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Technical Garments


Protective Shells


One of the biggest challenges in the design and production of sport-clothing, and in particular of outdoor sport-clothing, is to obtain sufficient breathability and waterproofness at the same time on a single garment.

On one hand, the clothes we wear while doing sport should be breathable. On the other hand, in bad-weather conditions (e.g. rain, snow, or wind) we want our body to be sheltered and dry. 

  • Breathability indicates the capability to transfer water vapor from the surface of our body to the exterior of a garment. 
  • Waterproofness indicates the capability to stop the flow of water droplets from the outside to the inside of a garment.
Waterproofness in sport clothes is obtained thanks to the use of water-resistant membranes combined with synthetic fabrics. The manufacturers claim that those membranes are at the same time water resistant and breathable. However, anyone who tried to do any kind of moderate physical activity of a few minutes while wearing the best waterproof jacket has certainly noticed that the result is always and inevitably a sauna!

The highly praised breathability of waterproof membranes that many companies advertise is still only a dream: it may be working in case of rest, but when practicing any physical activity the breathability of water-proof membranes reveals its limits. In real conditions and normal use, water-resistant membranes have such a low level of breathability that they are practically much closer to the threshold of "non-breathability".

This poses strong limitations to all those who actually need to wear water-resistent clothes to practice sport (such as skiers, climbers, cyclists, runners, etc.). The choice of carrying a complete shelter from the rain, such as a waterproof Hard Shell, must be left as the very last option when weather conditions are really bad or in case of emergency when we cannot rapidly find a shelter, as for example if caught by a shower while climbing. In any other situation, especially when physical activity is involved, wearing an external, relatively stiff shield is not necessary and it only prevents us from reaching the comfort condition.

The ultimate challenge for sport-clothing manufacturers is therefore to seek new solutions that can guarantee high breathability on waterproof garments. And that is the idea at the origin of the concept of Soft Shell.

Soft Shells


Even if we live in the rainiest place on Earth, we will probably really need a totally waterproof garment only about 10 to 20% of the time in our whole lives. This means that in the large majority of the cases, either a waterproof garment is not necessary or we can find another solution before reaching a shelter. Therefore, the question is: why do we have to wear a less breathable, sometimes stiff and unpleasant garment, if in more than 80% of the situations we do not need it?

These considerations are at the origin of the concept of Soft Shell.

Soft Shells are all those clothes that allow a high breathability (higher than Hard Shells), with a satisfactory level of protection from rain, snow, and wind, even though not guaranteeing complete impermeability.
In most cases, this type of clothes is much softer, elastic, quiet and pleasant to wear compared to the classic, completely waterproof shells. Due to their characteristics and the noticeable benefits they can provide, Soft Shells are in most cases, either when practicing sport or when simply spending time outdoors, the preferred choice.
In general, as the degree of water resistance increases, the breathability of these garments decreases and vice versa. Because of their easily perceivable benefits, these garments have rapidly become very popular. 

                          

The solution to the problem of obtaining waterproof and breathable clothes is not unique. Each company has proposed its own, addressing the issue from different point of views, often very distant between them and sometimes questionable. Typically, Soft Shell are garments made ​​of synthetic fabrics, whose thick texture and chemical treatments applied to the yarn or on the outside surface, sufficiently protect from exposure to rain and snow for short periods of time and also block wind very efficiently, while allowing a more than satisfactory breathability, almost comparable to that of an ordinary fleece. 

How is it made?

When to use it?

For all activities, but especially those that require intense physical effort, and where we can not easily change our system of layered clothing. For all the climate conditions except prolonged exposure to rain.

Different types of Soft Shells exist that can be chosen according to the needs and tastes, depending on whether greater protection is to be favored over breathability or vice versa.

In order to offer a greater degree of protection, analogously to the Hard Shells, some companies use "breathable" membranes (e.g. Windstopper®, Windbloc®, etc.): those are capable of blocking wind and water almost totally, but are much less breathable. The most clever and efficient membranes are the micro-perforated ones (e.g. Powershield®) where thanks to small holes some level of air circulation is always guaranteed, so that no condensation occurs in a garment that still offers a decent protection.

Windproof Garments


Often classified as Soft Shells, windproof garments are designed to protect our body from wind whenever we are exposed to cold and windy weather conditions or when practicing "high-speed" sports (such as cycling, skiing, snowboarding, etc.), where high air flux may rapidly increase heat loss from our body.

Windproofness is obtained using different types of constructions, both with and without laminated membranes. However, even when using windproof membranes, these garments are much more breathable than the classical Hard Shell. Different solutions adopted for the construction of windproof garments may vary considerably and, therefore, also the aspect and performances of windproof garments may vary significantly.


                              

How is it made?

Some examples of windproof materials:

When to use it?

For outdoor activities in cold, windy weather conditions.
For "high-speed" sports such as cycling, skiing, snowboarding, etc.

Hard Shells


Hard Shells are all those garments (jackets, pants, gloves, etc.) whose main characteristic is to be waterproof. The term “Hard Shell” was introduced after the birth of Soft Shells in sportswear to distinguish it from its newly born, somewhat opposite concept.

                         

The Hard Shell is the outermost garment that we wear, the outer layer which is completely impermeable to water, wind, and snow. It is a protective layer most often made of fabrics that are particularly resistant to tearing and abrasion.

How is it made?

Inside a Hard Shell, there is always a membrane. Examples of membranes: 

When to use it?

For activities that require long immobility in the rain.
The only solution when the weather leaves no escape: the shelter in the storm, the umbrella that you cannot hold in your hand.

Waterproofness is obtained thanks to the use of water-resistant membranes combined with synthetic fabrics. These membranes are claimed to be at the same time water resistant and breathable. However, the breathability of waterproof membranes is only effective at rest, when no physical activity is involved.


Insulating garments


The imperative for anyone practicing outdoor sports in cold environments is, of course, maintain the body warm

Thermal insulation can be defined as any means used to reduce heat flow between two environments at different temperatures (see also the section Physics of Heat). In the specific case of clothing, the two environments are our body and the external environment. Since the most effective mechanism of heat exchange between our body and the environment is convection, the best solution to impede the free flow of heat is to "trap" it by placing barriers on its path: clothes. The thicker is the barrier that heat must trespass to escape from our body, the more slowly we chill. Simply speaking, a thick sweater will retain more heat than a thin t-shirt and, therefore, it will be "warmer".

To date, the classic down-filled jacket is still the piece of clothing offering the most effective insulation. This is because down and feathers, which are light and voluminous, create a barrier made ​​of interstices that effectively trap air, preventing free heat flow toward the outside. Its light weight and compressibility make down-filled garments, an essential element for anyone who spends time outdoors in extremely cold environments.

However, even the classic down jacket has its limitations. The first of them is that, once moistened, the feathers lose volume becoming a heavy mass very difficult to dry. The down filling can mainly get wet in two ways: by external factors (rain or snow), or because of the water vapor produced by our body during prolonged physical activity. In both cases, the feathers get wet and lose volume. Therefore, they lose their insulating power, gaining weight by absorbing water. A further limitation of feathers and down, not to be underestimated, is that, despite their excellent compressibility, when they are held compressed for long periods, they tend to get damaged and irreparably deform reducing their ability to restore their original volume.

Synthetic Insulators


Common sense says that there should always be a piece of emergency clothing in our backpack for a sudden drop in temperature or for resting in cold environments. Usually, the classic down jacket is the favorite emergency garment. In addition to down, since many years now, a number of synthetic insulating materials are available on the market that replace down in a more than satisfactory way, approaching very much close its performances in terms of weight, insulation, and compressibility. These materials are very thin synthetic fibers (usually made of polyester) that, combined in a certain way, create a sort of tissue with a three-dimensional structure similar to a kind of wadding, which creates millions of micro insulating air pockets that trap body heat. In some of these materials, the spaces are so small that water droplets cannot pass through, following the same system used in waterproof membranes. 

                      

These new synthetic materials, being very elastic, not only tend to be less damaged when compressed for long periods, but they also avoid water absorption as their molecular structure is water repellent. They are a little less compressible than feather, and have a slightly higher weight. If we can adapt to these two cons, we have found the right material for a versatile piece of clothing that will accompany us in many outdoor activities. 

How is it made?

It contains synthetic insulating materials.

When to use it?

Under a Hard Shell when the storm suddenly catches us.
In support to a fleece when the temperature drops.
As outer layer when no rain protection is needed.
Always, packed in the backpack as a spare, warm layer.
To wait until the fog passes, for an unexpected camp, over a t-shirt soaked with sweat at the end of a trial running, whenever we are out there and we need some warmth and comfort.

Down Insulators


Feather
Down
The down filled garments are those which use feathers and down for thermal insulation. Feathers are natural insulators. Thanks to their unique structure, they form innumerable gaps, real air chambers capable of trapping and retaining relatively large volumes of air in proportion to the weight of the feather itself.

Very light in relation to its volume, down is widely used in the production of clothing, especially sport clothing, designed to protect from the cold. The filling of these garment is essentially of two types: down or feather.

The down, because of its unusual structure (a central core from which many beards arise), can trap large quantities of air. The feather, instead, has a rigid central part from which small eyelashes depart. It has greater weight and lower volume. The down is generally mixed in varying proportions to feathers and it helps preventing congregation and formation of lumps. The greater the amount of down, the more voluminous and light will be the garment. The ratio with which these two different types of feathers are mixed is usually indicated on labels as a percentage ratio, in which the first number refers to the percentage of down and the second to the percentage of feathers (e.g. 80/20, 90/10, etc.).


Another indication of the quality of the filling comes from the so-called Fill Power, which indicates the capability of a given kind of feather to fill a certain volume. This gives an indication of its insulating power. Fill Power values ​​are expressed in cm³/g (or in³/oz in the U.S.). Typically, the Fill Power has values ​​between 300 and 800 in³/oz. The highest-quality feathers can reach 900 in³/oz.


The characteristics of down and feathers (lightness, elasticity and compressibility) allow the garments filled with this materials to be compressed in very small spaces and easily transported. For over fifty years now, down filled garments have been traditional pieces of clothing for all those who practice outdoor sports in the cold. Even today down and feathers keep being extremely functional and versatile insulating materials for outdoor clothing.
The characteristics that make the natural materials unbeatable when compared to synthetic ones are:
  • Lightweight
  • Softness
  • Elasticity
  • Filling power
  • Hygroscopicity
  • Thermal insulation
  • Compressibility
                   
Down Jacket for great cold                             Down Jacket for mid temperatures                              Down sleeping-bag

Hybrid Garments


The so called Hybrid Garments, born mainly on specific request of mountaineers in constant search for the most performing garment, are a combination of two or more fabrics or materials with different technologies and functions with the idea of ​​getting the best out of the fusion of more garments in a single one.

For example, an insulating material may be placed only on the torso, where more warmth is needed, while a hard shell can be used only on the areas that are more exposed to the elements (for example on the hood and shoulders of a jacket) to ensure water resistance and more protection from the elements. Or a fleece, that offers more flexibility, may be placed around the joints and it can be combined with more breathable materials on the back and bust to ensure higher breathability. Or down and synthetic insulating materials can be coupled in a clever way: the synthetic material, which is more rain resistant, can be placed only on the areas that are more exposed to the elements. 

The first interesting experiments date back to the late '80s, but the more modern hybrid garments began to appear on the market in the early 2000s, thanks to some Canadian and U.S. companies. Initially intended for alpine expeditions in extreme conditions these garments are now offered to a much wider public, including athletes of most outdoor sports (cycling, skiing/snowboarding, hiking, running, etc.). 

In recent years they have become the "trend". Manufacturers today are really competing to come out with the most original ideas and combinations.

The most common hybrid combinations include the following: 
  • Soft Shell / Hard Shell 
  • Down / Synthetic Insulator 
  • Fleece / Down 
  • Down / Soft Shell