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Testing Waterproof Breathable Fabrics

The most important step in designing new outerwear or testing new fabrics are the wear-tests in the field. We always spend at least a season in a new fabric or design before it hits the market. 

The fabric specs that are available to designers and brands will help us understand the composition and characteristics of the fabric, but it's impossible to understand how a fabric will perform without extensive field-testing. The ubiquity of "good-enough" technical fabrics has made it harder for serious customers to find the right apparel for the job. Go into any winter apparel store, most of the mid to high-end outerwear will tell you that it's rated at 20,000mm waterproof / 20,000 breathable. Even some of the lower end apparel will have the same specs. But we know from experience that not all "20k/20k" fabrics are created equal. Textile mills have gotten really good at producing fabrics to pass these lab tests, but they don't always perform in the field. 

Last year, our VP of Design and Development, Brittany Crook, created several half-and-half garments. Each garment featured two fabrics and allowed us to perform really effective head-to-head tests. You can get a really good idea for how the fabrics are going to feel and perform compared to each other. 

We took these half-and-half garments on a lot of trips with us last year and it was invaluable to us in the development process. Here's some early-season turns up at Mt Hood last November. It was a wet, sloppy day. Perfect for testing both the waterproofing and breathability of the fabrics. 

The bright red fabric is the woven face and laminate that we eventually choose for the PNW3L product line. It is a supple and smooth face fabric that is also extremely durable. Incredibly, it felt lighter to the wearer than the black woven face fabric, een though it was about 50gsm heavier for a finished weight above 200gsm. It's one of the heavier fabrics we've used but it feels incredibly light because it's so dense. 

The density of the PNW3L is one of the key attributes that give us the performance that we are looking for. The density of the fabric comes from the tightness of the weave and the denier of the nylon yarn. What the density does for the fabric as far as performance creates a much more durable barrier against moisture and weather. Even after the DWR coating has worn off, the woven face fabric of the PNW3L will form an excellent barrier against the weather. 

We could notice this well from testing the PNW3L head-to-head against other fabrics. Where, after several cycles in the washing machine and dryer, other fabrics are showing sings of wetting out and letting moisture build-up on the surface of the fabric, our PNW3L retains much of its surface tension and keeps shedding moisture. 

Bonus footage...a good way to test breathability is to wear your 9 month-old on your back. I took my son, Henry, on a mellow skin up White River drainage on Mt Hood. It was another good test run for fabric development and a day I'll always remember: Henry's first day cranking some turns on snow! 

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