Thursday, August 2, 2007
Companies such as Patagonia and REI have been driving the use of new materials in active sports such as hiking, climbing, biking and fishing for the past twenty years. When temperatures rise or activity-levels increase, technical clothing made from man-made materials is designed to improve comfort by letting sweat and body heat escape. The same types of technical clothing are also making inroads for travel as they tend to resist wrinkling and dry quickly, so they can be washed in a sink and hung dry by the next morning.
Technical clothing is designed for dressing in several lightweight clothing layers instead of one or two heavier layers. Layered clothing systems let the wearer add or remove layers in response to changing conditions (they also tend to pack more efficiently than heavier clothing). Most systems have four basic layers: inner, mid, insulation and outer. Each type performs a specific task.
Inner layer clothing is worn next to the skin. Its job is to keep the wearer comfortable by wicking sweat from the skin and providing insulation. Wicking keeps the wearer dry and comfortable in warm conditions and retains warmth in cold weather by reducing evaporative and conductive heat loss. Inner layer clothing is available in a variety of thicknesses for different activities and weather conditions.
Cotton is not recommended as an inner layer for active wear. It's comfortable when it's dry, but it absorbs sweat and holds it next to the skin (which can lead to significant heat loss). Cotton also takes a long time to dry, which can cause discomfort and even death when it freezes (hence the phrase "cotton kills" used to warn hikers in mountainous terrain). Cotton-like materials with hollow synthetic fibers made from laminated polyester or nylon such as MTS 2® (Moisture Transport System) or Capilene® (used by NASA) are better.
The primary function of mid-layer clothing is to provide insulation and protection in warm conditions. Mid layer items are often worn alone on short trips in good weather conditions. Pile and fleece mid layer garments are available today in shirts, pants, vests, jackets, pullovers and sweaters with wind and weather-stopping liners built in. And pile weighs about half as much as wool.
Insulation layer clothing is designed specifically to provide additional warmth. It's typically worn whenever mid and/or inner layer pieces are not warm enough for the conditions. Insulation layers, also often made of pile and/or fleece, are designed to be warm, lightweight, breathable and without bulk.
Finally, the primary job of outer layer clothing is to protect the wearer from wind, rain and snow. Outer layer items are ideally designed to create a "chimney effect" where built-in venilation such as zippered necks, high collars, open cuffs and vents allow hot air to rise and moisture to evaporate. Breathable waterproof fabrics like Gore-Tex® are comfortable in a wide variety of situations and conditions.
So what does all this mean to every-day dress? It's become common to see technical clothing mixed into every day wardrobes. The New Zealand native sitting next to me on the airplane yesterday was wearing it from his shirts to his shoes. As suits are replaced by what Anne Hollander predicted will be shirt, trousers and a bomber jacket, more of what people wear will be endowed with technical advantages that were first applied to sport. It's adoption will be speeded as suppliers complement their offerings of brightly colored stuff designed for visibility on the face of a mountain with more conventional looking clothes.