FLIPPING THE FLUX 1/4: META- vs FRANKENSTEIN SYSTEMS

‘flip the flux’: design industry slang for system-collapse occurring when a single component fails in its role, usually to having been over-designed.

‘Meta-‘: a system that references itself within that system

Like the words ‘core’, ‘base’ and ‘softshell’ and the term ‘system’ as applied to the stuff climbers wear has gone to seed.

‘System’ as in whatever you happen to be wearing is different to ‘meta’-system as in a series of elements designed to go together and function systemically. Any old baselayer under any old shell layer is a system by default, not by design, any more than a Mazda seat in a Ferrari will still work, but not as well as the one Ferrari had in mind….

Extensive development and experimentation involving multiple industries has produced a body of information relating to devising, producing and using clothing (and shelter) systems. It’s a lot, and it keeps on evolving as textile technology gathers speed, but here is a distillation.

PART 1

Meta-Systems vs Frankenstein systems

The act of systemizing is only half about coming up with the elements – the other half is them working symbiotically. Any element without symbiosis as its primary function ‘flips the flux’ The latest whiz-bang shell being completely dependent on whats under it, a single inefficient layer compromising the whole.

That favorite lucky polypro from the 90s or gimmicky wind-shell you got on sale could well be why that expensive shell or down layer doesn’t do what it said it would on the web site.

Systems need to be dynamic: they need to act within a flux, not within a limited set of states of stasis – in other words, they need to do certain specified jobs as well as function in the transitions between.

To work intentionally a system needs to be bought as a system – something the markets loathe even though the more integrated the components the more functional a system will be.

The problem here is that to produce an integrated system you isolate yourselves in the market place (‘but ive already got a baselayer I like’). Most systems are compromised by having their elements sold as standalone pieces: even tho the market loves the term ‘system’ its just a catchphrase. Very few pieces are sold that put their system compatibility at the top of the list.

pertex shield polartec teton bros system

the right choices matter: one really good standalone piece can ruin an otherwise decent system made of less-good parts. 5 really good stand-alone pieces does not necessarily a good system make.

The non-metasystem suffers greatly by having been systemized – the layering of garments not designed for it is half the problem. Treating garments as homogenous layers is the other half.

A system designed to function as a whole is just not that simple.

Any element not functioning optimally is compromising the others: a baselayer that doesn’t wick well reduces function in every layer over it – layers that may be compromised in their own ways. A mid-layer collecting moisture with a retarded dew point cannot be pushed to function optimally by surrounding it with other layers, whatever they may be. And its well known how very few insulation layers adjust well to the sudden sweat/heat build up when thrown on at belays, taking on moisture that reduces their insulating capacity.

Exercise:

Go put your system on and count how many garments you are wearing – 3, 4, 5, maybe 6.

Now count the layers of fabric between your skin and the outer layer. The actual fabric NOT the garments. Here you realize pockets add extra layers, as do shells around insulation, stretchy stuff and durable patches, as do double layers in places like collars, cuffs and waist bands. Bibs and salopettes count as well, as do their pockets, tape and double layering.

Then estimate how much coverage there is in seam taping velcro and zips, and add in any applied abrasion patches, built in stuff sacks, logos and reflective bits. It all adds up.

Don’t let long socks, high boots, gaiters and buffs go forgotten.

You will see it depends where you pin point, but coming out with more than 25% of your coverage being in ‘extra’ layers is normal. Areas like chest, lower torso and upper thighs/groin are particularly prone to ‘extra-layerism’ due to pockets and construction methods. Note that these are also high sweat areas without the extra layers.

Throw a bunch of stuff in the pockets (nothing like some wet leather gloves or a laminated map to throw a spanner in the works), and section off the pit-zips behind pack straps and its not hard to see that the system is far more compromised than the diagram in the catalogue shows…

Hows your system looking now? That $500 jacket with the 20,000 rating doesn’t have it any more; it’s the fabric with the rating – not the garment.

polartec teton bros mountain project powershield + coconut powerdry

In the meta-system each element functions to its optimum capacity for the sum of the whole. Randomness is minimized by intention.

Its difficult to describe these elements as layers, as each garment is a microclimate that performs differently on different parts of the body. The design and construction must be concise, simple and refined to minimize the accumulation of function-compromising elements, ie seam tape and other transpiration-retarding elements.

Fact: multiple layers of the same breathable fabric over each other don’t breathe anywhere near how a single layer does.

Fabrics and construction methods are employed in ways that optimize their properties, including their textures and bulk, relative to how they fit into the system.

The ‘fringes of the system interface well (ie intentionally) with the sort of gear to be used with it.

If you wear double boots do you want extra insulation around your ankles? Can you vent the system with a pack on? Does your helmet fit under the hood of the shell, mid and insulation layers? Expedition grade clothing is pointless if it doesn’t interface with expedition grade boots, gloves, packs and sleeping systems.

Real systems are based on a user who has a sophisticated idea of what they are doing with it.

Shivering away in a 100g shell when you’re not a true ultralight climber without a true ultralight partner, or sweltering away in an expedition belay jacket the same as the one Conrad Anker wears when you’re at 2500m/-5/50% humidity is a sign the climber needs to address their demands before expecting any system to function well. Theres a difference between knowing what you want and just liking what youre given.

No single system works at optimal standards across more than a fairly narrow set of conditions, and its up to the user to intelligently nail their demands first. ‘I want a jacket for Scottish winter’ carries little meaning whereas ‘I want an upper body system for a 35 year old male centering around medium heart rate activity at 60% humidity at 1200m between -10c and +5c and that I can sleep in’ says much more.

Meta-systems that accommodate this have to be built and designed – not just thrown together from standalone components – because they work differently from Frankenstein systems. The principles and therefore the materials involved have to be used with a different perspective (something difficult for many companies with restrictive licensing agreements). When the layers are seen as interfaces rather than as barriers, systems can be built around the properties of the whole rather than the failings of individual components. Its like those highschool science demonstrations where different densities of liquid sit in layers in a beaker – theres nothing separating them, just the properties are different.

Systems work only when you understand not just how each layer works, but how it works in relation to what sits either side of it – the meta- aspect. A hybrid layer of primaloft, pertex and powerstretch behind a layer of Neoshell moves the freeze-point one way. Protecting it with a thin pertex shell moves it the other.

A baselayer that only wicks will transfer humidity differently to a baselayer that wicks, cools and collects.

It all depends who you are and what youre doing. Some systems cool by neutralizing overheating, other warm by neutralizing heat loss, and its not unusual to require both systems running in parallel. A realistic system switches between being a cooling one and a warming one easily if its designed to do so and the user knows how to manipulate it.

This starts to confuse the ‘shell argument’ which flounders from users picking their system according to the cardboard dangly rather than the garments true properties in conjunction with whatever they wear. This is often compounded by a pan-sector obsession with weight, regardless of if its backed up with an understanding of function.

Meta-systems by their nature are lighter than Frankenstein systems. This is in part because things like collars and pockets are not doubled up on (or designed to where they are) and in part because functions (ie, water-repellency) are achieved not just by a single layer, but by spreading the function over 2 layers or more.

A true system circumvents the claims on the labels by addressing matters like overheating, over-cooling and heat convection by wind and water across multiple factors rather than banking on a single phenomenon of physics whilst ignoring others.

To this end a real system needs to be designed in light of trends in the greater industry, yet at the retail level shelf and rack space comes at a premium and filling it with $1000 designs few will need – that interfaces with gear few own – is too complicated for the big companies that have squared alliances.

neoshell pertex primaloft powerdry pertex shield

combining advanced fabrics creates smart-systems: something not all companies have the freedom to do

Different companies have different licensing rules in different places and the design-to-prototype process is complicated, involving a dozen different roles. To simply turn out a modification of an existing product is one thing – to produce something that works in a new way using new technology is quite another when feasibility from the R&D stage thru to the retailers shelf is significantly against anything even remotely radical or specialized.

The big companies can do it – be sure all the components exist – but the production risks are high to make 50,000 units. Making it really in the hands of the boutique companies with the smaller production runs to spearhead this one.

30 years of convincing marketing to vulnerable consumers has left a conservative sector cautious with where it spends its cash. Compared to many other high-demand sectors, alpine climbing is incredibly hard to shift, requiring significant information.

Selling a meta-system is the difference between buying a spark plug and installing an ignition system and requires open rethinking to go with it. Its not that meta-systems are too complicated – when pulled apart individual components can appear too simple as all the bling the market expects has been removed or spread across the system rather than each garment always having its own – it’s the rethinking and relabeling that makes it hard. Things are moving slowly though; the emerging concepts of warm-shells and cool-shells evolving on from the ‘hard-‘, ‘soft-‘, ‘wind-‘ and ‘rain-‘shell definitions is a step in the right direction.

Still, with brand allegiance what it is, it doesn’t prove easy producing systems that encapsulate a climbers needs within a single brand – what one climber calls system efficiency another sees as market exploitation.