Guaranteed to Make You Buy? Three New Fabrics Take Aim at Gore-Tex

Share on Tumblr

For the past 30 years, the waterproof-breathable market could be summed up in two words (or is that one hyphenated one?): Gore-Tex. No more. Gore’s might is about to be tested by no less than three of the outdoor world’s largest brands. The roll-out begins this spring with Columbia’s Omni-Dry then flows through to fall 2011 when Polartec’s NeoShell and Mountain Hardwear’s DryQ arrive. And Gore itself isn’t sitting still, with a new product, Active Shell, that promises greater breathability. It’s the biggest wave of new waterproof-breathables from major brands in, well, ever.

Mammut is using Gore's Active Shell in its Felsturm Half-Zip.

Gore’s rivals are attacking the biggest chink in Gore’s formidable armor; while Gore-Tex has been the gold standard of waterproofs, anyone who’s worked up a sweat in it knows that it simply doesn’t breathe as well as “breathable” suggests. Gore-Tex requires the wearer to warm up enough for his or her sweat to turn to water vapor, since only vapor can escape the Gore-Tex membrane’s tiny pores. Hence the need for pit zips and vented pockets — opening a Gore-Tex coat allows air permeability, which creates the chance for direct evaporation. But what if the fabric itself allowed air to come in, to facilitate evaporation without pit zips and other workarounds? That’s the idea behind these new wunder-fabrics — which their makers say can breath just enough to allow both evaporation as well as the transfer of water vapor, and still be 100 percent water- and windproof. The upshot should be a drier, happier camper (or runner, or hiker…).

Yes, we’re skeptical. If only because we haven’t seen apples-to-apples numbers from every manufacturer using the same tests to quantify their claims. Nor have we been able to test any of these materials in the real world. So there’ll be waaaay more coverage once AJ’s got its mitts on the goods and can report on what happens during a powder day at Bridger Bowl or a trail run during a Seattle deluge. For now, here’s the skinny on each, both the claims and the fine print.

POLARTEC NEOSHELL
Brands Using It: Mammut, Marmot, Montura, Mountain Equipment, Rab, The North Face, Vaude, Westcomb

Construction: Hard or soft shells; stretch; varying liner materials from soft weaves to more slippery coatings.

Waterproofness: Polartec’s director of global marketing, Nate Simmons, has gone out of his way to say that NeoShell is 100 percent waterproof, but has also attacked the methodology used to measure waterproofness by Polartec’s leading competitor (Gore).

Breathability: The promise is five times the air permeability of “the leading waterproof-breathable.” Mountain Hardwear’s DryQ and Columbia’s Omni-Dry are making almost identical claims of air permeability, which likely means they’ve all found the happy place where evaporation happens but isn’t perceived as wind chill.

MOUNTAIN HARDWEAR DRYQ
Construction: There are three lines of DryQ: Elite, the most ruggedly built (think mountaineer; off-piste skiing); Active, which will include stretchy, low weight, soft and hard shells; and DryQ Core, which looks to be more mainstream consumer focused.

Waterproofness: Mountain Hardwear’s focus is on “durable” waterproofness, since past laminates have suffered a steep performance loss over time, clogging from dirt and skin oils. Mountain Hardwear says DryQ has oleophobic (“oil hating”) properties built directly into the membrane and notes that the membrane will be protected from direct skin contact in even the lightest applications. Since DryQ comes from the same minds that produced eVent (which is also oleophobic) this isn’t surprising. But unlike eVent, DryQ will allow for more varied construction, as well as have stretch.

Breathability: See NeoShell. Also note there will be a spectrum of breathability — a DryQ product aimed at alpine skiing could be less aggressively breathable than one targeted at trail runners.

COLUMBIA OMNI-DRY
Construction:Somewhat more traditional, with taped seams, waterproof zippers, and standard features like pit zips. Full deets are still sketchy but this stuff will be spendy if you’re used to Columbia’s old pricing model: Expect prices in the $300-$400 range

Waterproofness: Columbia is taking a direct shot at Gore, claiming the same levels of waterproofness as measured by the same tests Gore-Tex endures, while also claiming that its membrane is 75% lighter than Gore’s.

Breathability: Omni-Dry will be about as air-permeable as NeoShell and DryQ.

GORE-TEX ACTIVE SHELL
Brands Using It: Adidas, Arc’teryx, Castelli, Gore Bike Wear, Mammut, Mountain Equipment, The North Face, Specialized

Construction: Active Shell may spell an evolution for Gore-Tex, because the membrane is now bonded directly to the fabric that rests against your skin. This allows for far less adhesive to be used, allowing much more breathability, and also enabled Gore to make its shells softer, and the membrane far thinner as well—all aimed at fast moisture transfer in a very low-weight garment.

Waterproofness: The company says Active Shell will be as waterproof as the rest of Gore’s “Guaranteed to Keep You Dry” materials.

Breathability: Gore boasts a “water vapor resistance” score (a claimed measure of breathability) that’s very similar to the rankings achieved by NeoShell, but Gore isn’t claiming that Active Shell allows air penetration; liquid sweat still has to become water vapor for Active Shell to function, so while it may indicate lighter, softer Gore togs in the future, it doesn’t signal a change in Gore’s core thinking.

Share on Tumblr

{ 12 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Nate Simmons

    Hey – Nate Simmons here from Polartec. Thanks for the write up! Couple quick comments / clarifications:

    1. We do not in any way contest methods for testing waterproofness. This is all pretty standard. However, we do wonder why such high levels of water resistance are a good thing. If you’re dry at 10,000mm of water resistance, will you be any drier with 20,000mm? We think dry is an absolute and you can’t be drier than dry. AND we think that the extra water resistance might actually make you wetter inside the jacket from sweat and condensation because as you ratchet up water resistance, you decrease true breathability.

    2. However, we do have some real concerns with the industry standard measure of breathability which is RET (resistance to evaporative transport). This test completely eliminates air flow from the equation and is hugely affected by the thickness / insulation value of a fabric. So RET yields some really wacky results – one brand has for many years doted on the fact that in an RET test their full film waterproof fabric is more breathable than a basic fleece. Anyone who has ever worn fleece or a shell knows that result makes no sense – it’s completely illogical – air rips right through fleece – it’s incredibly breathable. But that’s not what the RET test says. So for us at Polartec, that throws the test into question as soon as you have any variability in the thickness of the fabric or air permeability. We think a much better test is the DMPC test which is used by the US military because they know it more closely predicts feedback from the field and real user experience. We would never ever try to claim that even our new Polartec NeoShell is more breathable than fleece – it would be a ridiculous claim.

    3. Air permeability. Most waterproof fabrics have a monolithic (non-porous) polyurethane coating (even the ones that talk about pores in their ePTFE later slather on a nonporous coating – except eVent which is why they have some air permeability). As a result most hard shells have zero air flow. So any amount of air exchange is infinitely more than zero. In our research even a tiny amount of airflow massively accelerates moisture vapor transfer and creates a drier feeling inside the jacket. It also makes hardshells suddenly something you actually want to wear rather than ball up in the bottom of you pack only for truly heinous weather situations. We hope that Polartec NeoShell will be a waterproof jacket you really can wear during activities (and a year of athlete field testing tells us it does achieve that goal).

  • Matt

    I would assume, given that Columbia owns Mountain Hardware, that Omni Dry and DryQ are actually the same thing. I’ll be interested to hear more about that in the future.

  • Scott Trepanier

    Matt – Scott Trepanier from Columbia Sportswear here.

    To answer your question. Columbia’s Omni-Dry and Mountain Hardwear’s Dry.Q are two distinct technologies and were developed independently. Omni-Dry is PU (polyetheleyne) based and Dry.Q is a PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene) based. Both Omni-Dry and Dry.Q have air permeability and offer significant performance increases as compared with the industry standard.

    It’s great to see these conversations around air permeability as the key factor in determining the comfort and effectiveness of waterproof breathable technology. For decades and even to this day, the industry’s leading waterproof “breathable” membrane Gore-Tex does not allow any air passage.

    We think friendly rivalry both between our in-house technologies and with 3rd party solutions, such as Polartec’s NeoShell are good for the industry. Any movement towards air permeability, TRUE breathability and increased comfort and performance is good for our customers.

  • Jason Mitchell

    I agree with Laidlaw above… eVent is the best at both waterproof and breathable, in my experience. In the end, I typically err on the side of breathability vs. waterproofness. I can take that slant here in Utah were the snow falls light and dry, but other areas need a more waterproof material.

  • Dan Burch

    Dan Burch here from GE Energy, makers of eVent fabrics.

    Very nice write-up on the proliferation of waterproof/breathable fabrics and laminates hitting the marketplace in the next year. It’s great to see so many options for consumers and for them to be able to pick a jacket or garment that works for their level of sport.

    We’d like to point out that there are now two sides to eVent fabrics, and that GE Energy is proud to offer our customers the flexibility, innovation and technology they need to create some of the most durable, waterproof/breathable jackets and footwear on the market.

    We continue to have customers like Rab, Montane, REI, Teva, Macpac, and others that will use the industry-known eVent name on their finished products. We’re now offering the eVent fabrics technology to customers to build new laminate packages and brand them as their own. Some of our new customers have chosen to partner with us because of that flexibility, the proven performance of the eVent fabrics technology, the wide membrane and laminate offering, and the ability to combine our membrane technology with their own knowledge of laminate-making and garment-making.

    We’re proud that the outdoor industry has come around to the improved comfort that comes from air permeability with sufficient waterproofness. We believe in designing technology that provides the right comfort level so that a good “comfort level to wear” can be achieved by the user from start to finish of their favorite activity. We also strongly believe in the US military measure of comfort via the DMPC test. We’ve been promoting these features and benefits of eVent fabrics for years – and many have commented on their enhanced outdoor experiences as proof!

    We’re happy to discuss anything related to waterproof/breathable fabrics. It’s our passion – and we’re glad that the industry is really embracing it. Stop by ours or our customers’ booths at the upcoming tradeshows, and we can talk shop!

  • Ann

    I have noticed that when customers from rainy climates review and comment on ultralite rain jackets, they almost invariably say that the jackets leak. I would like to point out that ultralite rain jackets are not built for downpours that last for hours at a time nor are they built to withstand steady rains that go on for days at a time, like the storms in the American and Canadian Northwest. If you live and work in a rainforest, you should buy a rather heavy-duty rain jacket. Also, I would never bushwack in ultralite gear.

  • Jonathan Welsh

    Hello, Jonathan Welsh here from Appalachian Outfitters in Greenville, SC. . .
    Having owned and sold ePTFE-based wp/b shells for years, I can certainly attest to their increased breatheability over Gore-Tex outerwear. I have been following this discussion and I would love a clarification on something:
    -When I wear my eVent shell, I often find that unless I am very active, I can get chilled because it almost feels like the shell allows wind to pass through it (which I know is not possible). Now, living in Greenville, SC with its heat & humidity mix, that is a trade-off that I’ll gladly take in order to not overheat like we all have done in traditional hardshells. Is the fact that I can feel a bit chilly the entire basis of the “air-permeable” claim? Am I actually able to feel THAT MUCH OF A DIFFERENCE between air-permeables and non-air-permeables? If so, that is earth-shatteringly great news!
    I would love some discussion on how a garment is “air-permeable” and “windproof” at the same time. (My best guess is that the testing for each claim is done differently: the windproof test would be conducted in a wind-tunnel, while the air-permeable test is done by empirically measuring pore-size of the given laminate and whether air CAN pass through it without impediment).
    The important thing to note here is this: YOU GUYS ARE DEFINITELY ON TO SOMETHING REMARKABLE WITH THE AIR-PERMEABLE ANGLE. . .THIS IS JUST WHAT THE HIGH-END SHELL MARKET NEEDS TO REVITALIZE SALES AND EXCITEMENT IN CONSUMERS AND SALES STAFF! Keep up the good work!

  • Bob Stenning

    I would expect an article about new waterproof fabrics taking on Gore-Tex to have some figures in it relating to waterproofness. Figures like 2,000 mm or 5,000 mm or 10,000 mm. I’m really surprised to see the lack of information regarding waterproofness of the fabrics in your article and would hope for a more technical, concrete write up in the future.

  • Clare Walsh

    Thanks, Bob Stenning. That is exactly my problem – these companies expect £££’s for their products, but rarely write the hydrostatic head figures for waterproofing, or the “breathability” ratings, on their products properly. Women’s kit especially seems to be sold on colour, flowery patterns and fluffy linings and lacks hard facts on the labels.

    It may be my practical nature, or living in a very damp climate, but I need something lightweight and very waterproof. I don’t want to spend a lot of money on something that leaks where my backpack straps fit, or that leaves me steaming inside! I don’t care about how “girly” I look, whether on the hillside or at home, but I do want to hike in comfort.

    Even the websites for some companies do not own up to the measurable and comparable data – I checked out Mountain Hardware today, and the details on the technical stuff is all blurb and no numbers. I am NOT impressed…

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>