There is no such thing as a soft shell. Soft shell is not one thing. Soft shell is a range of performance criteria of windproofness, water resistance, breathability, stretch and insulation. Soft shell is a range of fabrics, from light, airy, stretchy, sweater-feeling knits to stiffer, laminated, dense, waterproof wovens. The key word in understanding soft shell garments is “range.” There are no rules, no boxes to fit into. To buy the right soft shells for your needs, you gotta know the territory and place your waypoints. And there is a lot of territory to know.
In general, what has made the soft shell category so popluar is that a soft shell is designed to provide comfort across a wide range of temperature and weather conditions, as well as varying levels of physical exertion, and in so doing, it means you don't have to keep stopping and starting to add or peel off layers.
A Short History
The original concept of soft shell was developed first in Europe for trekking and ski touring. Soft shell began as a mid-weight woven garment that was highly breathable, slightly wind proof, slightly water resistant, slightly warm and that stretched with active movement. And perhaps most importantly, it was comfortable. Whether pant or jacket, its great attribute was you could put it on and leave it on throughout a day of active sport use, summer or winter. It wasn’t rainwear, it wasn’t fleece, it wasn’t outerwear, it wasn’t mid-layer, but it was all these things at the same time – sort of. Whatever the feature set, one thing remained constant: Soft shell was really comfortable and people liked it.
Once discovered, soft shell was naturally exploited, much the same as a starlet. Some companies claimed to own the name “soft shell”; others claimed to have invented it; most claimed to have the “best”, whatever that meant, because it meant so many different things.
To Find Your Way Around Soft Shell Choices, You Have To Establish Waypoints
As market opportunity increased, so did the array of choices of soft shell fabrics. Companies introduced their own brand of soft shell fabrics, increasing the growing number of fabric constructions, names, claims and descriptors. Again, no rules; there is no road map to help you navigate through this soft shell forest. You must make your own map and fix some waypoints for reference.
(c) Adventure Network: All rights reserved -- used on SNEWS by permission of Adventure Network.