If the prospect of facing yet another “polar vortex” seems unbearable, next winter’s crop of outerwear promises to stand up to extreme conditions, thanks to a number of new developments in insulation materials and technologies.
Goose or duck down, the industry standard, provides maximum warmth for its weight when engineered between layers of tightly-woven, waterproof fabric. Down is graded by fill power–how many cubic inches one ounce of down can fill in a lab container. The higher the fill power, the warmer and lighter the garment will be; hence the growing popularity of puffer jackets.
But down has some problems. Most of it comes from China or Eastern Europe, and the supply chain varies from large-scale industrial farms to family-owned flocks. ExposÃ©s by PETA and other animal rights organizations revealed that anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of down was being plucked from live animals.
Responsible brands including Patagonia, IKEA, and North Face have moved to develop standards for the sourcing of down that would protect the animals from live plucking and force feeding. In 2014 the Responsible Down Standard, developed by North Face in conjunction with the Textile Exchange and certification company Control Union, was gifted to the Textile Exchange for industry use.
“Our hope is that the collective use of the standard will effectively promote positive animal welfare conditions and traceability in the down supply chain at a much larger scale than we could accomplish by ourselves,” said Adam Mott, North Face senior manager of corporate responsibility, at the gifting ceremony held at January’s Outdoor Retailer Winter Market.
Down’s technical drawback is that it loses its loft and insulating qualities when it gets wet. Damp down can also promote the growth of bacteria inside a jacket, boots, or sleeping bag.
Synthetic insulations such as PrimaLoft®, originally developed for the US Army as a water-resistant down alternative, along with Thermolite®, Thermore®, and Thinsulateâ„¢ come in a variety of cross-sections, fill powers, and eco-credentials; and perform better than down under wet conditions.
In addition, the cost of high-quality goose down has more than doubled since 2009, and improved versions of synthetic insulation have gained market share. Synthetic insulation is available in versions with stretch or odor-resistance, as well as in varying thicknesses which allow for customized fit and temperature management within a garment.
Down suppliers have fought back with new moisture and microbe-resistant technologies. DownTekâ„¢’s cationic treatment creates surface tension, causing moisture to collect into a sphere and roll away. Allied Feather and Down, which has committed to the Responsible Down Standard, offers antimicrobial-treated Allied Refined Downâ„¢, and Allied Resist Down Plusâ„¢, said to protect down from moisture five times longer.
The latest development is “hybrid” insulation that combines the best qualities of down with those of synthetic fill. Hybrid products such as FXDownâ„¢ from Allied Feather & Down maintain loft, reduce ingredient costs, and are generally easier to wash and dry.
PrimaLoft’s new Performance Down Blend is the first insulation to intimately blend premium down and PrimaLoft fibre. The Gold version provides warmth equivalent to 750 fill power down, combining 70 percent fluorocarbon-free, water-resistant down with 30 percent PrimaLoft fibers. The silver version, a 60/40 blend, is equivalent to 650 fill power down.
Outerwear companies including Adidas, Black Diamond, Helly Hansen, Sherpa Adventure Gear, and Sitka have jumped on the concept for their 2014 lines.
Columbia takes a different approach to hybrid insulation with their TurboDown line of jackets, which layer a continuous filament synthetic with down, sandwiched between two layers of Columbia’s OmniHeat liner. The clothing is marketed as an affordable “down jacket on steroids.”
“The insulation industry is at a crossroads, particularly because of the situation with down,” explained Joe Digirolamo, North American sales manager for Italian insulation expert Thermore. “Hybrids find a way to get the best benefits of both synthetic and down, without negatively affecting the performance of either.”
The use of wool as insulation material is also emerging as an alternative. RamTectâ„¢ is a soft and pliable wool insulation fabric from Hobbs Bonded Fibers. Made in the US from American wool, RamTect is as light as down, and retains its insulating properties without having to be quilted or baffled.
Also made from American wool, Duckworth’s patented WoolCloud insulation uses fibers too short to be spun into yarn for the company’s new line of wool-based apparel. Merino knitwear ground breakers SmartWool and Icebreaker are also utilizing wool insulation in their lines for next winter.
Perhaps the outerwear of the future will prove that, according to the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.”