As the apparel industry moves toward a more sustainable future, performance material manufacturers are leading the charge to create fabrics with superior functionality and ecological benefits.
The outdoor industry relies on these innovations heavily, as its consumers need effective technical gear to help them withstand the elements. In recent years, though, the sector has moved away from some of its old stand-bys, like fleece and down, for creating warmth in cold weather apparel, because these materials, while practical, are riddled with environmental and ethical concerns.
Fleece, which has fibers that stick up in tufts from a material backing, sheds microplastics liberally when worn and washed. And down, while unparalleled in its ability to create warmth, is mired in animal rights controversy. While third-party groups have emerged as advocates for geese and ducks, down’s origins as a byproduct of meat industries in China and Eastern Europe make it tough to trace.
Outdoor performance materials maker Polartec has grabbed the issue of sustainable warmth by the horns in recent seasons, setting a bullseye on fleece in particular.
The company’s Power Air fabric provides the benefits of traditional fleece—which stores warmth in its lofted fibers—while giving the structure of the material a total remodel.
“We really see Power Air as a reimagining of the fleece layer itself, and what is possible with constructions that harness the power of high-loft fibers in different ways for better recyclability,” David Karstad, the company’s creative director and vice president of marketing, told Sourcing Journal.
From the outside, the material looks nothing like traditional fleece. Tiny, quilted pods encapsulate material like a “fuzzy bubble wrap,” Karstad said, keeping those fibers from breaking away or shedding as standard fleece would.
“Once we had that concept, then we had to get the fibers to stand up and intertwine and not be pushed down inside of the pods,” he explained. “They’ve actually been knit to capture as much negative space and warmth as possible.”
Since its release, Polartec has also created a fully circular version of Power Air, made from recycled PET. Karstad said he saw a variety of uses for the suite of products, from base layers to outerwear.
This week, the company also announced the release of a new high-loft fleece formulation made from Merino wool.
In a partnership with Italian mountain sports brand Salewa, Polartec developed the new fleece—which has more of a classic, fuzzy look—with natural wool that is inherently biodegradable. Most fleeces on the market are made with polymer-based synthetics, making their fibers particularly harmful to wildlife when swept from home washing machines into waterways.
Approaching the challenge from another angle, intelligent thermal technology manufacturer Clim8 takes a high-tech approach to warmth, mitigating the need for lofting or insulation altogether.
The company’s self-heating textiles are programmed to adjust to the wearer’s temperature, heating the body to an optimal 98.6 degrees even when outside conditions are frigid.
Using conductive fibers that are woven into a suite of performance fabrics, Clim8’s technology monitors the skin’s temperature while analyzing the outdoor environment. Heat conduction activates when the temperature drops, and deactivates during strenuous activity.
“Our real value is that with our technology we can do what down, fleece and any fiber or membrane can’t do,” Claire Ortiz, the company’s vice president of business development, told Sourcing Journal. “The auto-response in the heated textile is machine learning, so the intelligence there starts to recognize patterns in your body and adjusts itself the more you use it.”
The technology was developed to help the body maintain its optimal temperature in severe conditions—like a Chicago snowstorm, for example—or milder settings and occasions, like a fall run in Central Park.
“If I’m wearing my Clim8 garment, I’ve got it set to my comfort level and it will heat me,” Ortiz said.
Clim8 sees applications for its technology beyond the outdoor sector. It could benefit those working in construction, as well as the military and other tactical jobs, Ortiz said. What’s more, it can be embedded into a variety of different products, from base layers and outerwear to footwear and gloves.
“Thermoregulation is actually essential for your survival, whether it’s snowboarding or just being comfortable at work,” she said.
Intelligent material startup Skyscrape has also created a temperature-responsive fabric. But it relies on the fibers’ own response to the outside environment, rather than technology-driven heat conduction.
The fabric’s power rests in a simple mechanism, Skyscrape CEO Brent Ridley said. Two materials that respond differently to temperature are paired together in a proprietary fabrication. When the outside temperature changes, one expands and contracts accordingly while the other remains rigid.
Bonded together by the textile, the fibers must bend. The result is in the creation of air pockets that capture warmth when the outside air is cold.
“We work with partners to make the yarns that we’ve researched and developed, and those go into specific fabric structures via weaving or knitting, and that gives rise to the performance,” Ridley explained. “It’s a combination between making a temperature-responsive yarn, and putting it into a certain fabric structure.”
The natural lofting mechanism eliminates the need for a filler like down. Air’s insulating properties are strong enough to retain heat, Ridley said.
Currently, Skyscrape’s fabrics are made with synthetic materials, but Ridley hopes to develop versions using natural fibers.
“We’re trying to get through this early stage where we prove the concept with synthetics, and hopefully when the first product is out, we can introduce an all-natural or bio-based version to the market,” he said.
Skyscrape has already developed a recyclable polyester iteration of the fabric, he said, though the original formulation employs virgin polyester and nylon. “This could potentially be applied to both natural and synthetic materials, but it’s a bit of a research project,” he said.