We’ve assembled the ultimate crib sheet on the newest materials to scope out at ORSM 2016.

By Nancy Bouchard, Ph. D.

To buy or not to buy? That is a question every outdoor consumer wrestles with on an almost daily basis. As Henry David Thoreau quipped, “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes,” and considering the worrying elements of harmful chemicals, overflowing landfills and stuffed gear closets… he had a point. The number of SKUs on the market in every category, from underwear to baselayers to outerlayers, seems to have grown exponentially in the past decade. Given concerns about chemicals in the environment that are a direct result of outdoor apparel manufacturing, brands are rethinking the fibers and additives from which their products are made.

The underlying question for many of today’s consumers and brands becomes, “Is anything really new?” There’s something elemental and timeless about apparel and gear designed for outdoor use. Archaeologists have found flax fibers dating back more than 34,000 years. There are references to tents in the Bible, the oldest known pack dates back to the Neolithic age, and it is likely that leather, bark and woven bags are Stone Age creations.

Today’s fibers and fabrics are lighter than ancient ones wrought from camel hair, leather and reeds, but that’s incremental development over thousands of years. Do brands in our millennium have anything new to offer? Columbia VP of Global Innovation and Design Woody Blackford was on an airplane 15 years ago, sharing some of his ideas about a new jacket with his seat mate, who happened to be a lawyer. The lawyer told Blackford to patent his ideas. Blackford said, “Well, a jacket has a hood, sleeves and front zipper.” The lawyer pointed out there are elements of progress in things that are protectable if they are truly innovative.

In this first part of our two-part series, we’ve rounded up the latest and best developments in fibers, fabrics and additives for spring/summer 2017 and beyond.

A Better Waterproof Breathable
When it comes to innovation, Columbia’s push to move the membrane of the waterproof layer to the outside of its OutDry Extreme jacket was a game-changing advancement. The idea prevents water from soaking in through the first exterior layer, which in the past led to that cold, clammy feeling known as a wet out, and therefore required plenty of chemistry with perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs, in DWRs to ward off that absorption.

“We recognized that PFCs were being challenged by the industry as something we needed to remove, Blackford said. With OutDry Extreme, we eliminated the need for DWR. But we still had our membrane, and it, like most in the industry, contained fluoropolymer chemistry.”

So, for spring/summer 2017, Columbia is introducing OutDry Extreme ECO, the one of the first waterproof, breathable membrane with no PFCs. “We saw a totally sustainable shell as an innovation challenge,” said Blackford, adding that the membrane “is as green as we can make it. There are no dyes, the material is all from recycled bottles, and we didn’t use PFCs in the construction.”

Columbia is not the only brand addressing PFCs in apparel. Schoeller is introducing a new “Bio” finish for Ecorepel and 3XDRY for SS 2018 that are PFC free and based on renewable products.  Schoeller USA President Stephen Kerns reports that the company has several updates such as the Cosmopolitan collection, which focuses on multi-functionality and uses natural fibers like organic cottons, wools, recycled nylons and new bio-based finishes.


3xDry Denim Jean Short
Photo courtesy Schoeller

Kerns is seeing additional “segments” growing out of Athleisure, including Technical Luxury. “The ‘all in one’ trend continues with garment pieces that transcend multiple wear occasions with a preference toward handling pursuits of all types very well,” said Kerns. Kerns sees more brand and consumer awareness of the environmental impact of garments, including environmental watchdog groups like Bluesign and recycled and recyclable offerings.

Other companies are taking up the fight against harmful chemicals. Ohio-based Downlite has worked in collaboration with the Nikwax UK, a producer of a PFC-free hydrophobic down, to improve and sustain its DWR performance. The company is now promising to deliver more than 1,000-minute test times on the hydrophobic shake test.  According to Downlite, this metric has never been achieved with a PFC-free DWR treatment.

“Sustainable and environmentally friendly-made products are a priority to consumers, particularly to millennials. As an ingredient brand, we need to be in the forefront of developing materials to help our brand partners with this process,” said Chad Altbaier, Downlite’s VP of sales and business development.

Heat Regulation
There’s little doubt things are warming up, both with global temperatures and efforts to keep people from overheating. Polartec, known for its insulating fabric, is introducing a heat-regulating fabric for spring/summer 2017.

Karen Beattie, Polartec’s product marketing manager, notes that cooling textiles are currently on trend, as are heat-generating athletic pursuits like running, cycling and indoor training. “We’ve been trying to prevent cooling for years, so letting it happen is just the opposite of that coin,” explains Beattie. “We know all the construction, fiber and finishing choices to turn the thermostat either way.”

Polartec Delta fabric is constructed with hydrophilic yarns that hold “just the right amount” of sweat on the skin to create prolonged, evaporative cooling. This “fabric radiator” maximizes the effectiveness of your body’s natural sweat response. In addition, said Beattie, “the fabric’s raised knit structure and highly breathable hydrophobic areas work together to prevent that clammy, sticky shirt feeling… it’s basic physics, it’s real and it’s permanent.”

Stay tuned tomorrow to SGB Today for Part II of our 2016 Fabrics Primer.

Lead photo courtesy Columbia