The line between hardshells and softshells is fading.
Traditionally, hard shells provide full weather protection with more limited breathability, while soft shells are best for fast, aerobic activity where moisture transfer and mobility is crucial.
As alpinists, backpackers, and backcountry skiers up their sweat rates during shorter and higher intensive outings, they are clamoring for garments that blur the line between the two categories and rely less on layering. In response, brands and manufacturers are developing softer weatherproof garments with stretchy breathable membranes. (See our rundown of the top products and trends in the shell category from Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2015).
The race to soften hardshells — or harden softshells, depending how you look at it — began in earnest several years ago with efforts by Polartec to get into the waterproof/breathable game against category leader Gore-Tex. Polartec developed NeoShell, which targeted the breathability and mobility problems of hardshells by taking some cues from softshells. First, it settled on a lower water column (pressure) rating of 10,000 millimeters — versus Gore-Tex’s top-of-the-line 20,000-30,000mm range. Polartec claims 10,000mm is all most consumers need, and that the higher figures (similar to the days of 100-plus SPF in sun protection) are overkill. Second, Polartec allowed for a tiny amount of air exchange to aid breathability and move moisture. That might seem like an obvious solution, but it gives up the garment being 100-precent windproof. In the case of NeoShell, officials claim 99.9-percent wind protection, which most testers say is unnoticeable and worth the breathability benefits. Finally, NeoShell’s membrane allowed for more stretch materials to be used, giving it a more softshell-like feel.
Brands such as Marmot, Westcomb, Rab and others are increasingly employing NeoShell in their outerwear targeted toward consumers pursuing more active, sweat-producing endeavors.
Meanwhile, W.L. Gore has evolved its storied, three-layer waterproof-breathable membranes — now offering various versions, including the lighter and more-breathable Gore-Tex Active and the heavy-duty Gore-Tex Pro. While both have gained high praise for their performance, Gore-Tex Pro took some nitpickings for having a hard and crinkly feel. Enter Gore-Tex C-Knit for fall/winter 2015-16, the company’s latest membrane with a new interior backer. With fine yarn, Gore manufactured the fabric with specialized circular knitting machines, which gives the material a softer feel and more stretch with less weight. Utilizing a variety of fabric weights, the activity determines the makeup of the top layer, with a heavier fabric for snow sports, and a lighter fabric for aerobic activities.
Arc’teryx, Dynafit, Mammut, Marmot, Outdoor Research, The North Face and Patagonia are among others scheduled to debut pieces with C-Knit for fall/winter 2015-16
Bucking ingredient brand offerings, Mountain Hardwear developed its proprietary three-layer, air-permeable Dry.Q Elite membrane with a 20,000-millimeter water column. “We don’t want to limit ourselves to what other brands have to offer,” said Robert Fry, global director of product merchandising and design. Mountain Hardwear wanted tailor its membrane’s for each jacket’s targeted end use, including selecting its own fabric, glue, and backing. That flexibility can be seen in its line of Quasar jackets, which offer the waterproof/breathable layer in three different models — an ultralight, regular and insulated jacket.
Finding the hard/soft shell sweet spot has yet to be perfected, but it is fast evolving. In the future, the characteristics of softshells and hard hells will continue to blur, as brands vie for new manufacturing techniques. As SNEWS reported previously, Voormi is taking the process a step further by weaving, rather than laminating, membranes into its Access and Drift Hydro jackets.
As these fabrics become lighter and more versatile, product designers predict they’ll start finding their way into sleeping bags, tents, and footwear.
“We’re customizing fabric depending on use,” Fry said, “We’re rebels with a lot of ideas.”
-- Michael Restivo