Polartec launches NeoShell, company’s first waterproof/breathable

Polartec officially launched its first waterproof/breathable fabric, NeoShell, at a global media unveiling in Boston on Nov. 15. SNEWS was there and has all the inside details on yet another major brand to proclaim air permeability is essential to comfort.
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When Polartec Powershield Pro was unveiled in late 2009, it was merely a prelude to what the company is terming its most significant R&D effort and product launch in the last decade -- NeoShell, a waterproof fabric dubbed the most breathable available today.

Although a newcomer to the category, Polartec already has significant brand support: NeoShell will have a huge coming-out party at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market and ispo 2011, debuting in fall 2011 collections of a select group of leading global brands. They are: 66 North, Eider, Mammut, Marmot, Mountain Equipment, Montura, Rab, The North Face, Vaude and Westcomb.

What makes NeoShell dramatically different from any other waterproof/breathable fabric currently offered by other suppliers, the company said at a global media launch Nov. 14-15 in Boston, can be summed up in two words: air permeability. Good air permeability translates into comfort since moisture transport is accelerated.

“We know we’re going to change how the world thinks about moisture management,” said Polartec product marketing manager Karen Beattie. “It’s a killer package.”

Company tests show the new NeoShell fabric allows actual air permeability (measured at 0.5 CFM or 2 l/m2/sec in the lab) -- comparable waterproof/breathable membranes register less than 0.1 CFM, the company explained, which translates into imperceptible air permeability.

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The NeoShell will protect like a hard shell but move and breathe like a soft shell, said Nate Simmons, Polartec’s director of global marketing.

“This is not a jacket that is balled up in the bottom of your pack just in case it dumps,” Simmons told the press gathered from 11 countries, including SNEWS®. “This is a jacket you wear.”

Polartec is not alone in its assertion that air permeability is an essential component for truly effective and more broadly comfortable waterproof/breathable garments. As SNEWS exclusively announced on Nov. 15 in our story, “GE’s B2B expansion unveiled with Mountain Hardwear’s DryQ launch,” Mountain Hardwear, which is revamping its waterproof/breathable line with its proprietary DryQ fabrics also stated, “DryQ Elite eliminates a build-up of moisture inside a garment with a design and a membrane that is air permeable, meaning air and moisture are able to pass outward through the fabric while preventing moisture from migrating inward from the outside.”

During the Polartec’s launch event, Simmons explained, “Even a tiny amount of air permeability, though completely imperceptible to the person wearing the garment from a wind chill standpoint, accelerates moisture vapor transport significantly.”

Simmons also said that while traditional shell fabrics require heat and pressure to build up inside the garment before the membrane begins to work, NeoShell relies on an exclusive sub-micron fiber membrane, developed in partnership with Seoul, Korea-based, Finetex EnE Inc. The membrane moves moisture by both diffusion (the traditional method of managing water vapor) and convection (thanks to the air permeable technology). Tiny air channels in the hydrophobic, microporous polyurethane membrane allow for both air and moisture vapor molecules, but not water, to move through the fabric.

“The membrane is really special,” Simmons said.

While NeoShell yields competitive scores on traditional waterproof breathability measures like RET and MVTR, according to Simmons, it shines when using what Polartec believes is a test much more representative of a real outdoors experience. This test method, Dynamic Moisture Permeation Cell (ASTM 2298), is also a test that Polartec said is preferred over RET and MVTR by the U.S. Army at its Natick Labs facility.

Although RET is still considered an industry standard measurement of breathability, Simmons pointed out that RET results can turn out numbers that are bizarre at best. “Does anyone else out there find it a bit strange that a waterproof/breathable shell jacket tests as more highly breathable than 200 weight fleece? That’s just not accurate.”

While the membrane is highly air permeable, it is also tested to be fully waterproof. The industry standard for a fabric to be considered waterproof is the ability to withstand laboratory-generated hydrostatic head tests of 10,000mm of water pressure -- which Polartec says NeoShell does.

Although other waterproof/breathable fabrics out in the market do claim to be able to withstand 20,000mm of hydrostatic water pressure, Simmons told the press, “Anything beyond this point is unnecessary as it won’t keep you any drier. You’re dry at 10,000mm. You can’t be dryer than dry. Dry is an absolute. You can’t get any drier…but you can get wetter from sweat with a higher number.”

What the brands now do with the fabric is highly flexible, said Jon Adelman, executive vice president of sales and marketing.

“We have not been domineering in the way they build the products or how they put NeoShell in their line,” Adelman said. “We’re allowing a lot of flexibility.” Some companies will build new products, while others will put NeoShell in current products, and Mammut, for example, is going to do gloves.

Chris Harding, Rab’s managing director who happened to be at Polartec for meetings, dropped in to voice his support for NeoShell after months of field testing: “Overall, we’ve been pretty excited about NeoShell and how it offers an alternative to the performance of the waterproof/breathables on the market today.”

For Polartec, products are not limited to apparel; footwear is also being explored for the future.

“We think there are more legs to this technology,” Adelman added, noting the company had an exclusive agreement with Finetex for apparel, accessories and footwear.

Although this terminates the three-year Polartec project secretly dubbed “Project Blue,” it is only the beginning of new products for the 104-year-old company. Adelman hinted at something called “Project Alpha,” and added that perhaps the global media would be back in another year.

--Michael Hodgson and Therese Iknoian

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