garment’s exterior.
  • DWRs do not inhibit fabric breathability.
  • Abrasion, grime and, to a lesser degree, laundering reduce DWR performance.
  • To remain optimally effective, DWRs must be regularly cleaned and periodically renewed using spray-on or wash-in products.

Next: a closer look at the inner workings of waterproof.


The core of a laminate is its membrane. Membranes are made from:

  • Expanded (i.e., stretched) polytetrafluoroethylene, or ePTFE (sometimes also referred to as PTFE).
  • Polyurethane (PU) films.
  • Polyester films.


Gore-Tex and eVent, 2 widely recognized laminates, use membranes formed from ePTFE. An ePTFE membrane has a microscopic web-like structure that is amazingly thin—about 10 microns thick. (One micron equals one-millionth of a meter; the period at the end of this sentence measures about 500 microns.) W.L. Gore, the maker of Gore-Tex, estimates ePTFE contains 1.4 billion pores per square centimetre, or about 9 billion per square inch.

In spite all these microscopic holes, ePTFE is extremely resistant to water (hydrophobic, to use the technical term). Why? The reason most commonly cited is that pores in ePTFE are much smaller than the smallest raindrop (20,000 times smaller, according to W.L. Gore), yet large enough to allow water vapour molecules to pass through.

Yet the most scientifically sound reason is the fact that an ePTFE membrane is a solid that possesses what scientists call a low “surface energy” or “surface tension.” In this state it cannot be wetted unless it is contacted by a liquid with a correspondingly low surface energy (isopropyl alcohol, for example).

Plain water, though, has a high “surface energy.” This means that water molecules are strongly attracted to each other compared to other surfaces. Thus they always want to pull together into a shape that occupies the least amount of space on other surfaces, such as spherical drops. When water (high surface energy) contacts ePTFE (low surface energy), it quickly consolidates into rounded beads or droplets and slides off.

Place a drop of water on a Teflon cooking surface. It will not flatten and flow in all directions because the attraction between the molecules pulls them into the rounded shape of a drop. Meanwhile, the attraction between water and Teflon (PTFE) is so weak that no force pulls the water toward the Teflon.

So water can only penetrate ePTFE in 2 ways:

  1. If water is applied with tremendous force. Wind-driven rain exerts a force of about 2 pounds per square inch (2 psi)—not nearly enough to penetrate ePTFE.
  2. If the ePTFE’s low surface energy is altered due to contamination.

Contamination (caused by dirt, body oils, sweat, sunscreen, insect repellent or similar foreign matter) became the unforeseen foe of the original Gore-Tex laminate of the late 1970s. Those early laminates were designed with plain ePTFE membranes, unshielded against contaminants. The membranes worked splendidly—until they collected dirt and oils, which possess a high surface energy. Any time water makes contact with dirty, oily ePTFE, it now sees what has become a water-attracting high-energy surface and thus wets that surface. The dreaded result: leakage.

The way to protect ePTFE from contamination is to make it oleophobic—resistant to oils. In today’s laminates, Gore-Tex and eVent take different approaches to achieving this objective:



Gore-Tex takes a plain (unguarded) ePTFE membrane and attaches it to a thin protective polyurethane (PU) film, creating what is known in the waterproof industry as a bicomponent laminate. The PU layer is solid (technically speaking, monolithic) and shields the ePTFE from body oils and other contaminants.

Yet if the PU film is solid, it raises an inevitable question: How can such a combo breathe—or, to use more technical language, permit water vapour transfer?

Gore-Tex accomplishes this by formulating the polyurethane film to make it water-attracting (hydrophilic). This is commonly done by incorporating functional chemical groups that “like” water, or by combining the PU with other polymer materials that are hydrophilic, often polyethlyene oxide.

As a human perspires, sweat molecules are drawn to the water-loving PU film and adhere to its inner side, a process known as adsorption. These moisture molecules gradually seep through the solid PU film via diffusion. What drives their movement? The variance in concentration (also known as gradient, or differential pressure) on the 2 sides of the film.

Everything in nature moves toward equilibrium. Hot air moves toward cooler regions; moisture moves toward drier areas. So moisture with a higher concentration of heat and humidity (as generated inside a jacket worn by a vigorously exercising person) will move toward an area of lower concentration/lower heat (outside the jacket).

The difference in concentrations drives water molecules, with their positive charges, from one hydrophilic polyurethane molecule (negatively charged) to the next. The movement can be likened to child on a set of monkey bars, progressively swinging from one bar to the next.

Once on the outer side of the PU film, the molecules evaporate and escape through the ePTFE membrane as a gas, a final step called desorption. This adsorption-diffusion-desorption process delivers the magic of breathability (technically quantified as “water vapour transfer rate,” WVTR, or “moisture vapour transfer rate,” MTVR).

How does this process compare to the performance of an unguarded ePTFE membrane? Alas, it is slower. On occasion moisture can collect and condense on the inside of the PU film, creating a sensation of dampness inside a garment even though the garment is not leaking.


Created by a company called BHA Technologies (and now owned by General Electric), eVent was originally engineered for use in industrial air filters, then later discovered to be an effective WP/BR material. Though formed from ePTFE like Gore-Tex, the eVent membrane is protected from contaminants without an added PU film. In industry jargon, Gore-Tex uses a hydrophilic monolithic membrane (water-attracting and solid); eVent uses a hydrophobic microporous membrane (water-resisting and equipped with tiny, tiny holes).

So how does eVent shield ePTFE from contaminants? The process is proprietary (a trade secret). One textile scientist has described it as an “oleophobic coating applied in a supercritical fluid process.”

Dr. Alfred Lo, an engineer on the eVent development team, puts it this way: “It is accomplished with a molecular surface coating of the individual fibrils that comprise the open-pore structure of the ePTFE material,” he says. Without a PU film involved, he adds, perspiration vapour produced inside a jacket will be vented directly to the outside of the garment without first making the inside wet.

Gore-Tex vs. eVent

Some advantages of eVent:

  • The eVent membrane mimics the performance of an unguarded ePTFE membrane. Its 1-step direct venting approach produces fast moisture-vapour transport than the 3-stage adsorption-diffusion (plus desorption) process required by an ePTFE-PU combo. While no universally accepted lab tests for fabric breathability exist (discussed later in this article).
  • eVent performs with similar efficiency in both low and high humidity levels; Gore-Tex tends to favour higher-humidity environments and performs better after its PU film has collected some moisture. During rest stops in field tests that involved eVent jackets in cold, dry conditions, some testers were observed standing in steam-like vapour clouds due to the volume of moisture vapour escaping through the fabric.
  • Because the eVent laminate transfers vapour quicker than other waterproof/breathable, active users have discovered that sweat evaporates faster. So wearing eVent in cold weather for the first few times can chill users accustomed to less breathable materials. The solution: Wear another layer or a heavier layer of insulation with eVent shells.”
  • No WP/BR fabric can keep any high-exertion wearer totally dry, yet eVent’s high moisture vapour transfer rate means it is less likely to collect water on the interior of a garment than other WP/BR technologies.

Some advantages of Gore-Tex:

  • The bicomponent ePTFE-PU (hydrophobic-hydrophilic) combo has been used and refined for 30-plus years. Its ability to resist contamination has established a strong track record of durability. Meanwhile, the long-term durability of eVent’s approach to shielding ePTFE (individually coating microscopic filaments) is still being evaluated.

The long-term performance of eVent ePTFE will remain high as long as the garment is regularly cleaned. Dr. Lo recommends cleaning eVent garments with “reasonable frequency” to prevent dirt and oil from lingering in the pore structure of eVent’s ePTFE. Over time, dirt and oil could permanently plug eVent’s pores, impacting breathability.

  • The maker of Gore-Tex also recommends regular cleanings for garments that use Gore-Tex laminates.
  • DEET, an ingredient in many insect repellents, is a solvent that can reduce the surface energy of ePTFE. Avoid spilling DEET on any waterproof.
  • Gore-Tex Pro Shell, the latest incarnation of Gore-Tex
  • Gore-Tex is widely available in a variety of designs from a large number of manufacturers; eVent remains a relative newcomer with a modest number of styles.

Varieties of Gore-Tex

The Gore-Tex product line periodically changes. Original Gore-Tex (with unguarded ePTFE) has long been out of circulation. A version called Gore-Tex XCR is now used only in footwear. The latest Gore-Tex apparel product mix uses ePTFE-based laminates all styles, all of which carry Gore’s “Guaranteed to Keep You Dry” pledge:

Gore-Tex Pro Shell: Top of the Gore-Tex line. Best for rugged, athletic, demanding use. Available in 3- and 2-layer versions; 3-layer styles are usually a touch lighter and have a slight edge in breathability.

Gore-Tex Paclite Shell: W.L. Gore’s contender in the 2.5-layer product space, targeted at weight-conscious adventurers. The ePTFE membrane is shielded on the inside by a very thin layer that Gore-Tex describes as “an oil-hating substance and carbon.”

Gore-Tex Performance Shell: Used in garments intended for lower-intensity activities, from casual recreation to travel. Available in 2- and 3-layer versions. Excellent waterproof performance; good but not exceptional breathability.

Polyurethane Films

Many laminates use membranes made from a thin film of polyurethane. It is the same hydrophilic monolithic material used in Gore-Tex to form the protective wall connected to the ePTFE membrane in its laminate. On its own, a PU film performs the same waterproof/breathable function as it does when combined with ePTFE—moving moisture in an adsorption-diffusion-desorption “monkey-bar” process (described earlier).

So if a PU film can do all that, what function is ePTFE performing in the Gore-Tex laminate? ePTFE, due to it the microscopic texture of its filaments, bonds to PU in a way that allows the polyurethane film to be uncommonly thin—thinner (so far) than any stand-alone PU films used as laminates. Admittedly, the differential in thinness is measured in microns, but even such tiny variances can make a discernable difference in technical performance and the feel of a garment.

Newer PU laminates are narrowing the performance gap. Pertex Shield and Toray laminate Entrant DT for example.

Not all polyurethane is created equal. Polyurethane can be formulated to create a wide, wide range of products, from spongy foam to a hard faux-wood furniture finish. Thus whatever proprietary steps are taken to formulate polyurethane for use as a WP/BR membrane determines its performance attributes. The wizards who stir the most advanced polyurethane cauldrons are concentrated in Asia (primarily Japan), and the race to create better-performing PU films never ends.

Polyester Films

While not yet widely used, polyester-based membranes are a gradually emerging WP/BR category. The best-known example is Sympatex, which combines polyester (hydrophobic) and polyether (hydrophilic) components to create a pore-free hydrophilic film that transports water vapour by the adsorption-diffusion-desorption process used by polyurethane films.

Sympatex boasts that its film is exceptionally thin, a mere 5 microns, and thus capable of moving moisture vapour quickly. Its maker also claims it provides above-average stretchiness, which makes it comparable to PU films. (Laminates using an ePTFE membrane offer almost no stretch.)

In terms of performance, the general industry view of polyester laminates is that they slightly lag the best PU laminates in terms of breathability. Yet they offer a key sustainability advantage: Once worn out they can be recycled as long as they are bonded to a polyester textile that can also be recycled.

PU Films vs. ePTFE

Advantages of polyurethane films:

  • Usually results in lighter, smaller-packing garments.
  • Can accommodate stretch in a garment’s design; ePTFE laminates cannot. The inherent stretchiness of PU films may make them better equipped to handle hard impacts (such as a fall on rock or ice).
  • Lower cost, yet the newest versions are approaching levels of breathability comparable to 2-layer and even high-end, 3-layer ePTFE laminates.

Advantages of ePTFE:

  • The membrane itself (and fabrics that surround it) are better equipped for rugged use.
  • Better breathability than other laminates or coatings (though the breathability gap between PU films and ePTFE is narrowing).
  • Lower risk of condensation on garment’s interior (particularly eVent’s ePTFE, which excludes the PU layer used in Gore-Tex laminates).


“Coated” waterproof uses a layer of polyurethane to cover the interior of garment, mechanically applied like paint brushed on a wall or mayonnaise spread on bread. Their chief appeal: Decent WP/BR performance for a low price.

Coatings can be used to fully seal a fabric and make it waterproof and nonbreathable. In the waterproof/breathable category, however, polyurethane coatings are formulated in 2 ways:

Microporous coatings: Include a network of infinitesimally small channels—too small for water to penetrate, yet large enough for vapour to escape. Most coated WP/BR waterproof uses monolithic-hydrophilic approach. How is a paint-like coating made porous? A foaming agent may be added so gas bubbles form and expand within the coating, creating permanent interconnected holes within the coating as it dries and becomes solid. Another method: Minute solid particles are mixed into the coating solution, causing tiny cracks and fissures to form next to the particles as the coating dries. This creates super-small passageways for water vapour to escape.

Monolithic coating: A solid, hydrophilic (water-attracting) layer that transports moisture via the adsorption-diffusion-desorption process described earlier in this article.

Unless the manufacturer identifies what type of coating is used, the 2 are visually indistinguishable. Which performs better? Likewise—differences are mostly indistinguishable. (Some garments, such as the Pertex endurance or Marmot Pre-cip)

Coated waterproof is the least sophisticated and least expensive entry in the WP/BR category. Its low cost makes it a popular choice among:

  • Outdoor explorers who move at a casual or recreational pace.
  • People who make only periodic visits into the countryside when rainy weather threatens.
  • Anyone trying to minimize weight or stretch a budget.

Coatings usually do not appeal to demanding outdoor athletes who routinely pursue high-energy, high-abrasion activities. But for travellers or casual/infrequent outdoor travellers, lower-cost coated WP/BR waterproof makes sense.

Coated WP/BR waterproof advantages:

  • In waterproof’s 2.5-layer category, coated garments are lighter and pack smaller than 2- or 3-layer laminated designs because, like 2.5-layer laminates, they include no lining, only a barely-there protective layer of raised lines, dots or resins to keep the WP/BR barrier off the wearer’s skin and give it a dry touch.
  • Less expensive than waterproofs that uses laminations, sometimes by triple-digit amounts.

Coated WP/BR waterproof disadvantages (compared to laminated WP/BR waterproof):

  • Less breathable.
  • Often a little heavier than laminated waterproof. When spread onto a fabric, polyurethane must fill in the hills and valleys of that fabric, allowing it to become comparatively thick in spots (though only by a number of microns). As a result, a coated garment may also feel somewhat stiffer.
  • Slightly lower tear strength of a textile.
  • When washed in mass-market detergents, micro porous coatings tend to collect some surfactants (cleaning additives or brighteners) that can decrease the surface tension of the coating, making it possible for water to pass through the fabric. Two solutions: Use at least 2 rinse cycles when laundering the garment (to purge all detergent residue); use a specially formulated, clean-rinsing laundry product for technical fabrics.

Breathability Comparisons

The elusive grail of achieving bare-skin breathability in waterproof has challenged designers and frustrated wearers for decades. A key obstacle for waterproof, windproof garments is that little or no air can pass through them—technically, they are not air permeable. (Try blowing air through a sleeve or body panel of a WP/BR jacket.)

When active, perspiring human bodies stir up a moist microclimate inside a garment that cries out for dispersion and evaporative cooling. At very high rates of exertion, moisture from sweat can begin to collect inside a garment, raising the potential for overheating when active or chills (due to evaporative cooling) when resting.


A variety of tests exist for measuring a WP/BR fabric’s water vapour transfer rate (WVTR; a clinical term for what most consumers call breathability as they perspire). Most of these tests carry head-scratching names (upright cup test; inverted cup test; sweating hot plate test). Regrettably, none has emerged as the consensus reference standard among manufacturers by which all waterproof breathability is evaluated.

This is an important factor for consumers to recognize when they feel confounded by the complex-looking lab results they see promoted by some waterproof manufacturers: No universally accepted standard for fabric breathability exists.

Commonly Cited Test Figures

Even though no universal breathability standard exists, outerwear manufacturers persist in trying to sway consumers by publishing impressive-sounding (though hard to fathom) lab results in their promotional materials. The following explanation may elicit a too-much-information response from many readers, but we believe some interpretation of these numbers is needed.

Over time, the use of the following measurements has grown increasingly commonplace:

  • Water resistance: The amount of water pressure (in millimetres) a fabric sample can withstand before leakage occurs. For example,  agarments using a laminate can claim 20,000mm of hydrostatic head or water pressure.
  • Breathability: The amount of water vapour (in grams) that can pass through a square meter of fabric during a 24-hour period. Using engineer’s shorthand, a laminate reports 20,000g/m²/24hr.
  • Wind resistance: The maximum wind speed a fabric can block is normally measured in cubic feet per minute.

Wind Resistance/Air Permeability

A fabric’s wind resistance is usually displayed in miles per hour (mph) or cubic feet per minute (cfm). The most common test for measuring wind resistance in fabrics is the Frazier Air Permeability Test.

The Frazier test measures the amount of air (in cubic feet) that can pass through 1 square foot of a fabric sample in 1 minute at a pressure differential equal to a wind speed of 30 mph. Such numbers are only sporadically promoted for waterproof and emphasized more on garments designed specifically for high-wind conditions.

Most waterproof/breathable waterproof fabric is also promoted “windproof.” Wind becomes a concern to people who are moving at a high velocity (skiing or cycling) or caught in a storm that involves strong winds. Wind can deprive our bodies of heat and moisture, leaving us feeling chilled. Wind can also cool us when we are vigorously exercising.

With waterproof, usually our greater concern is air circulation. Air movement enables our bodies to avoid overheating when active while wearing waterproof. This is why venting a rain jacket (using the main zipper, core vents or underarm zippers) is a key tool for regulating our comfort level when active. (Note: eVent rain jackets often exclude underarm zippers due to elevated breathability of their laminate.)

While windproof, most waterproof offer no air permeability. Soft-shell fabrics that include no laminates, meanwhile, offer good air permeability (and thus superior breathability). The downside to unlaminated soft shells: They cannot repel heavy precipitation. Even so, some high-energy wilderness travellers accept that trade off and choose laminate-free soft shells as their primary outerwear piece in order to maximize breathability.

Summarizing wind resistance/air permeability:

  • Most waterproof is considered “windproof,” though for fabrics no industry-wide windproof standard exists.
  • Air circulation helps cool a vigorously exercising person who is wearing waterproof.
  • Because most waterproof offers no air permeability, the use of vents (including a jacket’s main zipper) is an important tool for regulating air circulation.
  • Laminate-free soft shells offer generous air permeability but minimal protection from a sustained downpour; relying on a soft shell as one’s principal outerwear is a decision best left to experienced walker.

Durable Water Repellent (DWR)

The first line of defence for waterproof is not a laminate or coating but the durable water repellent (DWR) applied to the fabric’s outer surface.

All waterproof/breathable garments are treated with a DWR finish (as are most water-resistant soft shells). DWRs do not inhibit breathability because they do not coat the textile surface; instead they bond to the textile’s fibres and do not fill in the interstitial spaces between those fibres.

The purpose of DWR finish: Allow a garment’s face fabric to shed water, prevent saturation and keep water from sitting atop a WP/BR membrane. Garments remain light when they avoid becoming waterlogged.

DWR works by the contact angle or surface tension created when water contacts a textile. An optimized DWR forms a chemical chain of microscopic, tightly packed vertical “spikes” on the outermost fringe of a garment’s exterior. This dense, spiky buffer leaves no room for water to spread out, forcing it to form in round droplets. As such it beads up and swiftly slides off the fabric, having no opportunity to flatten out and seep into the textile.

Fluorocarbons (sometimes called fluoropolymers) can create the steepest angle and are the most common DWRs. Silicone and hydrocarbons are also used. Nonchemical DWRs are being studied, though none offers the performance standards achieved by chemical DWRs.

DWRs are at their best when new, but their performance can diminish with use. Their molecular chain, says Verniers, is masked by dirt and oils and can also be affected by abrasion. Such things reduce the surface tension and allow water droplets to flatten, spread out and penetrate the textile.

Regular laundering and a brief spin a clothes tumble dryer (about 10 to 15 minutes at medium heat) can revive a DWR. After prolonged or rugged use, though, waterproof will likely need to have its DWR reapplied. Spray-on and wash-in reapplication products from companies such as Granger’s, Nikwax to accomplish this goal. I prefer a spray-on products, since wash-in products may impact a garment’s breathability.

Some Subjective Observations

Other factors beyond waterproof’s WP/BR technology should influence a purchasing decision: Weight; packability; appropriateness of the face fabric  for your primary activity.

Other factors beyond waterproof’s WP/BR technology will impact wearer comfort: Lots of good, breathable waterproof choices exist, and some (particularly 3-layer laminates) tend to consistently outperform others in breathability. But even their performance expectations can be overwhelmed by overly aggressive use. A key objective when wearing waterproof during exertion is to avoid moisture build-up inside the garment. The best defence: Be alert and actively manage your comfort level.

  • Personal metabolism: If you heat up easily, modify the pace of your activity.
  • Exertion level: Same principle; slow down or speed up as needed.
  • Weather conditions: If it’s warm and steamy out, no waterproof feels comfortable; if it’s cool and dry, keep a light insulating layer handy for rest stops; in other words, be alert and nimble; adapt as conditions dictate.
  • Clothing worn underneath: Shed a layer if you’re uncomfortably warm.
  • Use of vents: If you waterproof has underarm zips, core vents, use them (in addition to your main front zip) to speed sweat’s evaporation.

Polyurethane and polyester laminates: Beyond eVent, PU and, to a lesser extent, polyester laminates are also challenging the dominance of Gore-Tex. The bi-component Gore-Tex membrane includes an anti-contaminant polyurethane layer but for years has outpaced PU competitors because its PU layer was the thinnest around (due to the structural support provided by its ePTFE layer). Yet newer PU membranes claim to offer comparable performance.

Coatings: Casual explorers, weight-conscious travellers or budget-minded shoppers are usually quite happy with lower-cost WP/BR coated waterproof. Just be aware that if you are in one of those groups and you evolve into a high-energy adventurer, most likely you will want to upgrade to a higher-performing WP/BR technology.

Maintenance: Clean your waterproof regularly to keep it performing at its best. If you notice wet blotches on the face of a rain jacket, you need to revive its DWR.

The future: Textile technology is a fascinating field. Ideas and innovations are being hatched all the time. Accept the fact that today’s whiz-bang technology may become tomorrow’s dinosaur.

Want a comfort boost on your next outdoor adventure? Ditch those cotton undies and that souvenir concert T-shirt and upgrade to a moisture-wicking base layer (also known as a first layer or performance underwear).

Wicking underwear can benefit any physically active person—from athletes to builders—and is a must for every earnest outdoor explorer, whatever the season. As the next-to-skin layer of any layering system, its role is to move moisture away from your body.

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Waterproof Fabric

Waterproof Construction (Layers)

Laminates and coatings are relatively delicate, and abrasion can damage the laminate or coating. Thus waterproof fabrics employ some type of skin-facing on the inner and outer of the laminate or coating for protection and are described as 2-layer, 3-layer or even 2.5-layer fabric. Here is brief description of each type of fabric.

There is an assumption that while 3 layer offers the greatest durability, 2 layer is the more breathable. Under laboratory conditions this is certainly the case. In practise however, the lining and the air gap between the lining and the outer fabric on the 2-layer garments inhibits the transfer of moisture vapour. Effectively, the breathability of a 2-layer garment if the same waterproof membrane is used is similar to the breathability of a 3-layer. So, if breathability is comparable why specify on over the other? The deciding factor between 2-layer and 3-layer is durability. For  mountain sports where maximum durability is required, 3-layer is recommended.


2-Layer: The Most Affordable

These are comparatively basic garments, where a membrane or coating is applied to the interior of the face fabric (outer protection) creating two layers within the fabric. Often a loose-hanging liner, usually mesh, that is stitched into the interior of the jacket which protects the laminate or coating on the inside of the jacket. This suits many people, though some find hanging linings a little too loose and bulky-feeling. Two-layer jackets are usually a touch heavier than other designs, include more pockets and are primarily intended for day trips or urban activities. 2lyer is typically lighter and softer handle and is ideal for where comfort rather than durability is the requirement.

2.5-Layer: The light weight and packable.

These use a low-weight face fabric (first and outer protective layer), a polyurethane-based WP/BR laminate or coating (second layer membrane ) and a bare-minimum protective inner layer (more like a sheen than an actual layer, which is why it is considered a half-layer). Typically this inner layer is little more than a series of dots, a grid pattern or a spray of resins that provides a touch of slickness and abrasion-resistance. These garments, typically 500grams or less, are intended for ultralight weight travel and spacesaving for travellers. Walkers who favour more breathable soft shells as their principal outerwear often toss a 2.5-layer jacket into their packs just in case a deluge hits and they need full waterproof protection. If abrasion-resistance is not one of your key concerns, 2.5-layer garments deliver high performance for a comparatively modest price.

3-Layer: The Most Durable

Jackets in this category offer rugged yet low-weight WP/BR protection. No coatings in general are used here, primarily  laminates, with a membrane tightly sandwiched between the face fabric and a body-facing liner. Designers here seek to shave grams and add refinements as minute as rounded zipper pulls to avoid any angular edges on the finished product. Jackets in the category offer a sleek, athletic fit and face fabrics that can handle less-than-gentle treatment. This makes them well-suited for serious climbers and backpackers. Products in this category aspire to high breathability, high durability and relatively low weight, but can be a more pricy.

The layering System

dannah layering system

The laying system

Layering your clothing is a tried-and-true way to ensure your comfort in the outdoors. The beauty of this simple concept is that it allows you to make quick adjustments based on your activity level and changes in the weather.

Each layer has a function. The base layer (against your skin) manages moisture; the insulating layer protects you from the cold; the shell layer (outer layer) shields you from wind and rain. You simply add or subtract layers as needed.

Your Base Layer: Moisture Management


This is your next-to-skin layer. More than any other layer, the base layer helps regulate your body temperature by moving perspiration away from your skin. Trapped inside your clothing, perspiration can leave you chilled or damp no matter how well your shell layer fends off rain and snow.

Keeping your skin dry is important for maintaining a cool body temperature in the summer and avoiding hypothermia in the winter. If you’ve ever worn a cotton T-shirt under your raincoat while you walked, you probably remember feeling wet and clammy, even though you weren’t getting wet from the rain itself. Cotton is an example of a fabric that retains perspiration and can leave you vulnerable to unwanted chills.

For outdoor comfort, your base layer should be made of merino wool (popularized by brands such as SmartWool, Ibex and Icebreaker), synthetic fabrics (such as Capilene, PowerDry and CoolMax polyester) or, for a few uses, silk. Rather than absorbing moisture, these fabrics transport (or “wick”) perspiration away from your skin, dispersing it on the outer surface where it can evaporate. The result: You stay drier even when you sweat, and your shirt dries faster afterwards.

Examples: A base layer can be anything from briefs and sports bras to long underwear sets (tops and bottoms) to tights and T-shirts. It can be designed to fit snugly or a loose fitting, fine-mesh garment. For cool conditions, thermal underwear is available in light-, mid- and expedition-weights. Choose the weight that best matches your activity and the temperature.

Your Middle Layer: Insulation


The insulating layer helps you retain heat by trapping air close to your body. Polyester fleece vests, jackets and tights are classic examples of insulation ideal for outdoor activities. They not only trap air but are also made with moisture-wicking fibres to help keep you dry.

Natural fibres such as wool and goose down are excellent insulators. Wool sweaters and shirts (especially the new generation of merino wool products) offer soft, reliable warmth and keep on insulating even when wet. For very cold and dry conditions, goose down is an excellent choice. It offers an unbeatable warmth-to-weight ratio and is highly compressible. Down’s main drawback is that it must be kept dry to maintain its insulating ability.

Classic fleece such as Polartec 100, 200 or Thermal Pro polyester and other synthetic insulations such as Thinsulate provide warmth for a variety of conditions. These are popular insulators because they’re lightweight, breathable and insulate even when wet. They also dry faster and have a higher warmth-to-weight ratio than even wool. Classic fleece’s main drawbacks are wind permeability and bulk (it’s less compressible than other fabrics).

Like thermal underwear, fleece garments are available in 3 weights for different uses:

  • Lightweight for aerobic activity or mild climates.
  • Midweight for moderate activity or climates.
  • Expedition-weight for low activity or cold climates.

Examples: For high-energy activities such as cross-country skiing, biking or running, choose lighter-weight fleece to avoid overheating. Tights or tops made of Polartec 100 or Polartec PowerDry are excellent for this. For very cold conditions, try thicker fleece such as Polartec 200 or 300.

Wind fleece such as Polartec WindPro polyester or Gore WindStopper adds a high level of wind resistance to fleece. It accomplishes this via a hidden membrane, The membrane can affect the breathability and are best used as soft outer garments in dry conditions.

Your waterproof Layer: Weather Protection


The waterproof or outer layer protects you from wind, rain or snow. waterproofs range from pricey mountaineering jackets to simple windproof jackets, but most are designed to block precipitation and hold in your body heat while allowing water vapour to escape. Most are treated with a durable water repellent (DWR) finish to make water bead up and roll off.

An outer shell is an important piece in bad weather, because if wind and water are allowed to penetrate to your inner layers, you begin to cool off. Furthermore, without proper ventilation, perspiration can’t evaporate but instead condenses on the inside of your shell.

Fit is another consideration. Your shell layer should be roomy enough to fit easily over other layers and not restrict your movement.

Fabric Weights

Though classified as “underwear,” every top in this category is appropriate for use as a stand-alone garment. Micro weight and lightweight T-shirts are standard summertime attire for active outdoor types—when hiking, riding, climbing, taking training runs, you name it—and they’re excellent for gym workouts.

When selecting tops and bottoms for use as base layers (actual underwear), anticipate the conditions you’ll face when choosing the heft of the fabric. Here are our general guidelines:

  • Micro weight: For mild to cool conditions.
  • Lightweight: Cool to moderately cold conditions.
  • Midweight: Moderately cold to cold conditions.
  • Heavyweight: Cold, frigid or blustery conditions.

Some people get cold easily. If so, consider choosing a heavier fabric. Just avoid overdoing it. If conditions become unexpectedly mild, a mid-weight or heavyweight first layer could feel a touch too toasty during vigorous activity.

Tip: Always carry a spare micro or lightweight top on my outings. They weight very little and dry very fast. At the end of a sweaty day I can change out of my “motion” shirt and into my “resting” shirt. This allows me to hand-rinse or air-day my motion shirt in preparation the next day. It’s a nice little luxury.

A few words on fit: The warmer the conditions, the looser you want your base layer to be. Snug-fitting base layers keep body-generated warmth close to your skin, boosting comfort in cool conditions. When temperatures heat up, it’s best to let your next-to-skin layers hang loose to accommodate lots of air circulation. If a garment’s advertising promotes an “athletic fit,” figure its fit will be on the snug side.


Why Wicking Underwear Beats Cotton

Wicking underwear:

  • Efficiently transports perspiration away from skin.
  • Dries much faster than conventional cotton underwear.
  • Reduces the risk of dramatic swings in body temperature.

In very windy or extremely cold conditions, such advantages are potentially life-saving.

Base Layers



This refers principally to polyester and polyester blends. Some underwear blends use high percentages of nylon (as a means of increasing abrasion resistance), or they add small amounts of spandex or elastin (to enhance stretch). Polyester, though, is the dominant synthetic fibre used in wicking first layers. It’s a soft, easy-care fabric with reliable moisture-management attributes.

Additional pros:

  • Lightest in this group.
  • Abrasion-resistant.
  • Wrinkle-resistant.
  • Easy care.

Additional cons:

  • Odours may build if worn repeatedly on multiday outings.
  • Potentially vulnerable to staining.
  • Petroleum-based fibre.


This almost always refers to merino wool, which is popular due to its soft “ultrafine” fibres. Many people are surprised to learn that lightweight (even “micro weight”) merino wool creates a terrific all-season base layer.

Additional pros:

  • Lightweight merino wool is soft on skin.
  • Usually machine-washable.
  • Stain- and wrinkle-resistant.
  • Natural fibre with a high comfort factor

Additional cons:

  • Typically available only in darker colours.
  • Potentially vulnerable to shrinkage.

What is Merino Wool?

Full wool Merino sheep.
Full wool Merino sheep. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The source of merino wool is merino sheep, a breed that originated centuries ago in Spain. (The word “merino” has Spanish roots.)

Merino sheep were introduced to Australia in 1794, and they flourished in the island nation’s temperate interior. Today the majority of merino sheep are raised in New Zealand (at high elevations), Australia, South Africa and South America where the climates and the vegetation consumed by sheep contribute to the exceptional quality of merino wool. It is estimated that 1 square inch of skin on a merino sheep produces roughly 4 times the number of fibres than other breeds.

As mentioned earlier, merino wool fibres range between 15 to 24 microns in diameter, with 17.5-micron fibres (rated “ultrafine”) often used for next-to-skin apparel. The merino industry regards 18.5 microns as the average fibre diameter most people can wear without experiencing an itchy sensation.

In comparison, human hair ranges between 18 and 180 microns, with an average diameter of about 60 microns. Only the wispiest, most flaxen human hair comes close to approximating the diameter of merino wool.

The abundant crimps in merino wool fibres permits the spinning of high bulk, resilient yarns, which can then be knitted or woven into structures tailored to particular end uses. For outdoor apparel and socks, knits are the most common structures.


Silk (Treated Silk)

Silk underwear is largely a specialty fabric, intended primarily for cool- and cold-weather usage. “Treated” indicates the silk has been chemically modified to enhance wicking (a fabric’s capacity for moving perspiration off skin to speed its evaporation). Fans of silk are strongly attracted to its smooth texture.

Additional pros:

  • Soft, luxurious texture.
  • Thin; adds no bulk and layers well.
  • Natural fibre.

Additional cons:

  • Some styles require hand-washing; machine washing sometimes causes shrinkage.
  • Potentially vulnerable to abrasion and sunlight.
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Wicking: Synthetic Fabrics

Wicking: Synthetic Fabrics

Capillary action also occurs with synthetic performance underwear. Here’s how:

  1. An active person wearing a polyester T-shirt begins to sweat.
  2. A high-humidity “microclimate” is created between the person’s sweating skin and the shirt covering the skin.
  3. Perspiration vapour and moisture condense on the garment’s interior (its underside).
  4. Because everything in nature moves toward equilibrium, the high-humidity air mass between skin and garment will seek a path to a lower-humidity environment. The difference (gradient) between temperature and humidity on both sides of the garment becomes the driving force that moves the warmer, wetter air beneath the garment toward the cooler, dryer air on the outside.
  5. Wicking takes place when perspiration moisture travels along the surface of the fibre but is not absorbed into the fibre. (Synthetic fibres are, essentially, plastic—and virtually non-absorbent). Moisture escapes to the outside through the interstitial spaces (the miniscule holes) between the knitted yarns.
  6. Moisture is dispersed across the fabric’s exterior, where it evaporates after contacting the lower-humidity environment outside the shirt.

Wicking is enhanced by:

Fabric construction:

  • Fibres with an altered texture (roughened or grooved) can transport moisture more quickly.
  • Fabrics such as Polartec PowerDry use a 2-sided “bi-component” construction. Such fabrics typically position thinner yarns closer to the skin (sometimes dotted with moisture-collecting “touch spots”) and place larger yarns on the garment’s exterior, providing more surface area for moisture dispersal and evaporation

Chemical treatments:

  • Some type of chemical finish is applied to nearly every synthetic fabric in order to boost wicking performance. The finish usually convey some degree of hydrophilic (water-attracting) attributes to polyester, allowing it to more speedily draw moisture along its non-absorbent fibres and transport it to the garment’s exterior.

Note: Polyester, while synthetic, does have a very small absorption rate, roughly 0.4% of its weight. (In contrast, cotton can absorb 7% of its weight.) Polyester’s absorption rate is so minimal that it is generally regarded as non-absorbent.

Wicking Magic of Wool

Superfine wool Merino ewes and lambs, Walcha, NSW.
Superfine wool Merino ewes and lambs, Walcha, NSW. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wicking magic of Wool

Technically, it can be argued that wool does not wick moisture. The end result, however—fibres moving perspiration away from skin and dispersing it through evaporation—is the same.

Rather than straining perspiration moisture and vapour through the tiny, tiny gaps in a non-absorbent synthetic knit, wool’s inner core (cortex) absorbs moisture—between 27% and 36% of its weight.

This absorbed moisture is then impacted by the lower humidity, air movement and (potentially) sunlight on the outside of the garment. The result: evaporation.

With so much moisture being absorbed, will a wool garment feel soggy? If it becomes saturated and is confined to a damp or high-humidity environment, it could. (Synthetics are often a better choice for excursions where persistent rain is likely.)

Yet wool has the capacity to both absorb moisture (in a vaporous state such as perspiration) while also resisting water (in a liquid state such as light rain). This is one of the almost-too-good-to-be-true marvels of wool.

Wool fibres have a scaly exterior layer called the cuticle, and that is overlaid with the epicuticle, itself coated with lanolin, a waxy, water-shedding film. It is the epicuticle and its waxy coating that makes wool resistant to mist and light rain (hydrophobic). It is this hydrophobic layer that touches your skin, minimizing (or eliminating) any sensation of dampness.

A very sweaty person can overwhelm any fabric. During those moments a wool garment will likely feel less damp and clammy on your skin than a synthetic garment, but it may feel weightier. A synthetic garment will dry out and feel lighter more quickly.

As a total sweat machine myself, I have to laugh at enthusiastic promotional claims (“Keeps you dry!”) sometimes linked to wicking garments. If a T-shirt shut down my ability to sweat, I’d be worried. What wicking fabrics do is allow you to feel drier faster than if you were wearing cotton or some other nontechnical fabric—and that’s a huge positive that, in my mind, makes them worth the money.

Wool Texture and Temperature Regulation

Some people may be hesitant to consider wearing wool as a next-to-skin fabric.

Realize that performance underwear designed with wool uses merino wool, which consists of “ultrafine” fibres just 17.5 microns in width, fine enough that people will not experience the scratchy sensation often associated with traditional wool. The average human hair, just for comparison, measures 60 microns.

A property unique to wool is its ability to release small amounts of heat as it absorbs water. This effect is known by the arcane term “heat of sorption.” Energy, in the form of small amounts of heat, is produced through the work of moisture-absorption by wool fibres. Thus, in damp conditions, a wearer could potentially collect a small amount of comfort from this phenomenon. This is in addition to the countless warmth-trapping air pockets created by all the crimps inherent merino wool fibres.

Could that make wool too warm in hot conditions? Not necessarily. Evaporating moisture within the cortex can cool the air between the wool fabric and your skin, promoting a stable body temperature. Also, breathable wool fibres can buffer skin from air heated by the sun the same way they can trap warmed air and keep it close to skin in cool conditions.

Admittedly, these nuances can be tough to detect in the field, and when conditions turn seriously cold, you will obviously need more than a lightweight wool tee to maintain a comfortable body temperature.



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