Synthetics vs natural material fabrics - Sunwaysite






Clothing not only outdoors

1st December 2017

and following entries /updates





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1. 2. Quilted Layers - Jackets

26th January, *16th February 2020


Staying protected

for longer


I will return to the vests that got mentioned the last time. I came across a vest that had fit we know from sports clothing, the very thin ones used by rock and cave climbers. But this vest was with synthetic insulation of medium weight. This caught our attention. Someone started making insulating vests the way we do them in our wool versions for decades. The width below the chest is gradually reduced, so the male that wears it doesn’t feel like a cocoon and is capable of moving nimbly. This hasn’t been a problem in women lines as it is a part of the looks. The vest even promised an improved synthetic fill that was made, together with the shell, of recycled polyester and nylon, respectively (bluesign certified).


The vest has this athletic fit normally unusual among the vests, or gilets if you prefer. It also is wider in shoulders. It’s a pity that we can’t see cuts like this more often. Though I still think Haglofs (the vest bought at webtogs) got here by focusing on a snug fit first rather than on the cut itself. Fortunately I, and the purpose I got it for, fit their sizing just right. So far the shapes have run in universal fashion of narrow shoulders and a cocoon-like torso. This shape doesn’t help with the mobility in terrain which is the point of the vest; shielding against the heat loss in critical areas without compromising one’s movement. Especially, if the vest is not worn on a naked body but on one or more layers. The higher volume of air exchange also cools the body down, which isn’t why the vest is on. The vest is the first piece of clothing human ever wore, besides something wrapped around the waist. A leather strap tied around the waist took care of the fit. And while the reduction towards the waist won’t suit everyone every time, the fitted cuts are great for many uses and body shapes where the straight cut is not. So one would expect to find some from the manufacturers focused on this type of clothing. The exposed shoulders are a substantial part of the torso so these centimetres matter as well. The airtight fit closer to one’s neck than to the shoulder looks cosy but I always thought more practical thinking wouldn’t be amiss. I guess future differentiation will take care of this, and that’s what this ‘new’ vest is. The variety of these garments grows. We can notice in other types of clothing where there is more focus, like in jackets, in the last 10 years. That is an advantage for the user and the seller alike - in a tight competition. The downside is that as the marketing thickens, things then tend to get confusing.


Jacket


The outdoors clothing is filled with more technology, attention and is getting more differentiated. It can make things look unnecessarily confusing. The synthetic materials got closer to natural materials in some aspects and the natural materials are becoming a greater part of the technical clothing. But the basics remain unchanged. We just distinguish in the variety more sharply because the lines among their properties and uses are more delineated. This is what we personally always look at, it hasn't changed much:


Cost:

There’s always going to be a degree of deception present on the market. The garment doesn’t have to be expensive. We use expensive pieces of clothing alongside inexpensive ones. The technologies have trickled down to budget options, so if the garment does what it needs to be doing for us, it is all that we need to buy. These manufacturers can make a product that is difficult to find elsewhere even when the price is no object so we shouldn’t discard them. They may, or may not be behind in sustainability, you may or may not consider, and the durability may, or may not be a factor. One needs to consider this within the particular scenario (the intended use, specific item, etc.). Some materials can’t be had for a low cost. When we need these, we buy them instead of the options that don’t feature them. We sit down and think what we need not what we are told would be nice to have and we certainly might possibly need (most certainly not). It saves us money for things we will need next. When some features are real-world practical and useful to us, often combined with low-weight/bulk requirement in this field, we look for them and get them (not for the price tag which can be deceiving both ways). The false economy can also put pressure on your wallet and needles wasting. The reality is all things will have to have their value reflected in the price we pay for them, and that value reflected values we respect and hold dear.


Down:


We consider down when we need maximum warmth in a dry environment. At -10C the frost is dry and comfortable, and the zero is reassuringly far. At this point and below, people typically appreciate the best weight to warmth ratios. When not, the jacket as such is put aside for when it’s needed, and a more breathable garment is used. The chances are that you are moving and don’t face winds. Water-resistant/waterproof outer shell improves down jacket loft capacity in higher humidity.



Water-resistant down:


We consider whether we need the down performance to be more versatile. It has the best weight to warmth ratio everywhere except the prolonged dump conditions (at the temperatures of 0 to 5C and up). It copes with the humidity for some time, especially if alternated with drier periods (like spending nights in dry). We stay away from nasty treatments of down (PFC), what harms nature harms us and our kids. The water-resistant outer shell will further improve the down jacket loft capacity in changing humidity. Keeping in mind that when we choose an overkill product for insulation or features for the particular use, we end up with less ideal piece of clothing and carry more weight.


Synthetic fill:


If the conditions are humid most of the time or continuously, and staying warm is a problem (even using down), we look for synthetic insulation or wool because the advantage of the down fill is diminishing. The synthetic insulation can now be very compact, packable, lightweight and also warm for most scenarios. It maintains these properties in a humid environment. We can find quickly what are the top sorts at a given time. They are used for clothing for some time, further worked on and used more widely. The practice confirms the marketing claims, or not, and the relevant information is accessible more easily than ever through the good of the Internet.


Thickness and stitching:


The manufactures combine tuned sets of properties/garments/prices their own way, but they have to all come to something similar in this field (style, which has undeniable place in other spectrums of clothing, is not the most prominent feature here). We pick the thickness we need for protection out of the range of a given make. We can also compare the details that are important with other(s) so we can make a good choice. We tend to look for less stitching with bulkier calibre as these two features go hand in hand in increasing the insulation power. For lighter weights, we choose the patterns that suit other factors or purposes (shape of the baffles, sustainability, cut, materials, features, colour, price). If we need to get an absolute maximum out of a lighter weight thinner piece of clothing, mostly for extreme endeavours, we apply a minimum stitching approach to the choice as well.


Wool:


The number of windproof jackets that use it as insulation increases. We have no experience with this as yet, but the wool can make the garment only more pleasant to wear while lending it its known properties. The garments should protect against hypothermia even in the case of accidents that include water and cold as the wool remains insulating when wet.

* We just got Dilling Outdoor Jackets that use merino wool as insulation. The recent conditions, Dennis and especially Ciara storm provided also an opportunity to see what they are like in rough conditions at gale winds close to zero at times. The fill developed for this jacket (82% merino and 18% bio-polyester) felt similar to down fill which was a surprise. You could easily mistake the jacket for a down one. We also noticed instantly how warm the jackets were, that without paying particular attention to this. It is likely that it will also be getting comparatively warmer relative to the raising humidity. See in examples.



Example

I will pick a gear that demonstrates performance, good materials as well as careful designs. They are right out of our wardrobe. The brands established in a particular area will vary, the product lines and clothing on the offer themselves less so.

Triton jacket made by Mountain Equipment Zlatka is using. It’s a down jacket, and I won’t be tiring with specifications, which may not be up to date with the refresh version today. Even though this down is untreated (not water-resistant) Zlatka was using it in the Andes over 4000 m for our everyday routine: get up and head under the starry sky or in the rain/sleet right from the beginning above the paramo tops. We spend the whole days out but we had a cosy cabin at disposal to spend the night in, with the heating. So we were returning to a dry and warm room. If it wasn’t raining, it was freezing so the temperature was always at its worst (out of the relatively mild range), around zero, combined with the highest humidity and fresh winds. Sometimes very fresh. Seeing the hummingbirds in this setting makes you double-check with your other half that the conditions or the altitude haven’t mixed with your mind or eyesight, especially if it landed two meters away as if out of curiosity. The jacket uses a decent 700 fill and it is stitched quite a lot. But those stitches are not facing the outside as is usual. They are covered with a robust layer of waterproof Pertex (two layers exactly) that spreads the heat evenly and gives the stitching protection – a microlayer on the top of it. The down fill is then not only relatively warm but also slow at getting damp. The whole day certainly is not enough as long as you wear it and return to a drier place for the night. The practical features of the jacket are also useful. Someone reckoned people will be spending a long time in it with conditions changing. This shows a clever design that results in a warm jacket that is not heavy and protects a vital part of your body when you need it. Zlatka was using it similar occasions (e.g. in Nepal) including the fickle UK weather in winter when the temperature dips and the winds pick up the speed.


Fitzroy jacket  This jacket got also used in the Andes as part of my kit. (I think that’s all we got from ME). It uses synthetic insulation. It is a good example of less stitching. It hasn’t got any. In other words, it is as warm as it can be for the fill so it has the highest efficiency for its gauge. Fitzroy is a slightly lower calibre jacket than Triton. It adds useful insulation and overall protection (the latter is basically on par with Triton considering). Its cut is very deliberately executed so it can be put over other clothing yet minimise the bulk. It can also be used with just a single thermal shirt on without the feeling you swim in it. The torso is relatively narrow shape while the width of the upper arm part of the sleeve is slightly more generous. The forearms are tapered and the cuffs adjustable. The result is maintained mobility (I had two woollen thermals and Rab Microlight jacket under it), versatile use and protection like the one Triton jacket gives you. In comparison, it trades a bit of warmth for being a very compact synthetic jacket for the insulation power it has. The practical features are a matter of course and good materials also ensure durability. The highlight of Triton mentioned above is clever stacking of the two layers (the insulating and protective one) whereas Fitzroy combines the non-stitch fill with precise, effective cut that manages to fit a wide range of use.

Zlatka has been also using MH Ghost Whisperer Jacket (used also on the Nepal trek). This exotic jacket is basically an ultra-compact insulated windproof with 800 water-resistant down fill (I think it now sports 850 FP). It’s warm so it can be layered. You don’t know you carry it. Aimed at more sports use it can be forgiven the futuristic style colours. On the other hand, she loves her £35 thinner mid-weight untreated down vest Trek 100 from Decathlon. The stated 800 FP feels like in the range when compared my 800 FP vest, and it gives that kind of warmth for the thickness of this mid-weight vest. It has the right features, an excellent cut, a nice matte black and a convincing guarantee about the source of the down.


* Outdoor Jacket  from Dilling which uses merino filling and with which we have recent experience can add to the examples. This is a medium calibre (weight), compact windproof jacket that is roughly equivalent to my ageing Rab Microlight. One of the few closer-fitting ones, there aren’t many options of a snugger fit in this thickness. It’s made of a netting pattern polyester similar to other jackets except this one is from recycled material. It feels durable and pleasant to touch. This jacket provides outstanding mobility if the size is a close fit. It can be layered under a top easily. Made in Dilling traditional quality, it doesn’t feel like a fast line product. The jacket stood up as we would expect in the windy, humid weather. The jersey inserts securing the sleeves are very well implemented, stop the wind from getting in, and can be extended (thumbholes). Hand pockets have zips behind the hem. It packs into the same stuff sack as the Microlight jacket (my version is 750 FP). It will, however, take more room if the packing is pushed to the extreme. The Rab down jacket is optimised for compactness and is also more universal cut. The Dilling jacket weights 27% more (at somewhat higher relative humidity), but it also is warmer. Less stitching and the design/insulation used mean that the ‘gaps’ along the stitches are practically non-existent. That results in a minimal escape of body heat through them (lowered loft rather than exposed gaps) which no doubt contributes to the overall insulation.



Cold

or a tough frost, it is a very relative figure to poit out meaningfully, it depends on many circumstances. Conditions around zero are the ones that are most likely to be underestimated but potent of killing or causing severe hypothermia if one is caught unprepared, remote or in an accident. I was moving at speed in -25C when it takes some effort to melt all the ice built in you beard once in a warm place. I was also spending whole winter days at this temperature and not moving much, just getting a few minutes of relief after an hour or so. The body is hugely adaptable but it needs time to adapt, -10C then feels like a thaw. This is part of those ’circumstances’ as well. The best general guide is, looking at the circumstances and ask, am I going to be cold?; without overthinking.




Large 20 x 20



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Itchy wool?

24th January 2020

Wool can be itchy on the skin. I mentioned before that the body response (our brain for the most part) to the itchy feel along with swelling of the fibre in resin-coated wool can completely reverse how it feel next to the skin.

We have just come across itchy socks. They are knit of pure wool, not merino wool, of winter weight. The yarn, as far as we can tell, seems slightly stiffer. Perhaps it was selected for the purpose. They come from Italy though were bought in the UK. These are home socks, they wouldn’t do well on hikes. They were pretty itchy when we put them on after they dried out. So this was an interesting observation and we were curious about what this is going to be like. We are used to wearing the wool of all kinds and we sort of forgot the feeling. Well, it at least makes you think, “we are used to wearing the wool”. And now quite some itch coming from these socks. I am saying this so that it’s clear that there may be some body-used-to-wool response already in this. On the other hand, it is clear that we don’t have this itchy wool in our garments because this wouldn’t stand out as abnormal. And we certainly wear only very pleasant wool next to the skin in thermals and underwear. After about a half an hour of normal use (forgot about them) the itch went away. Ha. Where is the itching?

First, there was still a slight residual feeling of that kind but the change was abrupt – in a half an hour. The fibres settled as they got arranged by the movement of the foot and flattened. Second, the body probably was making some adjustments as our experience tells us plus allowing for the fact the wool as such isn’t foreign to our skin. Immunisation effect of a sort? Let’s say. Third, the swelling caused by saturation of the fibres that come in contact with the body works with non-treated wool as well to some extent. The fibre is filled with a small amount of moisture carried by the vapour escaping with the body heat. This micro amount of moisture causes the fibre to change its surface structure, it micro swells. This is what wool does naturally if it becomes undersaturated (bone dry) and takes some moisture back. So apart from the sensory adjustment that we think must exist, the wool fibre changed in those two aspects since we put them on our feet. That seems to be a plausible explanation of the change that occurred both quickly and noticeably. At first, there was a hint of a residual itching-like feel that started to feel agreeable on the skin. It then turned into the familiar sensation when you have wool on or close your body. Maybe a bit like discovering good coffee without sugar - somehow it’s hard to go back. And this was itchy wool, nothing like we know in our use.

The socks as such are treat! We just pulled a few rubber threads out from the hems. They always tend to overdo this. Otherwise, buying the wool socks, it’s good to remember that given the purpose they tend to felt mechanically a little, and can also get some shrinkage with washing. So selecting one size group/size up can be a way to go.






Elastane (Spandex, Lycra)

2nd July 2019


Looking at the function in outdoors, another synthetic with outstanding properties (stretch) that it lends to the specialist garments is elastane.

It is used in a range of close-fitting performance clothing that reduces bulk, flapping, improves aerodynamics and extends layering.

When it comes to trousers, more compact, closer-fitting though sophisticated cuts are ideal for hiking with frequent or prolonged climbs in changeable or steep terrains.

Our first lightweight but very durable hiking trousers that had elastane in the fabric were Keela trousers that we bought well a decade ago in two pairs for each. The stretch reduces or removes friction and movement restriction in places of resistance such as in knees and around thighs. Restrictive pressures there can hinder a considerable amount of free movement. Even relatively small but constant pull of often sweaty trousers against the action is lost energy that could be used elsewhere. Something will depend on the cut details (and articulated knees), but the stretch is still the ultimate aid for walking without energy leaking where it matters or when time is precious (no rest in sight).

Manufacturers tend to overdo the close-fittingness of these trousers just a bit (or a lot) to emphasise the purpose (elastane) and expand the range of products they sell and even accommodate looks and style. As a result, the number of ideal trousers with good air circulation and truly minimal friction ratio are not easy to find even among good traditional brands as they are experimenting with fashion effect, sales, where they can push the practicality and artificial differentiation. We agreed recently with enthusiasts and people going out for trekking that finding the right balance and functional cut with stretch is not easy unless the focus is sport or rock climbing. The Rohan Trailblazers (permethrin fabric only) *and Haglofs Mid Flex black trousers (Sportshoes subscr.) can be mentioned as good example of type of trousers that have all the advantages of the stretch and compact yet functional cut. The Elastane shouldn't be washed above 30 C.





Alpaca and goats fibre air content (mohair, cashmere)

24th March 2019   


     Although it is known that the fibre of alpaca fleece has technically higher insulation power than the wool (largely due to its higher air content), a lot depends on following structures of building blocks that form the garment; how the yarn was spun, how the strand was plied and how the fabric or knit was made. These structure-forming steps can lead to markedly different results, different actual air contents and so the resulting insulation.

Therefore, looking at this fibre in isolation is only part of the story. The finer sheep’s wool, not to mention the lambs and merino wool, has a natural tendency to build air-trapping structures during the process, so this is a property that needs to be factored in. The air content of the fibre is just one of the building blocks of the fabric, albeit an important one. Because the sheep’s wool in particular has this tendency, more than the lustre, somewhat sleeker (hair-like) wools from alpaca and goats, the context of the steps that make the garment is equally essential.

That said, the alpaca will offer you a distinct feel, improved properties and advantages in several regards over the sheep’s wool. As such, together with the other wools, it represents an excellent option. My old alpaca sweater vest was among my all-time favourites. The availability of the garments and the yarn is much better these days. When comparing heavy-weight socks knit of the alpaca to the socks knit of the wool (with the same or very similar technique on the common production steps), we found the alpaca slightly warmer (the wool fabric still captured slightly more air). If there were more changes to the processes, the result would vary more as well. So the alpaca (and the goats) gets a head start with a better fibre and more air but the wool, particularly the fluffier sorts, like to make up for this during the spinning and other processes that follow so that the advantage is lessened or can be even lost. When it comes to this kind of considerations then, a careful look at how the garment was made and how much air it tends to hold will tell more about its insulation power than judging by the kind of the fibre alone.

*Finally, blends of alpaca fleece yarn and wool should be considered. In many cases, the resulting fabrics have better form stability and the form overall than the garment made of the alpaca alone.




                                      A lighter weight, lightly dyed alpaca/mohair (50/50) blend spun for a looser, airy yarn. The simple machine knit is also looser, of a single 280 m/100 g strand; the fleece is mere 280 g (Zlatka’s size) but very insulating. It’s a result of a superior fibre and fluffy fabric that traps plenty of air for its weight.

A heavier medium weight, tight knit, snug-fit sweater, hand knitted with a drier (less oil content) wool and merino strands combined. These fabrics have a high air content capacity. Also details like the knit stitches running lengthwise here create deep channels on the wrong side, filled with stable air. *We came across this wool yarn (170m/100 g) more by chance but it turned out to be of excellent quality. Elastic, very firm, a kind that is retaining its form and definition. It is particularly pleasant against the skin, easily matching the merino (640/100 g) with which it is combined. The combined strands give denser fabrics than a single strand of equivalent thickness. This can be taken into account when using hand knitting.

Bulky weight alpaca socks made of double-strand hand knit. We use a lighter weight single strand ones as well (undyed). Lana Bambini (UK) sells 65 % wool, 35% alpaca socks made of natural yarn in all sizes (you may want to felt them, then going one size group up is a general rule). The Wool Company (Cornwall), and Soul Destiny sell hiking/outdoors socks with addition of nylon (70 % mohair and 75% alpaca socks respectively). They are not overly elastic, a problem of most of the woollen hiking socks, so they strike a better balance between blood circulation and secure fit in the boot/shoe. Both tested very well so far, time will tell about the durability.






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1.1. Quilted Layers and Shells

19th December 2018, 3rd February 2020



           Polyester and polyamide (or nylon) are base materials for a range of specialist clothing that fight rain and wind very effectively. Jackets and vests fall into this group, and they add more warmth to their water-wind resistant/proof properties. The gear combines lightness of the fabrics with lightweight insulation in layers and is extremely efficient as body warmer and elements-shielding protection. At the same time, it can be extremely compact – compressible. These properties culminate in high-end equipment. The combination makes the quilted technical clothing exceptional whether for possible comfort/practical reasons or for getting the needed effect in harsh conditions outdoor and in sports. I use specialist gear made of both technical and natural materials. I have four vests, just for one example, two of which are woollen and two quilted down vests. I use these types for decades, and the materials and availability regarding both have improved markedly during that time. (Just days ago I noticed organic cotton 70/yak 30 wool blend shirt in a mainstream manufacturer range/shop from which I have bought flannel shirts recently.) The thinner vest of each type can also be easily layered. I tend to use the woollen one (knit) on or under my woollen sweater and the technical one universally. The thicker ones are worn as an outer layer more often. The technical thicker sweater-vest is made of fine recycled ripstop polyester and down (800-fill). Alongside the polyester, the company uses ripstop polyamide (nylon) for shells. This make (Patagonia) is also using reclaimed down in their products (and their vests) and recycled materials for synthetic fill. These vests and jackets fit a handy pouch. The other one, a thin vest, can fit my palm in seconds (a pocket or a small pouch) yet it gives the body instant boost for warmth and acts as a windshield. These designs can be extremely compact/lightweight, so they make possible having these high-performance technical pieces always close at hand.

The woollen clothing has, of course, its very own set of properties that make it stand out. Design, pattern of the knit (e.g. air trapping) and the inherently substantial nature of the material with tendency to stability determine and tune the function of these garments. This outer vest that has just replaced one of our old ones is often worn on mid-layer sweatshirt or flannel; a heavier weight undyed yarn (two strands combined for density) is hand-knitted and designed to be mildly felted.


The mid-weight knit shown in the second picture on the right is a machine-knitted blend of bloomy mohair/alpaca yarns and on the left is a denser knit of merino on a different machine, both two-strand simple knit (one year in use). The pictures are shot under different lighting.

Combining windproof shells with warm layers such as sweater or fleece is another way to “quilt” the windproofs as the insulation layer is evenly spread around the body.

It’s a different configuration of the same. We can separate both distinctly different layers, the windproof on its own weights little and packs to almost nothing. At the same time, we can improve breathability rapidly by boosting air circulation when switching the windproof shell on (warmth stability) and off (maximum air/vapour flow).

Well-chosen knit garments (thickness) on their own are exceptionally well suited for physical activities where the structure of the fabric imitates and acts as a fur on mammals. They create a warm aura around the body while being particularly flexible and effective at getting rid of excess heat and moisture. This in normal to cold conditions. Another potential advantage is having the possibility of choosing the exact material or the garment that we want as the insulation and possibly a wider range of use of such a kit. Adding a windproof membrane extends that range to a maximum.

Sweatshirts, on the other hand, made of more tightly woven fabric than knits of sweater act more like skins, particularly so if the fit is snug. They are less versatile as they contain less air that you can lock or open to exchange with or without a windproof shell. They, however, are different in that they are less bulky for the same weight and resist wind better on their own. Terry fabric on the underside is in that sense between the knit and the dense, fine thread fabric of the weave.

Best breathability of the windproof/waterproof jackets is served by Velcro tabs ((or better metal press studs) placed along the flap and the zip. When you don’t need the zippers done they can hold it in the right shape, protect you but also allow for sufficient exchange of air - can breathe on a fast-paced hike. More air permeable membranes are always a plus as they dry out quicker and add that tiny bit of breathability, but it’s the Velcro and well-implemented fastening that make the difference for a jacket like this.

Looser fit raincoats with a built-in compartment for rucksack called poncho offer generally better ventilation than the jackets. They also cover the legs better. The access to the rucksack is not restricted more than with the separate rain cover (if anything it can simplify things in terrain). The water-resistance of the material can be comparatively lower as the straps aren’t in contact with it so pressure and rubbing are not causing problems. Its main disadvantage is additional bulk but for the right situation, it is the best solution (walking long distance in the rain with a load or when a bit more size/weight is no problem). We use Ferrino Trekker coats for years, there probably are better options but it still delivers when the situation calls for it.



- - 


31st January 2019


Similar to windproof/waterproof shell jackets, where synthetics like nylon and polyester excel, we benefit from these materials when it comes to trousers as well. As we wear much less insulation on the lower part of the body, the efforts are made to get other things instead, such as wind-resistance, weight and ability to dry out. This is where trousers need to perform and where these fabrics are superb.

When we do need a bit of insulation and use winter trousers, the technical compositions will still score better for the weight-to-insulation ratio (though good moleskins aren’t far away) and crucially, they dry out much faster which is a big advantage in humid conditions. These fabrics can also be made to resist water easier. I found polyester blends with 1/3 of cotton very good materials, besides the trusted nylon.

Fully waterproof shell trousers are jacket version for legs. Although it may come a little odd to some, we are big proponents of using lightweight umbrellas outdoors and that for sheer practicality of the small thing. It’s compact, effective and we can get rid of it in an instant (and are useful for photography). But there are times where the umbrellas don’t work.


If it’s raining heavily, for a prolonged period, high winds or tricky terrain come to this, and we need to walk far, we replace the rain resistant gear and/or umbrellas with the waterproofs. Apart from the regular jacket, we use long coats that are formed to swallow rucksacks on our backs, too. When these conditions last long enough, there comes a need to protect your legs because even if the soaked trousers weren't much of a problem, the flooded boots often are, as these are much more difficult to dry out on longer treks. In this case, and at that point, the water will get there by sucking it from the heavy ends of the drenched trousers and legs. It can surprise how quickly your feet are in pools of water. (Possible gaiters will slow the process only a little, if in use).


That can have implications for your feet and the ability carry on walking regularly and for long hours (while the trousers can continue to dry out when put on the next day).

It's when the waterproof pants are useful. Only they will keep you dry, and later warm, under these conditions. Made of the same materials the waterproof jacket is made of they can double as a perfect windproof or added insulation layer especially in the cold, when you hung around one place without moving much, getting through wet vegetation etc. We use them decades this way and boy, is this useful few hundred grams in some handy stuff sack. By far the best are shells that you can put on without messing with your muddy boots, let alone in the middle of a downpour. These can be put on/taken off just as you are by doing/undoing zips that run along the full length of the legs.




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Having added to the wool section several times I have rewritten it.

4th June 2019


      We are using a great range of materials for outdoor clothing today. Knowing their basic properties, weak and strong points, helps us to choose the right kind of materials or blends for outdoor activities or in sports and also for normal uses. Below is a summary of the most used materials and their properties relative to these requirements.



Wool



The wool breathes very well and it’s warm dry or wet.

Transports sweat well by wicking. It doesn’t hold the moisture trapped it in the fibre although it absorbs some and gets therefore heavier when wet.

Lighter than cotton when wet.


Moderately warm to warm dry or wet (in the cold) the wool is first of all insulating. Wools have temperature regulating property so they don’t cause overheating and can be used over a great range of temperatures. How warm the fabric is depends on its type and its construction. The wool is known for building highly effective insulating structures and excellent air/vapour transport. Modern technology tight weave fabrics excel at skin temperature control, breathability and moisture wicking. They are good as a base (e.g. merino wool 160-200 g/m²) and mid-layer (200 - 400 g/m²). Garments of loftier constructions are good as mid and outer layers. Icelandic wool (lopi type) is excellent as outerwear as are garments made of undyed, deliberately worked yarns (non-industrial processes).


Wools of fine fibres are neutral or soft next to skin with unequalled feel. For the first-layer garments, a treated fibre is preferred because the underclothing is washed more frequently. The treatment won’t harm any gauge, although the thicker pieces don’t need it and retain their supreme qualities better without the treatments (sweaters). The wool feels and is different from the plant fibre based fabric as it becomes part of the skin layer rather than acting as a cover. It can take some getting used to it and is addictive to wear. The fibre responding to the environmental effects from both the inside (body vapour, sweat) and the outside (humidity, temperature) acts as a regulator. The inner part of the fibre fills with moisture but only to the desired point and then is releasing any excess. It makes the fabrics (initially a fleece of an animal) more substantial to cope with worsened weather (wind) while maintaining essential warming properties. Concentrated fine or special wools like cashmere, mohair, yak and alpaca are among the warmest, very soft and are great for warmer thin or thick layers. Some wools give yarns that are pleasant to touch and against the skin but are also durable and water resistant to some degree. Small producers also sell both the undyed yarn and garments made of them. Other coarser wools are used for unique qualities clothes when worn as outerwear. The woollen clothes are tough, durable and long lasting, much more so than e.g. clothing made of cotton.


Two types of treatments



The wool worked by enzyme-based processes (and other non-polymer or natural polymer treatments) can be regularly machine-washed with minimum care, resists pilling and is particularly pleasant directly on the skin. A number of technologies and products have entered or are entering the industry of the wool treatment that prevent shrinking. They remove or limit the tendency of natural adherence of the wool fibres on the surface mostly by using methods based on Plasma (e.g. Naturetexx) or Enzyme treatments and match the results of Chlorine-Hercosett process or are sufficient (Enzyme) for wool specific washing programs. Further progress for new polymers that solve the problematic affinity to the cuticle of the fibre is being made, including the biopolymers for use in combined and new specific applications (e.g. EXP). These methods are less invasive and they retain the character, quality and natural properties including antibacterial/odour control performance of the wool markedly better than the old methods. They also reduce the impact on the environment and comply with GOTS, Nordic Swan and Bluesign (also Oeko-Tex 1000, i.e. not just Oeko-Tex 100) and become part of a marketing fit for the 21st century.



Conventional Chlorine-Hercosett-process: The scales of the fibres are smoothened by etching (chlorine) to various degrees depending on the exact process and its intensity and then in the vast majority of cases coated with the polymer known as Hercosett 125 (in varying degree again). It is used for the majority of the yarn in the industry and consequently for most of the clothing that customers buy in shops. The resin-coated wool is resistant to mistreatment during the washing. It is an old process typical for 20th-century industries and their approaches aimed at production with no other considerations (and customer manipulation). The seller seldom informs about the treatment other than stating simplified care of the garment.


The labels can be more informative (though seldom explicit) and touching the material reveals there is something wrong with the wool (sometimes it is accompanied with chemical smell - different to the typical smell of wool). The material feels different, too, it has a synthetic, glossy feel to it. As the fibre is covered with a synthetic, the actual composition is changed. Along with the specific handle, the wool’s exceptional repellence to dirt and bacteria is lessened. More robust, outer layer garments also lose the wool’s natural bloom that gives the garments better warmth to weight ratio. Although the changes can be considered as aspects of feel, they have practical implications in more extreme use in sports and outdoors. The lighter weight gauges micro-bloom can also be noticeably affected depending on the strength of the treatment.


Natural wool products today are easy to wash without compromising their qualities if you stick to standard practice or if you are using suitable washing programs (hand wash or woollens). Petry-Lanazym process and some other methods that do not require coating/use of highly reactive chemicals fall to normal (real) wool category. As the natural wool is resistant to dirt, it doesn’t need frequent washing. If it does, the hand washing is easy for the wool has low affinity to dirt, and it’s an extremely poor substrate for bacteria to thrive on it. Not to mention that using the machines, people generally tend to overwash their clothing and that often not by a small degree. Experimenting with short-time programs a few times can bring surprising results. Dilling Eco line, Tekoforlife, Engel, Living Crafts, Mufflon and other brands are producing wool products suitable for frequent washing (underwear) that are ready for almost foolproof care.



Blends that combine various kinds of wool and other materials (cotton etc.) extend suitably variability in properties and use.




Cotton


It breathes very well when dry.

It absorbs sweat well but the moisture is trapped in the fibre and isn’t passed through the fabric easily.

Wet cotton is heavy, isn’t warm in the cold and dries out slowly.

It is moderately warm to warm when dry depending on the fabric construction and the cut. Fine long fibre cotton, brushed cotton or flannel with more loft are warmer, trap heat well and breathe. Moleskin cotton is famously hard-wearing, soft fabric that offers good protection (also against the cold). It is heavier and more suited for working etc. conditions outdoor rather than for a typical trek and high-exposure-to-the-elements outdoors.

Cotton is excellent material for everything except when you flood it with sweat during extreme activities as it holds the moisture and gets damp. If you expect your body to be overheating and sweating for longer look for cotton blends or materials that wick well. Cotton wrinkles and deforms rather easily.

Blends with other natural or synthetic materials improve cotton in strength, durability and wicking properties and in case of blends with wool or silk they lead to very good general properties and more affordable fabrics.


Supima cotton -


(and other Gossypium barbadense HYB cultivars)

the strands can be spun with less twist into the yarns. Therefore they are of an airier structure and support capillary rise action better (as they are composed of extra long fibres - ELS).

Higher absorbency has already been proved during various manufacturing processes and it is almost certain that the wicking power of wet fabrics had increased some degree. This seems to be the case but meaningful difference to regular cottons is harder to spot and will probably take some time before a consensus is established by wear & use observations.


The ELS base of Supima (read pure Pima cotton) improves fabric properties also in areas where the regular upland cotton is good or quite good already.




Silk


Silk, including bourette fabrics and yarn, is a strong dense material of similar properties to wool. It doesn’t lock moisture and breathes well.

It’s great over a great range of temperatures and it’s warm when needed. Garments made of silk are tough, keep shape very well and are resistant to deformation. Silk clothing is good as a special purpose sportswear, dedicated outdoor or for a base layer under some rougher wools.

Blends such as with cotton are practical combinations, perhaps for tactile reasons more than anything else because it's hard to imagine the cotton improving the silk in any regard.



Viscose


First generation types of viscose are quite similar to cotton in their properties but are less durable and therefore often part of blends. Viscose breathes well dry or wet and absorbs sweat even more which makes the material on its own less suitable choice when sweating is excessive or extreme (it is wicking better than cotton though). Regular occasional sweating is fine, and the sponge-like property of these materials is even useful for this. It gives a softer feel on the skin with which viscose more elastic fabrics make closer contact thanks to a greater fluidity of the fabrics, e.g. Tencel Standard (known for peach skin effect/feel).

Cellulose fibres usually are more delicate and also a bit more prone to wear compared to cotton which is more robust (and they let much more UV radiation through if that’s a concern). New, advanced, high modulus types such as Tencel LF and A 100 resist abrasion and pulling forces just as cottons if not better.

The main advantage of the fabrics made of a second generation (and up) viscose over the cotton especially in outdoors and sports is that they breathe much better and the exchange of the air and vapour is substantially better. The sweat transport is superior both regarding the distribution through the garment and for wicking power, they dry out faster, too, both as a garment and per area of the fabric.

Even the old viscose materials require less maintenance than cotton, so when that reflects in the care, it can compensate for their lower wear resistance. The bamboo and eucalyptus pulp worked by use of green, third generation methods like Lyocel process (e.g. sources like Continental clothing co and others) seems particularly interesting for its lower tendency to accommodate bacteria as a suitable substrate. For their properties and soft feel, the bamboo and other viscose materials (Tencel) are also great for spending nights in a sleeping bag where other choices such as synthetics are worse options.

Great for blends (e.g. cotton and wool) depending on the exact handle, drape and properties required.



Polyester


Inherently it doesn’t breathe well dry.

Most fabrics seem decent at temperature regulating and distribute quite naturally. It provides good layering for warmth as it holds the heat quite well. It doesn’t absorb water so it is lightweight when wet. It has good wicking properties which makes it good for controlling skin temperature during physical activities when you sweat a lot. It also dries out quickly.

Sophisticated design fabrics and looser cuts will improve the breathability.

It is good for low cost, low weight, low maintenance garments that are wicking the sweat well. Good for cold environments.

Not the best choice outside intensive activities (in sleeping bag, relaxing) for it breathes worse which can make you feel suffocated and stuffy.

Good for blends such as with viscose or cotton.


Polartec -

a fleece construction composed of lofted polyester fibres and the result is a warm, insulating fabric of the same properties as the polyester. Half or full zip garments are an option outdoor both as a durable outerwear and as a layering.


Polygiene -

I haven’t used this treatment for my own use but it gets reliable feedback as a highly effective technology that uses well-known properties of (recycled) silver to combat bacteria which is very useful for the synthetics.

The results could be as good as approaching the wool effectiveness and polyester fabrics that are made sufficiently air permeable and also durable (often not the easiest combination to achieve) can offer a long lasting garment of unique properties of the polyester (including the blends) that is mitigating the downsides of the synthetic garments. Look for partners at Polygiene site when searching this direction.


Biopolyester -

Very promising type of polyester is further developed for textile and clothing industry (and other industries such as packaging) that belongs to bio-plastic family of PLA type. Its production is based solely on biological sources (derived polylactid acid from the plant-based material).

Its properties are enhanced in several important areas, and character of the fibre is optimised for the creation of superior polyester/polyester blends fabrics such as in blends with wool and cotton (that also in outdoor use sense).



Polyamide (Nylon)


As with the other synthetic materials the air permeability will depend strictly on the weave, type and construction of the fabric. Its wicking power is greater than that of the polyester and that together with good body vapour control extends good ventilation for times when more sweat is generated.

The water absorption is low, fractionally higher than with other synthetics.

Fabrics made of polyamide are mostly superior to polyester. Higher elasticity (about the same as wool), strength and better wicking property put it above the polyester in bacterial growth/odour control as well (one of the inherent shortcomings of the synthetic materials). It also is the more expensive material of the two. It obviously dries out very quickly.


I have been using polyamide specialist garments for many years in outdoors and in my experience, when it comes to synthetics, it is number one material for strength, durability (false economy saving money when going for cheaper material), feel and sweat control.

Especially suitable for activities in warmer and hot environments where you always sweat and face high humidity from the outside. Together with the polyester (and technical blends), it is in these conditions indispensable for creating lightweight, easily washable, fast-wicking garments (mid-layer worn as mid or base layer) with a natural tendency to dry out and stay dry. Washed in time without delay (that is, utilising its advantage) it can be a great companion to natural materials that you can need (underwear) as soon as the conditions are out of the specific window.

Almost never good for sleep where the natural materials serve better and never for enclosed spaces such as hiking boots (whatever the conditions) as a leading composition. You can be outdoors in anything for a week. It is the extremes, performance (from blisters to help with hygiene) and a prolonged use that make the distinction.

In cold conditions, the synthetics score high also as a more substantial mid-layer and outer layer compared to the regular sheep wool. This is when the weight is the most critical single factor and (or) high humidity is being experienced for an extended time. The wool will hold more moisture in the fibre, compared to the primary synthetic materials, and will make equivalent piece of clothing heavier.

Finally, in conditions where you know you won’t keep the rain away, and the clothing will simply be wet, the wool is a lifesaver as it will always keep you warm, although not terribly comfortable.

The synthetic fill also comes into its own in the cold environments, when the humidity is constant and high.

Recycled (and bluesign) materials are sometimes used for manufacturing but the need for combining them with biodegradable replacements grows (Dilling).


Supplex -

is a softer version of Nylon fibre (Tilley makes virtually indestructible hats of Supplex).


Pertex –

a combined weave high-performance fabric that is forming natural water resistant (and moisture wicking) membrane while allowing the air permeate from inside out.



Acrylic


Acrylic garments breathe quite well when dry thanks to their loftier construction.

Acrylic also lacks inherently wicking properties (type of the construction can mitigate this) but it traps the heat well.

As it also doesn’t absorb water well it stays light when wet - it is lighter than the wool and especially cotton.

Low cost, practical material for a great range of outdoor clothing and as a substitute for wool although it’s not a match for fine wools for warmth and any wool for temperature control. Full zip tops are more practical for regulating the body temperature.

Good for blends with wool.



Linen


breathes very well. The fabrics tend to keep its own shape as the linen is relatively lightweight and stiffer overall allowing plenty of air to circulate between the body and the garment.

Bast fibre of linen is highly absorbent and releases moisture just as readily in which it surpasses the cotton easily. The resin content helps to shape the properties of the linen fabric further; it has better antibacterial properties and its wrinkles are particularly durable. That, together with lesser drape, gives the garments characteristic shape we are used to see with quality linen.

The linen fabric as such is very durable, wear and also dirt resistant. The fabric matures with use as it gains more elasticity and even silk-like lustre while retaining its superior strength. I once was using an old linen shirt after my grandfather particularly for physical work and loved it for its unique look, feel and properties.

It behaves as a natural insulator to heat (sun rays) though the body heat itself isn’t trapped nearly as easily. This also makes it known for its good use in hotter environments/conditions.

Being a plant fibre it’s not as versatile as the wool. It can be an excellent alternative though when a looser fit and more air circulation is preferred in hotter conditions as a heat reflecting and sweat well managing (at contact) clothing. T-shirts are appearing on the market slowly along with the classic shirt. Coarser weave fabrics are very good for tea/kitchen towel and similar sort of use, much better than the cotton. Some stiffer polyamide fabrics, like in some shirts, can imitate linen to some degree.



Hemp


Hemp gives similar fabrics to linen with a distinctly natural feel, developing similarly characteristic look when worn (the cloth ‘lives’ - matures with time). It tends to be less lustrous, and reports suggest it’s even more durable than the linen both in a wet or dry state.

Its structure, build and behaviour are very similar in terms of water absorption, moisture release, how it distributes moisture and liquid, how it dries out as well as for the UPF. It seems to be more often part of blends with cotton than on its own compared to the linen.

Our experience is limited so far, mostly recent, but very positive with the cotton blends. Ideally, we want to get more things made of 100% hemp given the opportunity. The clothing seems to be used more in the Americas and Asia than in Europe.



Down


Down used as a fill is also classified by the grade depending on how fine it is. It has best isolating properties and thus generates most warmth.

It loses the property when wet unless it is treated to maintain its structure (just as in nature where birds take a great care of their feathers and treat them with oils).

It’s very compact for compression.

The synthetic fills used in jackets don’t reach the same compactness but are warmer when the clothing gets damp. Not as warm when dry, though.

Another filling and wadding alternative is Lavalan which is washable wool treated by using earth-friendly technology (no chlorine, chemicals, plastic). The method has minimum impact on the wool properties including insulation and vapour perspiration transmission. It should be an interesting material but I personally have no experience with it yet.


Another possible consideration for synthetic vs natural materials is the dust pollution at home. This is somewhat less relevant to outdoors. As we manipulate the clothing the released dust comes in contact with heating units of our homes and pollutes the air (as it’s heated to high temperatures or burnt). We also breathe in the dust which stays in our body for some time before the body gets rid of it. It stands to reason that natural materials are more acceptable for this type of contact, or indeed, for any kind (next to the skin). For the same reason, lightly coloured fabrics are preferable.


Polypropylene


Is generally less suitable material for clothing for its physical properties overall. It however has useful properties for which it can be used in blends when carefully manufactured. It is lightweight and at the same time a good insulator. The polypropylene is also tough in swing. It passes this to the fabric of which it is a part. You don’t find often material that is lightweight, hydrophobic, a very good insulator, resistant to hinge forces and cheap. It doesn’t resist the UV radiation well so the construction of the fabric can reflect this or UV absorbents can be added to counterbalance this.


Thinsulate 3M


This system provides highly efficient insulation at very reasonable prices. It uses layered synthetic fabrics and polypropylene insulation in compositions that are very effective yet relatively pleasant to use. The fabrics made of classic synthetic materials mentioned above are composed of fine fibres which further improves the isolation performance. The clothing is strongly geared towards the insulation, is relatively lightweight, the water absorption is minimal. That signifies its use more as a tool at a specific time and condition.

On the other hand, it is a synthetic material along which goes its tactile quality or properties (some of which are subjective) although the fine fibre can mitigate this for a part, the permeability for vapour and air is low and it doesn’t regulate temperature in a way the wool does for example.





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