Brands flock to Tencel and other tech for cooler summer fabrics

Find out why Tencel was the 'coolest' fabric at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2014, plus four other new fabrics aiming to improve outdoor apparel.
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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2014 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Aug. 6 – 9. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

This season, the quest for ever-better fabrics has led more and more companies straight into the woods. That’s where you’ll find the origins of Tencel. This increasingly popular natural cellulose fabric is made from the wood pulp of eucalyptus trees. Though the material has been around for years, it’s having a moment this summer, popping up in everything from baselayers to lifestyle pieces to socks.

“People are noticing it now,” said Andreas Gürtler, head of business development performance at Tencel’s parent company, Lenzing, which earlier this year secured a 100 million euro loan from the European Investment Bank for increased research, development and production of the fiber. What’s so eye-catching about cellulose? “It’s cool in summer, warm in winter,” he said, explaining that highly absorbent Tencel distributes moisture throughout the fabric and away from the skin, resulting in a “cool, dry touch.” The ultrasmooth fibers also feel soft, and because bacteria can’t grow on their slippery surface, it’s naturally stink-resistant. On top of the performance, Gürtler also touted Tencel’s sustainability: The company sources the wood from Forest Stewardship Council-certified forests, produces the fabric in a mechanical rather than chemical process, and runs its factories on renewable energy.

Though some manufacturers do make 100-percent Tencel pieces, the outdoor industry has largely embraced it as fabric to blend — especially with wool. It’s an ideal use, Gürtler said, because of its cool, soft feel and quick-dry performance: “It opens the summer season up for wool.” You’ll find the Tencel-merino tag team some of Fox River's performance socks, in Icebreaker’s new Cool-lite fabric pieces and in several lifestyle shirts from SmartWool. “We’re trying to find something that works with wool and tells a natural story,” said Paige Fink, Smartwool’s director of apparel development. “The handfeel is really soft, it improves durability, and it also enhances our cost.” (Wool costs about six times more than Tencel, Gürtler said.)

Kuhl, which has incorporated Tencel into its line for several years, blends it with polyester or cotton to create “semi-performance tops,” said Product Manager Preston Hayes. “We try to do something that’s fashionable, but with some technical qualities.” Tencel also adds a smoother, cooler touch to cotton, plus speeds drying time. White Sierra plans to introduce Tencel-cotton blends in summer 2016, said Director of Products and Sourcing Molly Chan. “We’re trying to have more natural, eco-friendly fiber,” she said. “And it’s functional and quick-drying.”

Also new on the fabric front at Summer Market:

>> Schoeller’s Cool Fabrics employ a PCM-based technology (phase-change material) with a micro coating that keeps them cool to the touch. Officials said the fabric is ideal for golf jackets and mountain biking pants.

>> Cordura debuts Combat Wool and Combat Wool Stretch, fabrics with a wool inner and nylon outer for added durability. Combat Wool Stretch adds spandex to enhance mobility.

>> Toray has several new nylon fabrics, including Airtastic 5D, a 5-denier fabric made from what it calls the thinnest yarn on the market. Airtastic Stunner Stretch achieves slight stretch by using a very light false-twist yarn. And Entrant 3D updates the 2.5-layer shell game by using smooth acrylic dots as the inner half layer.

>> Look for Polartec’s new Power Wool, a plated fabric with merino wool on the inside and polyester on the outside, in Westcomb baselayers coming in summer 2015.

--Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan

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