Synthetics vs natural material fabrics - Sunwaysite

Note* 23rd October 2018


The Danish company Dilling starts selling in the UK (in 17 days). As of now, they were not shipping to the UK. Their range consists mainly of lighter weight fabrics (baselayer/underwear) with the heaviest midlayer at 225 gr/m2. I am still using my old Lundhags made of the standard resin coated thread for more weight (380 gr/ m2), but that is slowly being replaced by custom-made sweatshirts (and sweaters/vests) made of wool of our own choice. My underwear, vests, short and long sleeve shirts are from Dilling (their Bio range). It has been my favourite source for quality clothing despite problems with getting hold of the items. They serve me in a wide range of conditions – from cold to tropics, and I am living in them at home, similar for my wife though she is also using some other brands for the non-resin wool.

The durability of the material doesn’t come as a surprise, but I still found these very (surprisingly) durable for this type of clothing compared to any materials. It is a matter of quality manufacturing as well. That the garments resist dirt (repel) and the need for washing is reduced to about five times less also helps. Once you get to know the feeling and the properties of the wool the other materials (essentially plant covers) become second-rate clothing to you.





Clothing not only outdoor

1st December 2017

(8th June 2018 extended : Viscose; Biopolyester)



Quilted Layers

added 15th November 2018


        Polyester and polyamide are base material for a range of specialist clothing that fights 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/shop from which I have bought flannel shirts recently.) The thinner vest of each type can also be easily layered. The thicker ones are worn as 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 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 (e.g. air trapping) of the knit and the material tune and determine the function of the garments. This outer vest that has just replaced one of our old ones is often worn on mid-layer sweatshirt or flannel; heavy Aran weight undyed yarn is hand-knitted.


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 and windproof on its own weights little and packs to almost nothing. At the same time, we can improve breathability rapidly and switch the windproof shell on and off easily. Another potential advantage is having the possibility of choosing the exact material or garment that we want as the insulation and possibly a wider range of use of such kit.




(3rd November 2018:

As the wool is such an excellent material, and because I was adding to the notes, I rearranged the section,

expanded on the topic & moved it to the top.)


      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.

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

Lighter than cotton when wet.


Moderately warm to warm dry or wet. 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. 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 extra fine fibre are neutral or soft next to the skin. Still, for wearing the wool as a first layer, it’s best to choose wool that was treated because the underclothing is washed more frequently. The wool worked by the enzyme-based process (and other non-polymer treatments) can be regularly machine washed with minimum care, resist pilling and are particularly pleasant directly on your skin. Let’s also remember that the wool is variable material by its nature and the particular choice of its source, spinning and even knitting process plays their role. I came across resin-treated garments that felt itchy. If you are patient though, your skin can often adapt to it. The itch isn’t entirely unpleasant, but it makes you scratch your hands, for example, so after a day like this they are a little scratched and red. If you put it aside for a week, you may find that the very next time you wear the exact piece, the itch went away – that under the same circumstances, nothing else but the break in wearing it has changed. I found it hard to believe myself, quite astonishing and suppose it has to be experienced if it's to be believed; therefore I encourage you to do the same if you come across such a scenario, you may be similarly surprised. As I said, this happened with polymer-treated (more on the standard Hercosett 125 coating below) base layer so the concern is even less for sport or outdoor use as the increased vapour (sweating) swells the resin coat considerably thus eliminating the cause for itching even further.

The wool feels different to 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 it will probably be also the reason why it is so addictive to wear. Often we wear wool garments on other materials (on base layer) made of plants or treated wool but the unique feel they give stays prominent, it is strangely satisfying to wear them and they are likeable to the touch. The fibre responds to the environmental effects from both the inside (body vapour, sweat) and the outside (humidity, temperature) and 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 worse weather (wind) while maintaining its 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. These can be very durable and long lasting if the little care they need from time to time is given to them.

The overall handle and tactile feel of the wool are typical for yarns that were not treated by invasive methods like those that involve added materials such as coating the fibre with synthetics. During the conventional Chlorine-Hercosett-process, the scales of the fibres are smoothened by etching (chlorine) to various degrees depending on the exact process and then in the vast majority of cases coated with the polymer known as Hercosett 125. It is used for the majority of the yarn in the industry, and consequently, for most of the clothing that you buy in shops. The material feels different, it has a synthetic feel to it, sometimes glossy but the garment’s core maintains the wool properties overall (the wool's exceptional resistance to dirt and bacteria lessens). Along with the specific handle, more robust, outer layer garments also lose the wool’s natural bloom that gives the garments better warmth to weight ratio. Although it belongs to the aspect of feel, it can also have practical implications in more extreme use in sports and outdoors.


The resin-coated wool material is resistant to mistreatment during the washing, although what you are getting is not exactly wool. It’s a product of old processes typical for 20th-century industries and their approaches aimed at maximum production and customer manipulation only. The seller seldom informs about the treatment other than stating simplified care of the garment. The labels are more informative and touching the material reveals there is something wrong with the wool (sometimes accompanied by a strange smell). Normal wool products today are easy to wash without compromising their qualities if you stick to the standard practices or 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 a normal 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 often by not a small degree. Experimenting with short-time programs a few times is worthwhile. Dilling Bio line*, Engel, EarthPositive, Living Crafts and other brands are producing wool products suitable for frequent washing (underwear) and almost foolproof care. A number of technologies has entered or is entering the industry of the wool treatment that prevents 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 the Chlorine-Hercosett process or are sufficient (Enzyme) for wool specific washing programs. Consequent progress for new polymers that solve the problematic affinity to the cuticule of the fibre is being made, including the biopolymers for use in combined and new specific applications (e.g. EXP). These are less invasive methods and they retain natural properties of the wool markedly better. They reduce the impact on the environment and comply with GOTS (also Oeko-Tex 1000, i.e. not just Oeko-Tex 100; Bluesign) and become part of marketing fit for 21st century.


Blends that combine various kinds of wool and with other materials (cotton etc.) extend 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.

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) strands can be spun with less twist into yarns that are of an airier structure that also is supporting capillary rise action better (as it is 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 good for activities in warmer and hot environments.


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.



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, 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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