autumn in Tibet is like autumn anywhere – rapidly cooling, some moisture still in the air and oscillating winds both cold and neutral. only in Tibet it’s all exaggerated. the winds are colder, the sun is stronger, the difference between sun and shade is huge and the cold fronts huge. this means clothing needs to cover a wide spectrum of use, from sun protection to frosted tents way below freezing.
but first a rant…
current developments in fabrics and insulation have changed high mountain climbing clothing a lot, doing away with both the old standards of what is used, and how they mix. when the layers change so do how you layer them, and anyone saying nothing has changed since the 80’s simply doesnt have their eyes open. the old notion of a polypro baselayer, a fleece or pile midlayer then a Goretex shell on top and a huge down jacket at the end is now as relevant as plastic boots and leashes.
today, baselayers are about being warm by being dry, not by insulating. this makes them lighter by being thinner and having less density. the layers on top do any insulating required. contemporary baselayers function as well as sun layers due to their proficiency at drawing moisture off the skin. midlayers today dont just insulate, they provide a protective barrier as well by shielding wind and moisture whilst allowing excess heat to pass outwards. in the past what took 3 garments (base, mid, shell) now takes 2 and the result is more efficient, lighter and ergonomic (recall that every zip, seam, pocket and layer of fabric accumulates to compromise the end result – something to be said for elegant simplicity). shell layers now bear little in common with the hefty Gore garments of 10 years ago; they weigh less, they use less pieces, the bits like zips and fasteners are lighter and better, they stretch, and as part of a system of new fabrics they get worn much less, serving only as outlier elements. where the shell jacket was once the signature of the alpine climber, its now a secondary thing as the belay jacket comes to the fore, much to the concert of the companies.
ahh yes, the belay jacket, perhaps the symbol of all thats evolving in the alpine climbing and clothing world. both as an indicator of changes in climbing style and industrial development, the very idea of a specific belay jacket has taken a long time to solidify: partly because such garments are expensive to produce, partly because climbers dont turn them over like some other garments, partly because it took time for climbing styles to catch up and partly because the textiles to really make the idea work lagged behind the demand for them. like shell jackets, polypros and fleeces, not long ago insulated jackets were bulky and full of problems – to the point where it wasnt abnormal to simply leave them behind. as insulation got better and base and mid layers got more efficient, the demands on belay layers shifted and we now have garments that were mere fantasy once.
a well-functioning system has little barrier preventing moisture escaping from the skin and within the layers itself, only just enough of a barrier to stop wind sucking warm air away faster than demanded. when external conditions start to steal warmth too fast for the system to maintain, a shell is added as a ‘heat cap’. like the other layers, this heat cap is only as permeable as needed, aiming to capture the higher pressure inside the system as a force to keep cold and moisture out.
new fabrics dont just do the job better, they have better structural integrity that allows them to be put together in more ergonomic designs. only 2 or 3 years ago ‘cutting edge’ designs had dozens of panels of special fabrics that ‘body mapped’ for a garments demands. now as single fabrics have broader spectrums of function – and construction methods have evolved in parallel – garments are becoming more streamlined with less seams to fail and less bits to get in the way.
insulating, breathing, protective & ergonomic; fabrics have evolved to a remarkable state recently, altering the old definitions of how they worked together
this years clothing
as a next-to-skin layer Powerwool from Polartec is the latest thing. early protos last year in Tibet were a big success so this year it’s back. a firm stretch, stable wicking and drying and great as a sun layer, Powerwool creates a stable layer as the foundation of everything that goes over it, and unlike previous generations of wool or synthetic base layers suffers little with extended use, staying tight and odourless. in Tibet this layer doesnt get taken off, serving as protection from the sun, sleep layer and high output layer. it needs a full coverage hood, sleeves that cover the hands, large front opening and pockets for storing batteries and day food without freezing. usage time will be 100%
Alpha insulation, also from Polartec, is the obvious choice as a mid or light insulation layer. grams to insulation value it far exceeds any fleece or pile, and with a totally breathable structure paired with a mildly wind protected stretch facing covers a huge spectrum of exertion levels and conditions. tho Polartec was the first to market, Patagonia beat their marketing with an identical product, nailing effectively the notion of put it on, keep it on. this layer also needs a full storm hood – not least for breathing thru when sleeping, big stash pockets for things like gas canisters (ideally the entire stove base) and to fit snug under a shell or belay jacket. aside from the highest output periods or in direct sun this layer is expected to be worn all the time. usage time 80%
as the capacities for base and midlayers to deal with moisture soar, reliance on a shell declines in places like Tibet, with light and stretchy shell layers like Neoshell acting more as stabilizers than as full waterproof armor. shell layers today have little relation to their ancestors of even 7 or 8 years ago, when a shell weighed twice as much, insulated too much, didnt stretch and was seen as a near-constant layer. in Tibet this will be a sub-300gm layer with priority on the hood and sealing ability, ie to lock out snow and spindrift but also act as a simple windshell so no need for any insulating properties. usage time 10%
Tibet being cold the outer insulation is all important, and todays Primaloft Gold resolves what was the grail of insulation – the properties of down unaffected by moisture. Primaloft Gold combines waterproofed down with a blend of just enough synthetic fiber to minimize the extend to which the down collapses when wet, allowing warmth to circulate and push out the moisture that got beyond the downs nano proofing. unlike regular down, Primaloft Gold doesnt collapse when wet, the synthetic fiber alone retaining about 30% heat, enough to kickstart the down drying. for longer trips in tents and portaledges, keeping the slow invasion of moisture at bay is vital and as yet this is the best solution. this layer directly relates to survival and resilience – the longer it keeps its loft values to less cold-creep as we give in to the entropy of fatigue and loss of kcals. the garment needs a serious hood, to go over everything else, to seal out snow and wind and to store large things like 1L bottles. usage time 20%
for the legs Polartec’s Powershield Pro is the vanguard of softshell fabrics. a more breathable membrane and heavier weave creates a barrier that keeps snow out and lightly insulates without being too big a heat trap, requiring only a light Powerwool layer beneath. Powershield Pro has the durability to handle abrasion and the wicking and permeability to not get clammy. they need to be tough enough for climbing, warm enough for sitting around and ergonomic enough to sleep in. they want a high cut back, a long front zip and pockets for things like a knife. usage time 80%
combined and in action, these textiles create a microclimate that moves, breathes and protects far more efficiently and at a much reduced weight and bulk than what existed even 5 years ago. designs can be simpler yet more ergonomic, requiring less pieces and less space to stuff them into. in action the user has a greater range of comfort and movement. these are genuine improvements that may be little more than novelty on weekends out or from the comfort of large basecamps, but that come into their own with weeks of 24hr use when there’s no alternative available, ie real expedition use.
should you go out and spend big on the latest gear?
only if you do it properly. not all new gear combines the latest fabrics with construction, and its often the construction that sends up the price. also, a single whiz bang garment in a mix of outdated junk wont do what it says on the tin, meaning you may be better replacing that favorite old baselayer than getting the latest Neoshell jacket. garments need to be used integrated with the others in the system and unless you can lay down $1000 at a time to get the whole set it makes sense to just get the best when you can. this years latest development will be next years sale items so spending a bit each year means you will have a near-current system in 2 or 3 seasons. consider too your actual demands – producers will sell you the idea of Himalayan (or Greenlandic or Antarctic or Baffinesque) use but you may be able to drop a level back from that if you just climb weekends.
will the latest gear make any real-world difference?
realistically, for weekend and occasional holiday climbers, no. most use will be well within what the garments can tolerate and most issues will be comfort issues, not survival ones. functional differences begin to creep in the moment you have to carry everything (ie its about weight) and use it non-stop for more than a few days (ie its about durability of function). its a double edged equation because not only are you more reliant on less, but you have less ability to do something about a problem should it arise. a 20% compromise on insulation for a night out in Hyalite will be uncomfortable, but at 5000m in Tibet 4 days into a 10 day trip it changes the equation.
highly functional clothing allows you to plan around it. heading up a winter big wall with an all-down system is insane to the point of negligent, but advances in moisture-proofing down and mixing it with synthetic fibers means by day 5 you probably wont have found the limits of what a jacket or sleeping bag can go to. fabrics like Powerwool are more hygenic than some others, not to mention more team-friendly after a week without showering, and knowing it functions as a sunlayer means the transition from baking approach to chilling shadows at the base of a route wont require a change of tops. new midlayer textiles like Alpha truly can be left on almost all the time, meaning less messing about at belays and in tents when you have better things to do. add it all up and the minutes saved become hours and the grams saved become food, fuel and batteries – things that directly relate to safety and survival regardless of how well you climb.
power wool is soon to have it’s big release for fall-winter, so it’s a good time to get some real-world beta out there along side the endless press releases and showroom fondling from the trade show circuit. having used the stuff over almost a year and taken it from baking granite walls to nasty tibetan snow storms and lots of variety of trips between, a decent perspective on the stuff exists.
high exertion, bleaching sun, cold conditions: Polartec’s Power Wool is a quantum leap in next-to-skin fabrics
having worn capilene, various merino wools, maybe every form of Powerdry, Powergrid and Power stretch and like everyone, the old school poly pros, Power Wool is as close to getting it right as has been achieved. now into 2nd and 3rd generation versions, some of the issues have been worked on and what now exists is impressive.
what matters is that the entire clothing ‘system’ rests on the foundation of the baselayer. compromise it and that $700 jacket is off to a poor start. baselayers need to fill a range of functions much more sophisticated than the other layers, so stakes are high, and as it goes Power Wool is as big – if not a bigger – leap in function that Neoshell or Alpha.
the way Power Wool works is straightforward: the inner side is wool that has a degree of insulation yet allows heat to dissipate consistantly, and the outer side is a synthetic fiber that wicks efficiently and allows moisture to pass thru unimpeded.
how they’ve made it work is very sophisticated: this is not 2 layers stuck together. evolved from Alpha-style technology, Power Wool is a bi-component 3D knit (not a traditional weave) thats the one layer but with 2 sides to it. the wool inner side is a waffle texture, the synthetic outer side is a denser uniform texture.
beyond all that are the properties of the fibres: the wool doest reek, it keeps your skin in good condition and it gives a firmness to the fabrics dynamic. the synthetic element gives it durability, provides most of the wicking properties and retains the elasticity of the ‘firm stretch’ factor that makes it fit so well.
speaking of which, the fit is a major factor at work here. firmer than a normal high-stretch baselayer but not prone to the stretch degradation of wool, Power Wool acheives much of it function by form fitting alone. it sits tight against the skin to have maximum thermal and wicking efficiency, but has minimal bunching around the joints or riding up like many tight layers do. perhaps the best factor is that by combining wool and synthetic 3 dimensionally theres no need for a patchwork of ‘body mapping’ panels – which means construction can be kept simpler and more durable yet function is heightened. this then leads to more sophisticated design possibilities ie, how panels conform to the body, where zips go, ways of connecting panels etc.
Power Wools body-conforming ability makes it super efficient: it stretches but doesnt sag, sitting firmly against the skin but not loosing integrity with use
in use Power Wool is a true ‘put it on, leave it on’ fabric – which is vital for a baselayer. the days of stripping to a baselayer yet still sweltering are a big step closer to being over. Power Wool doesnt work by being thick – it works by being efficient, which means it’s almost neutral to the touch. as a single layer it will work comfortably well into warmer temperatures. this is largely increased by it currently being produced in a silver-grey that reflects radiant heat well. this stuff is as much sun layer as it is warmth layer.
on extended trips Power Wool has the odour minimizing properties of any wool, with the quick dry properties of synthetic. the minimal amount of seams needed to achieve high function also makes a garment with less pieces to come apart. over time is where the stuff really come to the fore, allowing the other layers in the system to maintain their functions too, remaining less compromised by the effects of grime as a trip wears on.
all this could only be done by Polartec, the only company working on a full spectrum of functional layers. they realize that for Alpha, Powershield, Neoshell etc to work properly they need to be on top of a foundation layer that gives them the best possible chance. of all the layers it’s taken the technology for Power Wool the longest to emerge, and in producing it theyve reinterpreted how baselayers can function.
still a way from its full release, Polartec has OKed comments from the testing process to ferment interest in another of its game-changing innovations.
expedition use is what matters: weeks of constant use, minimal maintenance, just a squirt of dish liquid to clean it and an hour in the sun to dry – true expedition functionality
unlike Neoshell that took on the big players like Gore and Toray, and Alpha which was all hush-hush with the special forces, Power Wool is an everyman fabric that slides straight in with Polartec doing what Polartec does best – produce comfortable next-to-skin fabrics.
at first it seems weird that this hasn’t been done before, afterall blends of wool and synthetic fibers have been around as long as people have felt itchy, but its not till now it could be produced in a dual-density weave that put the different fibers where they were wanted in durable and comfortable form. like any two materials that don’t naturally mix, problems had to be solved to make them integrate and remain stable.
but yeah yeah, whats it like in the real world? and how is this any better than what we already have?
very cold and very bright: as a layer that wicks, stabilizes and protects from the sun, Power Wool has the function of multiple other fabrics
first we need to define performance as simply saying ‘its great’ or ‘it sucks’ after a bout of normal use doesn’t mean much. things need to be seriously thrown against the wall before we can say if they work or not. in this case the test ground was the trip to Gangga VII, which fulfilled the ‘expedition criteria’ of all Teton Bro’s Mountain Project designs.
14 days continuous use
interfaced with expedition gear
subject to constant expedition stressors
maintained under expedition conditions
the primary factors to judge on are;
fabric function – how well it does what its meant to
construction function – how well it can be made into what it should be
integrated function – how well it interfaces with what its expected to
the aim here is not to set out to destroy it, but to provide an environment that’s expected to render it significantly useless – for it to fail of its own accord, failure meaning a degradation of performance to below the standard required. in this case this includes the standards of existing fabrics that already do pretty well, which means the stakes were pretty high.
to not fail means to continue doing what its meant to at the limits of testing. where a baselayer fabric has to shine is its capacity for non-stop wear. shell layers and most midlayers go on and off, making ‘constant’ for a shell very different to ‘constant’ for a base. round-the-clock for a baselayer is just that.
where the Power Wool really shone – pun impending – is that its 24/7 use included that as a sun layer. protective sun layers are nothing new of course, but they rarely double as an insulating layer too, the concept of either being viewed as opposite ends of the spectrum. what alters this is Power Wools remarkable wicking ability which works to dry the skin, not insulate it, achieving its warming properties mostly thru minimal heat loss from convection, rather than trapping radiated heat like most baselayers.
contrary to current baselayer trends Power Wool doesn’t need body mapped paneling to achieve fit and stretch – a really big deal design & construction-wise. body mapping is great in theory but every seam and every method of construction used compromises
Power Wool as an interface fabric: warm and dry when covered, fast to dump heat when its vented. Power Wool (shown here under a layer of Neoshell) profoundly increases the performance of other layers by getting things stable at skin-level
in a layer system is where Power Wool really matters. being so thermally efficient all other layers over it have a better chance to work effectively, and having a finely textured outer facing and requiring minimal construction it slips under layers with nothing to impede it. because of its high stretch Power Wool barely bunches up in the crooks of elbows, behind the knees etc.
over the 2 weeks of continual use the deodorant properties stayed within acceptable and over a month of expedition maintenance a single quick wash with dish detergent was enough to bring cleanliness back to baseline.
the only issue was one of minor durability. caught with a crampon during a fall, a hole in the leg laddered in a way something like a stocking. the hole itself didn’t expand over a further week of use, and the laddering didn’t compromise the fit or construction, but it was unexpected to see.
another issue is where a problem was solved; avoiding the durability issues of wool, Power Wool has a firm stretch. unlike pure wool that sits lightly against the skin because it doesn’t handle constant stretch so well, Power Wool’s dynamic stretch makes for a firmer fit, something more like a wetsuit. its not a problem, just more demand on good quality 3D construction.
the big issue tho will be consumer demand: baselayer design has stagnated due to lack of glamour (who cares when you cant see it right?) and understanding (theyre just ‘thermals’, right?) which means even tho Power Wool can easily improve the performance of an entire clothing system it needs the interest from climbers to get the best designs on the market – and thats not easy. its another rant in its own right (stay tuned), but if climbers spent more on baselayers and less on shell layer bling then the near-mythical properties that these fabrics have could be realized.
so a verdict?
it wins hands down. as a functional fabric, as a material for clothing construction, and as a primary element in an integrated system it excelled. no other baselayer material does any of those things quite as well, and usually 1 out of 3 below standard. Power Wool in the right design makes a baselayer that achieves more than any other fabric, and this in turn lets the layers over it work better.
at iceclimbingjapan we don’t really test garments, we test systems. Japan is an ideal testing ground as results can be gained and processed rapidly, in direct conjunction with the developers.
difficult, cold and complex: the mountain ranges of Japan allow for efficient R&D
tasking from Teton Bros, who interface for Polartec, means we are a vehicle for the Polartec range, which is interesting as they are the only producer putting a full system of compatible fabrics out there. sure, Neoshell is interesting. yes, Alpha insulation is innovative. and High Efficiency, Stretch Woven and Power Wool etc are all useful, but it’s the combination that counts.
so what do we have to play with? theres dozens of variants of dozens of fabrics, which means hundreds of possible combinations. iceclimbingjapan is mostly winter and alpine specific so what we center on a system that keeps an exerting human functional down to very cold and unstable temperatures (about -30c with winds gusting to about 80kmph).
systemized textiles with innovative results
just like testing the latest Ferrari but with tires from the 80s and an exhaust system from the Clinton years would be a severely compromised ’test’, so would be evaluating any component from Polartecs latest range when combined with random elements of old gear. what makes a system good is that it minimizes outliers and therefore makes the function more predictable – something that really matters when planning edgy endeavors.
it also really matters in the market place, where the consuming public – rightly so – disputes manufacturers claims for performance. ‘Neoshell feels cold’, ‘Alpha doesn’t wick’ etc are common complaints heard from consumers who almost always have combined these innovative textiles with others that are not. its just a fact of innovation that your favourite fleece may well be the weak link in an otherwise efficient matrix.
so what have we found?
for a start, the Polartec system works, across a wide range of conditions, for a wide range of activities. ‘works’ here means staying more regulated, comfortable and within a safe functional zone than other random collections of gear allow, and is evaluated simply by experience. whatever the factors, combined as a system, the Polartec range functions with a true sense of integration. the next-to-skin fabrics keep you dry, the midlayer textiles insulated without condensing moisture, the shelter layers block the elements whilst allowing excess heat and moisture to dissipate. all fabrics stretch to math the range of motion of the body. they also all interface smoothly with each other and can be pieced together using construction technology that doesnt compromise function.
weve also found the system to be simple. gone are the days of complex combinations. with each fabric working well over a larger spectrum of conditions, systemizing them becomes simpler. the function of each element still needs to be understood, but the way they work when unimpeded is profound.
weve found too that old notions of ‘layers’ and ‘systems’ no longer apply. sure, weve all known this for a while now, but the resolution has been unclear. old school fleece and shells haven’t really had a part in most active systems for years, but without replacing what goes either side of it has been hard to substitute. applying the out dated layer system gets harder and harder as innovations get more and more profound. anyone advocating a regular way of layering along the lines ‘base-mid-shell-down’ is ignoring the technology currently available. its just not that rudimentary anymore.
one example of a Polartec system: Power Wool base, stretch Alpha midlayer, Powershield outer layer. all elements stretch, move and respirate moisture in harmony.
now single garments do much more than function as a single layer, with garments using fabrics like Power Wool, Alpha and Powershield being referred to as ‘1.5 layers’ or ‘+layers’ that do multiple things at once. combining these ‘1.5 layers’ gets simpler and simpler because they are more and more functional. there really is no reason to be overheating or getting windchilled anymore.
so where to go with it? design.
its one thing to innovate with fabric technology, but quite another to innovate with design, and sadly this is what lets the paradigm down. these new fabrics really demand new designs to feel them at their best, but the consumer market just doesn’t float it. complete systems like what Polartec has developed could easily put seamless, integrated garment ranges onto climbers bodies – but climbers are reluctant to try it, which means giving up the dinosaur gear and showing a demand for the future.
iceclimbingjapan functions as a testing project for Polartec, with Teton Bros acting as the Japan interface and production element. this means we are given full access to all Polartecs innovations (including many that never make the mainstream and/or climbing market). from Neoshell to Alpha and dozens of variants of more esoteric fabrics – cast into all sorts of innovative designs – its been a pleasure to R&D for them.
watch for this little tag
many new fabrics are simply retakes of old ones, produced with updated technology that refines their production capabilities and functional properties. but some new fabrics are exactly that – new, in every way. new concepts, new demands, new technology to produce them, new ways of functioning and a new place in the market. its been a very long time since traditional clothing systems have been relevant.
in the sequence of Neoshell, Alpha and some of the Powershields now comes Power Wool, a new take that combines properties of both wool and synthetic baselayers.
long unimpressed with wool as a functional layer for serious climbing, this was immediately interesting. the problems with wool are profound and many, far overshadowing the few positives that get touted as making the stuff a good choice. poor durability, textile degradation, average wicking and insulating properties, wool’s advantages were based on aging folk wisdom from a pre-synthetic era. the re-emergence of wool was more due to global industry than to actual demand (ever notice the big R&D companies took minimal interest?) wool has been a good example of how most climbing clothing functions fine for a day or two and companies base their development on this window of use for the majority of what they produce. thru this window its easy to be impressed with most gear.
what changes the equation tho is extended use – a week of constant use, ie 24hrs a day or 169hrs straight. minimum. this is where wool has always failed.
sure, its remained relatively odour-free, but the downside has been the loss of structural integrity that means loss of fit, which means its wicking properties (the #1 factor in maintaining a regulable body climate) is diminished. and that’s a major problem.
Power Wool solves that.
in what seems a simple idea, Polartec combined high quality wool with specific synthetic textile, but simple it aint. to keep appropriate levels of durability and textile function, getting the formula right wasn’t straightforward. like blending oil and water, the differences in properties made for problem requiring new technology to solve – the reason for the legion of hybrid garments about that were using synthetic panels to make up for the wools deficiencies.
where Power Wool works is the way it puts the wool against the skin then faces it with a more stable synthetic layer that resolves the wools problems. the wool keeps things clean and nice against the skin, but where in the past it had trouble moving moisture away the moisture is now pulled from the wool by the synthetic layer, to be evaporated away from the body.
smart? by lightyears. but a radical function that didn’t happen overnight.
eventually they got it right, then we got to play with it, and it wasn’t long before we were converted. Power Wool is very good stuff. like Alpha etc a sudden rush of new design ideas mushroomed that surrounded the possibilities. the stretch alone is insane, meaning totally form fitting designs can be produced with minimal compromise from construction and optimum performance with wicking and regulating the skins micro-climate (remember, the #1 factor in regulating body condition). the main property of wool – its odour reducing capacity – is retained, a useful tho superficial element but one that gains market points. where Power Wool really shines is its function as a sort of ‘1.5 layer’. having such high levels of wicking and stabilizing properties the concept of a ‘baselayer’ is extended beyond that of wicking and/or insulating. now the demanded function is simply less compromised by the fabric.
what will be done with Power Wool? think highly functional baselayers. less of the bitsy ‘hybrid’ designs and more of the form fitting variety, and ones that also function better when used as a single layer. runners, skiers and big mountain alpinsts (those who want to strip to minimal layers for high output periods) will rapidly see the advances.
true to Polartecs vision, Power Wool fits seamlessly into the ‘Polar-system’, working symbiotically with Alpha insulation and the array of weather-resistant ‘Shelter’ layers. well aware that the next-to-skin layer is the foundation for all that goes over it – and as profound as things like Neoshell, Alpha, Hardface etc are – its Power Wool that is the silent achiever with the biggest effect.
softshells have always had weaknesses that limited them, amongst them the matrix of stretch and durability. schoeller resolved this in a way but the results were heavy and very warm, which limited things to a certain part of the climbing spectrum.
do that with an old-school softshell: new Power Shield Stretch Woven does this without the use of regular stretch components
as part of their systemization, Polartec worked to solve the gap, developing a range of fabrics that are wind-blocking, warm to the touch, weather-faced, super stretchy, durable and light – ie a combination that many climbers never even knew they were missing out on.
the key here has been the STRETCH WOVEN element.
until now softshells used a lycra component to achieve stretch. this functioned ok, with reasonable stretch capability but limited durability. over extended use the fabrics either stiffened up or lost some of their expansion-contraction range. not always welcomed for expensive garments, and a process often exacerbated by extended use in very cold temperatures.
now comes Power Shield Stretch Woven.
mechanical stretch achieved by the weave of the fabric isn’t that new, but what is is the way its developed into a softshell fabric, most of all just how much stretch there is and how light those fabrics can be. where softshells used to be the domain of winter-only use, the new powershield stretch woven variants are creeping ever further into warm weather use. in part due to remarkable breathability, the lighter end of the range is on par with many other flimsier shelling fabrics – yet another holy grail in textile development; light, stretchy, durable and breathable. needless to say this appeals favourably to pairing with ALPHA insulation (for the first true stretch insulation designs).
Power Shield Stretch Woven + Alpha insulation: the alchemy of true stretch insulation, allowing for full cover weather protection with seamless garments
who wants super stretch, summer-weight softshells? anyone demanding a combination of weather resistance, protection, range of movement and adaptability. this would include mixed climbers, big wallers, boulderers, trekkers and expedition climbers, but now due to the non-lycra stretch – which means much reduced environmental deterioration – these fabrics excel in water use, opening up uses by surfers, sailors, river guides and those who work around water.
seasonal testing has shown that when combined with smart baselayers (more on that soon) even the lighter powershield stretch woven fabrics work in winter, resulting in the beginnings of true multi-season shell garments.
the attributes of high stretch, tough and super-breathable softshells become obvious with use across multiple demands – just the way alpine pursuits are going. stretch woven softshells are resolving many of the elements that lead to real ‘second skin’ garments, ones that protect, regulate body temperature and move effortlessly with the body across a wide range of conditions.
weve talked about this for a long time now, and early protos are now being tested.
the concept is straightforward; a single body-conforming layer that moves with you, insulates like a midlayer, breathes effortlessly, vents ahead of overheating and sheds snow, ain and wind. the demands for such clothing are broad, and until now haven’t really been possible – some pieces have been there but other parts of the puzzle have always failed. weve always had stretch, but not stretch insulation. weve always had water resistant insulation, but it didnt breath. weve always had weather resistant fabrics, but they didnt vent properly.
testing new ideas; Alpha insulation and Alpha-specific Powershield Pro being trialled as part of the Second Skin Project.
by developing fabrics intentionally to work as a system, Polartec is putting out layers that go together seamlessly. Alpha is now available in 4 versions, along with various facings including a new generation of 2-layer Powershield developed specially for the job thats incredibly tough and light. plus a new range of baselayer fabrics that take wicking to new levels, thus allowing the layer over it to function better.
four versions of Alpha: 60, 80, 100 and 120gm/m2
ideally this layer is worn against the skin, or over only the least intrusive base as possible. already the Alpha is internally faced with a wicking mesh (indeed Alpha itself is like a super wicking textile), but we understand that few will be committed enough at first to be comfortable with such a minimal layer.
insanely light and wicking; the latest generation of Powerdry baselayer fabrics are less than half the mass of before
in many ways it fulfils the idea of combining every layer of the old base/mid/shell system into one – something that rightly has a lot of problems with it with the fabrics of yesterday being used. now, with insulation that neither retains nor is compromised by moisture and shells that stretch mechanically and don’t have membranes – plus a lot of smart testing and designing – its doable.
last winter everyone wanted to talk about Neoshell, this winter its Alpha.
as part of Polartecs aggressive campaign to update functional fabrics and the way they are used, more and more fabrics are being developed and more and more interesting ways are being found to use them.
variations for applications: theres more than one Alpha for more than one job
iceclimbingjapan in conjunction with Teton Mountain Project and Polartec has been working with Alpha for over a year, developing ways to make it do what high-demand users want. originally it was made for the demands of special forces (under another name) so demand was pretty high, but orienting it for the civilian market has broadened its application considerably.
like many, when we first got hold of Alpha we wondered where it sat next to other synthetic insulations like Primaloft, Coreloft and Thermoball, all of which had already been extensively developed. over a bbroad range of conditions and extended use, plus mixing it against different fabrics we worked up an idea of what can be done with it and from this developed garments that fulfil unique positions in the high-demand lexicon.
heres what we have found
doesn’t need baffling
Alpha is a 3d knit with its own integrity, so unlike down, primaloft and thermoball it doesn’t need the extra weight and construction of baffles to hold it in place. this frees up all sorts of other properties of a garment
make that ridiculously fast – up to 50% faster than other synthetic insulations. basically Alpha cant retain water, and tho other synthetics insulations can repel water this works against them by also trapping it, whereas Alpha wicks it away
the big seller. alpha has virtually zero vapor transmission barrier qualities which means even when faced in membrane or windproof fabrics it breathes better than insulation that repels vapor. by allowing vapor to reach the facing fabric without cooling the facing fabric works better for its intended properties.
the inner breathable mesh + an outer, non-membraned ‘shell’
being a knit Alpha has multi-directional ‘pull’ that means it can be face with stretch fabric. this means no more cold stretch panels and all that goes with them (ie cold spots from baffling and non-stretch seams). this means near-seamless ‘second skin’ insulation is suddenly much closer to reality.
try that with another insulation: with a mechanical stretch Powershield facing Alpha can form a body hugging ‘second skin’ layer that insulates super efficiently, moves with the body and repels wind and water – something that was only dreamt of not long ago.
Alpha allows heat to move thru a garment, which both vents the user and allows that heat to enter other things like sleeping bags and belay jackets, thus allowing those too to also dry. Alpha is an ideal sleeping fabric. where other synthetic insulations can get sweaty due to blocking heat transfer, Alpha reduces this.
24hr fabric: Alpha at its best when part of a clothing system that doesnt need removing. from high-output climbing to long hours in a sleeping bag, Alpha helps other fabrics dry by allowing heat to move thru layers.
next to the nearest fleece of the same insulation properties Alpha packs to about 2/3 the size. unlike some other insulations, long term compression doesn’t degrade function or cause cold spots. unlike other insulation with baffles or inherent hydro-affected properties, Alpha can be washed like any other fabric.
2nd fabric friendly
not requiring baffling, Alpha can be used with almost any other fabric, especially ones too light to hold the baffles that down etc needs. Alpha also doesn’t require down-proof fabrics, meaning it can be faced with meshes and open weave textiles that open up amazing potential for breathability.
being a knit, Alpha effectively already is a fabric, and so it combines seamlessly with other fabrics by being friendly to seam-locking and stretch-seaming where other insulations are not. this reduces bulk from internal excess and opens up options for paneling that makes for more ergonomic designs.
integrated testing: Alpha demanded being tested along with other high-tier elements. here an early Polartec Alpha sample gets thrown in with other things to be tested over a wide spectrum of conditions
consider all this when you pick an Alpha garment off the rack. buying something in Alpha that is really just an old Primaloft design rehashed is a long way from seeing what the stuff really is all about. likewise, putting it against the same old uses and same old conditions also does little to expose its evolved functions.
over extensive testing we have used it from hot and humid conditions to waaaay below freezing, for multiple days without removing and in conjunction with every other textile and insulation we can find and have found it – when used to its potential – to be a new branch in high-demand garment. it doesn’t replace Primaloft or other water repellant insulations, theres much that they still do that Alpha doesn’t (ie Alpha plus Primaloft is a combination we are finding enormous potential and success with), but as a systemizible textile its remarkable.
(C)iceclimbingjapan 2013. use without permission is plagarism. write your own stuff.
whilst everyone has been watching Neoshell and now Alpha rise as part of Polartecs new system of fabrics, Powershield – Polartecs softshell contender – has been quietly evolving in amazing new directions. initially sidelined as ‘just another membraned softshell’, Powershield has become its own branch of smart-textile evolution, spawning variants that blow away old ideas about what softshell can be.
the latest Powershields have abandoned their membranes in the wake of Neoshell securing a large part of that sector, taking upon woven weatherproofing that allows for greater vapour permeability and greater stretch. being smart as they are, Polartec also went beyond elastic-based stretch, using a mechanical stretch based on the weave that massively increases performance longevity. long gone are the days of sweaty, heavy and compromised garments requiring less functional panels to allow freedom of movement – Powershield now is a major step closer to a seamless, smart-skin alpine system.
see thru softshell??!!?! the incredible new version of Powershield is so light you can read the data card thru it. a massive development in thermo-regulating fabrics, this stuff is so light and permeable that old notions of what ‘softshell’ can mean no longer apply. membrane-less with 4 way mechanical stretch, combined with Alpha whole new possibilities open up.
another pathway that ups the revs is the way Powershield is being combined with Alpha insulation. no membrane and high breathability makes it a good outer facing when warmth and durability demands more than a pertex shell. since last winter we have been trialling Alpha+Powershield combinations, and tho clunky at first its all come together perfectly. the first versions worked well, but were a bit hefty and the concept hard to get across to alpine users, but recent development in both insulation and fabric has converged successfully.
stre-e-e-e-tch: a true alpine second skin just came a lot more realistic. Powershield combined with Alpha makes for concepts unheard of not long ago
who wants Powershield? anyone who is not relying on a shell layer for protection. if breathability, stretch and heat regulation take precedence over waterproofness then its a good choice – especially if youve been put off earlier membraned softshells.
with the bosses just back from OR and Polartec HQ having delivered our data right into the main vein, the latest beta on Alpha, the Neoshells and their applications is in
keep an eye out for this little tag
tested on humans
so, several months of testing across a wide range of conditions by TMP testers was presented along with many others at OR in SLC. tho much has been released to the general market, still much of Alphas applications remains in a developmental stage simply because it is so diverse – trialing and evaluating Alpha in conjunction with Polartecs entire range is a big process.
some of what has been distilled and presented is simply reaffirmation of what Polartec already knew in other sectors, now confirmed by recreational climbers. other elements across the board put Alpha and its sister textiles firmly in a league of their own.
with its origins as a Special Operations request, its not surprising the same sector would get the defining word on Alpha and the Polartec range.
in a series of blind tests that included all the major brands, Alpha and Neoshell were chosen on performance. whilst not exactly replicating the demands of alpine climbers, theres no doubt SOF demands are similar or exceeding anything 99% of climbers will ever require.
testing and retesting: 72hrs straight of both rigorous and static applications right at the freeze/thaw zone. incredible cold is one thing, inside a humid tent is another. both combined is what matters.
for big mountain skiing the bosses of Teton Bros, who are also sponsored DPS skiers, ran thru extensive heli-skiing testing (ie extensive fun) around Silverton in Colorado, trialing and evaluating Alpha in conjunction with Neoshell, Powershield and others in applications covering hard ascents, heli conditions and long descents. not unexpectedly – when used systematically – Alpha stood out for both its breathability whilst sweating hard then its insulation once the wind resistance picked up. most of these tests were done in temps around -25c before windchill
whats been laid down now as well tested is Alpha’s place in it all – what TMP is calling its capacity as a ‘multiplier’. for any application other than hot climate cooling, Alpha, when introduced to a system multiplies the desired effectt.
want to trap heat? Alpha either does it alone or enhances the effects of other insulations.
want to dump heat? Alpha, when vented, flushes heat out fast enough to minimize moisture cooling within a system.
want to control moisture? Alpha dries fast enough from body that other layers return to moisture-holding baseline rapidly.
Alpha naked: stripped of its facings to show Alphas remarkable structure, the combination of 3D knit and fibre clusters allows Alpha to work eficieently in so many ways
whatever your system is meant to achieve Alpha makes it do so more efficiently – which is what its designed for. for the first time an insulation is available specifically for going in with other layers, making what is otherwise the hardest element to systemize the point of orbit. its been a long time coming; long enough many had forgotten what it was indeed they were waiting for.
here are the basic numbers Polartec has out in their fact sheet:
Alpha has a H2O/24hrs permeability rate of 3349g compared to that of 1722g of its main competitor.
Alpha for its volume compresses 36% smaller than the competitor
Alpha at body temperature dries 20% faster
because Alpha doesn’t require a tightly woven facing it transpires vapor 3 times more efficiently when faced on one side as a windproof layer, or 4 times more efficiently when faced on both sides with a non-air resistant layer
TMP is amongst the first to trial Alpha combined with facings beyond the shell nylon the initial test samples came in. our recent designs combine 2 other specialist fabrics; an Alpha-specific inner mesh facing that minimizes the Alphas performance, and a new variant of powershieldthat doesn’t use a membrane (more on that next time). needless to say it’s a huge leap out from the earlier Alpha protos that although good, didn’t really represent the true potential of the textile.
Alpha/3d mesh/powershield complex: now we are getting somewhere! amazing fabrics that change the way insulation functions
TMP also makes a point of not pushing Alpha to replace Primaloft – something many early concepts are doing. as in our Alpha-powershield designs, we treat it very differently, surrounding it with fabrics that optimize the differences rather than reduce them for a market that will be confused at first.
sleeping system test: active use is no problem to test, 9hrs in a tent is less fun. the combined factors of 3 people, stoves and a single skin tent over several nights will push any insulations parameters
to add to this we have been trialing Alpha and Primaloft and down together, in both clothing and sleeping systems that also include DryQ, Pertex and Neoshell. in all tests Alpha has come out as having a distinct and radical place. not only will Alpha alter the ideas for clothing, it will evolve how we think about sleeping as well.
needless to say, that’s yet another chapter in the works.
reproduction without permission and acknowledgement is plagarism. write your own stuff. iceclimbingjapan2013