Backpacking Clothing Fabrics
The fabric used to make any type of clothing will play a huge role in how that fabric performs under various circumstances.
Cotton dries slowly and evaporation of wet cotton can cause a large amount of heat loss from the body. Because of that, cotton in wet/damp cold/cool environments can cause hypothermia or at the very least - a very miserable experience. But in dry hot environments, cotton may be the fabric of choice, as it keeps you cool and is very comfortable.
Denim - Tightly woven twill cotton fabric made with different colored yarns.
Canvas - Cotton or linen fabric with an even weave that is heavy and firm.
Corduroy - Usually cotton and made with a cut-pile weave where extra sets of filling yarns are woven into the fabric to form ridges of yarn on the surface.
Cotton - Raw cotton is natural fiber grown from a seed pod in the cotton plant. It is cut at different lengths to form different types of cotton. Fibers longer than 1 1/2 inch, including the Pima and Egyptian varieties, produce the highest quality cotton fabrics.
Flannel - A medium weight plain or twill weave fabric that is typically made from cotton, a cotton blend, or wool.
Linen - Linen isn't cotton and is instead obtained from inside the woody stem of the flax plant. Linen fabrics are strong, very cool and absorbent, but wrinkle very easily, unless blended with manufactured fibers.
Oxford - A fine, soft and lightweight woven cotton blended with manufactured/synthetic fibers in plain or basket weave.
Sateen - Cotton fabric woven in a satin weave produced by floating fill yarns over vertical yarns.
Waxed Cotton - Cotton treated with heavy wax to create a semi-waterproof fabric. This fabric acts more like a vapor barrier fabric than as cotton.
Silk is a natural fiber from a cocoon of the silkworm and is not commonly used in outdoors clothing. Most silk is collected from cultivated silk worms and woven into fine, yet strong fabric. The natural resilience makes it wrinkle resistant.
There are many synthetic materials used for outdoors clothing. These tend to be much more hydrophobic than cotton and keep the wear dryer that if they were wearing cotton. Generally speaking, synthetics don't feel as comfortable as cotton in warm environments. Some have poor breathability, trap perspiration and sound like you are wearing a trash bag when walking while others mimic the feel and comfort of cotton without the fear that wet cotton brings in cold environments.
Acrylic - A manufactured fiber derived from polyacrylonitrile. Acrylic is soft, quick-drying, and resistant to shrinkage and wrinkles. The durable fiber is machine washable and dryable with excellent color retention.
Cambrelle - A quick-drying synthetic lining often used in hiking boots.
Coolmax - A brand name of a series of fabrics designed to wick moisture away from the skin. The fabrics employ specially-engineered polyester fibres to improve "breathability" compared to natural fibers like cotton.
Fleece - Fabric with a thick, heavy surface resembing sheep wool. Features a pile of napped fabric with either woven or knitted construction.
Lycra Spandex - A soft, lightweight fabric that provides freedom of movement and shape retention. Lycra spandex can be stretched repeatedly and still recover to its original length.
Microfiber - Made of fiber with strands less than one denier. Fabrics made with microfibers are exceptionally soft and hold their shape well. Versatech is one brand of microfiber.
Neoprene - Versatlie type of synthetic rubber with a good resistance to oil, chemicals, and flames.
Nylon - Completely synthetic fiber known for his high strength, superior flexibility and excellent resilience. Quick-drying nylon fabric is naturally hydrophobic and resistant to shrinkage and wrinkling.
Olefin (AKA Polypropylene or Polyolefin) - A synthetic fiber made from hydrocarbons. Characterized by its lightweight, high strength and abrasion resistance, Olefin is also good at transporting moisture and creating a wicking action.
Pile - A soft polyester material that is a substitute for wool in cold conditions.
Polyester - Manufactured fiber that is synthesized or made from chemicals. Polyester has high strength (although somewhat lower than nylon), excellent resiliency, and high abrasion resistance. The low absorbency allows the fiber to dry quickly.
Rayon - Manufactured fiber composed of regenarated celluose. Different types of rayon includes viscose rayon (made from wood chips) cuprammonium rayon made from cotton linters, and topel and corvel rayon.
Satin - A tradational fabric utilizing a type of weave which gives a garment a smooth lustrous surface with a dull back. Commonly used in the construction of evening wear and wedding gowns. If a fabric is formed with a satin weave using filament fibers such as silk, nylon, or polyester, the corresponding fabric is termed a "satin". If the yarns used are short-staple yarns such as cotton, the fabric formed is considered a sateen.
Spandex - A manufactured elastomeric fiber in which the fiber forming substancfe is a long chain of synthetic polymer made of at least 85% of a segmented polyurethane (FTC Definition) Spandex is lightweight, soft static resistant and can be repeatedly stretched over 500% without breaking, and will still recover to its original length.
Thinsulate - A insulation made by 3M that is commonly used in outerwear.
Wool and synthetics such as nylon tend to keep you much warmer when wet than cotton and are generally preferred in cool and cold environments. Most synthetics are hydrophobic and tend to dry rapidly - making overnight drying of laundry possible long nights after a quick rain shower livable. Poor quality wool and synthetics can be very uncomfortable to wear, where good quality wool or synthetics can be quite comfortable.
Cashmere - A luxury fiber obtained from the soft fleecy undergrowth of the Kashmir goat.
Felt - A fabric interlocking fibers made possible through chemicals, moisture and heat without spinning, weaving or knitting. Felt is made of a variety of fibers like wool, hair or fur.
Pashmina - A type of cashmere wool known for its softness and warmth.
Tweed - A thick wool or wool blend fabric woven with dyed yarns.
Virgin Wool - Wool that has never been processed, woven or refined into fabric.
Wool - Thick and soft hair from the coat of a sheep, lamb, and other animals such as a Cashmere or Angora goat. Different types of animal hair are used and graded for their color, length, fineness.
Worsted - Tightly woven fabric with a hard smooth surface made from long staple combed wool or wool-blend fibers.
Vapor barrier (VB) fabrics
Vapor barrier (VB) fabrics such as rubber, vinyl and urethane coated fabrics prevent water vapor from passing through the fabric. This non breathable fabric will retain a lot of body heat and prevent cold moisture from coming in contact with the wearer's body. These also prevent condensation and sweat from leaving the body and will leave you very wet and if worn long enough can cause emersion type syndromes. VB fabrics can keep you very warm for short periods of time but can cause significant cold injuries once your soaked body is exposed to the cold.
- Latex - The protein, starches and resins secreted by cells of certain plans such as milkweed, rubber tree and poppy.
- PVC (vinyl) - Rubber-like raingear is completely waterproof but lacks durability and does not breathe.
- Laminated PVC - PVC laminated to a fabric backing of polyester, nylon, or cotton to create a durable waterproof fabric. This is used in commercial grade raingear and does not breathe.
- Silnylon - An uncoated nylon fabric that has been treated with silicone. It is thin, lightweight, waterproof and doesn't breathe.
- Waxed Cotton - Cotton treated with heavy wax to create a semi-waterproof fabric. This fabric acts more like a vapor barrier fabric than as cotton.
Waterproof breathable fabrics/laminates such a Gortex are made up of a layer of microporous membrane that is waterproof yet let allows perspiration vapors to pass through. When this fabric works, the wear is kept quite dry from rain and perspiration. It is important to note that these fabrics can work quite well under the proper circumstances, but you will sweat underneath a layer of waterproof breathable fabric if you are hot enough or moving quick enough.
Waterproof breathables usually come in either 2-ply or 3-ply construction.
In 2-ply construction, there is usually a waterproof/breathable coating that is laminated/affixed to the inner side of the outer fabric. Because the waterproof breathable coating is exposed, a loose protective liner is often added to protect the laminate/coating. This inner liner can decease breathability of the piece of clothing in question.
In 3-ply construction, a waterproof breathable membrane is sandwiched between an outer fabric layer and a protective liner to create a single layer of 3-ply laminate. There is no need for an inner liner, the these fabrics tend to breath much better and 2-ply fabrics.
Waterproof breathables include:
- CampTech - Campmor's proprietary WP/B fabric. Similar to TH4.
- Dry-Plus Saddle-Cloth - Cabela's proprietary WP/B fabric.
- Durable Water Repellant (DWR) - A treatment applied to all WP/B raingear, and some WP raingear, that causes water to bead on the fabric surface and roll off. Nickwax's TX-Direct Wash-In is specially made for use with WP/B fabrics.
- Engineered for Extreme Wet Weather - A rating applied to Gore-Tex outerwear that meets W.L. Gore's most stringent design standards. More stringent than Gore's Guaranteed to Keep you Dry criteria, these standards specify features, such double flaps over zipper closures, that ensure the wearer will stay dry during prolonged exposure to the nastiest tantrum Mother Nature can throw.
- Entrant - A WP/B coating made by Toray Industries.
- Gore-Tex - The best known brand of WP/B fabrics. Made by W.L. Gore.
- Guaranteed to KeepYou Dry - Applied to Gore-Tex outerwear that meets W.L. Gore's design standards for raingear that will keep you dry under most conditions.
- Microshed (ceramic enhanced) - Solstice's proprietary WP/B fabric. The ceramic adds durability.
- Oil Skins. Historically, referred to fabric saturated with oil to make it waterproof. As used today, oil skins denote commercial-grade raingear made of PVC laminated to a cotton backer fabric.
- Polyurethane coated fabric - A coating of Polyurethane (sometimes shortened to urethane) is applied to the inside face of the fabric (e.g., nylon, Supplex, or polyester) - Polyurethane applied in a heavy coat creates a waterproof nonbreathable fabric. Coated raingear is waterproof, durable, light in weight, and compact. Polyurethane is also used to create microporous WP/B coatings like TH4 and Entrant.
- TH4 - Red Ledge's proprietary WP/B fabric.
- Triple-Point Ceramic - Lowe alpine's proprietary WP/B fabric. Similar to Solstice's Microshed.
- Ultrex - A WP/B coating made by Burlington Industries.
Leather is very durable and resistant to abrasion. It is used in motorcycle clothing as well as in gloves and footwear, all requiring protection from abrasion. Leather does breath, but is generally not suited for use as jackets or pants where the wearer is expected to exert their bodies (walking, running, etc) as the wearer will soon become very wet from perspiration. They do breath enough to be used as footwear and make the most comfortable of footwear when fitted correctly and broken in.
Suede - Leather that has been buffed, brushed, napped or sanded to create a soft and fuzzy surface.
Nubuck - A brushed-top leather with a suede-like appearance; very durable and waterproof. Most nubuck may actually be synthetic nubuck, such as Birkibuc (Birkenstock nubuck).
Note - beware of leather look-alikes. These may look great, be stain resistant and not need leather treatment, but will not breath or feel right. So may get stinky sweaty feel as a result.
Down traps a great deal of air between feathers and when formed into clothing a sleeping bags is the warmest "fabric" per weight when dry. Unfortunately, it loses most of it's insulation qualities when wet and is not suitable for use in wet environments.
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