Sunday, January 29, 2012

Pseudo-Science Fabric Testing- Part Two

Water resistance of the fabrics was easier to compare than breathability and was much more predictable. To test water resistance, I rubberbanded the fabrics over the edge of the measuring cups and put them, water resistance face out, in a cold shower for ten minutes. At first, I thought ten minutes would not be enough to see differences in the fabric, but I felt like it would be a waste running water for an hour to test fabrics. However, ten minutes for each fabric (in groups of three) still yielded some interesting results.
Uncoated 1.1oz ripstop: Predictably, the shot glass/measuring cup with uncoated ripstop collected about an inch of water, almost filling up the little cup. The fabric itself was soaked. 1.1oz Ripstop with DWR: Surprisingly (possibly), the 1.1oz ripstop with DWR was the most water resistant of the ripstop fabrics. It collected less than a quarter of an inch in the bottom. The fabric was wet. 0.9oz Ripstop with DWR: This one was the biggest surprise out of the ripstop fabrics. It took on as much water as uncoated ripstop and the fabric was wet. This surprised me. This ripstop appeared to be resisting the most water when I tested it. The water visibly beaded up on the surface. I tried to be careful in positioning the cups under even amounts of shower, but the results of this and the fact that so much water is beading and rolling off this fabric make me wonder whether this one was hit by more water than the others. Uncoated 1.1oz (green), 1.1oz DWR (yellow), 0.9 oz DWR (blue)

Low-loft Powershield: There was no water accumulation in the glass with low-loft Powershield. However, the wicking, fleece side of the fabric was soaked. In a ten minute heavy rain Powershield might keep a person drier than ripstop with DWR, but I would imagine that anything under the fabric itself, like a base layer would get wet from the fabric absorbing so much moisture.
Fuzzy Powershield: Like low-loft Powershield, there was no water accumulation in the glass, but the fabric itself was wet, even wetter than low-loft Powershield. I think anything underneath this fabric in a rainstorm would also get wet.
Gore Soft-shell: There was no water accumulation, but like the two variations on Powershield, the fleece (wicking) side of the fabric was wet. Low-loft Powershield (Green), Gore soft-shell (blue), fuzzy Powershield (black)

Generic Soft-shell: There was no water accumulation, but like the two variations on Powershield, the fleece (wicking) side of the fabric was wet. 
Gore-Tex 3 Layer Pro-Shell: There was no water accumulation in the glass and the underside of the fabric itself was totally dry.
Generic WP/B: There was no water accumulation in the glass and the underside of the fabric itself was totally dry. Gore-Tex Pro-shell (Orange), generic soft-shell (black, left), generic hard-shell (black, right)

Thinking about both tests, water resistance and breathability, gives me some basic ideas to go off of regarding these fabrics (with the assumption that breathability and the fabric allowing bubbles through is the same thing; it may not be). All three of the ripstops were very breathable but also let through pretty significant amounts of water in ten minutes. Curiously, 1.1oz ripstop with DWR appeared to be the most effective in keeping water out. Both Polartec Powershield variations breathed nicely, and both resisted water accumulation while still getting wet in the process. Gore and the generic soft-shell did not seem to breathe, resisted water accumulation, but were wet themselves after 10 minutes of showering. Three layer Gore-Tex Pro-shell breathed to some extent, and still was totally dry after a ten minute shower. While the generic hard-shell fabric was also completely dry, it seemed to breathe less than pro-shell.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Pseudo-Scientific Fabric Breathability Test

In early January a friend and I went ice climbing in Ontario’s Orient Bay. When one is driving down the very busy Trans-Canada highway in Orient Bay, Lake Nipigon is on one side and towering cliffs are on the other.  Seeping water forms the Midwest's longest ice climbs.  We were lucky with weather, and the walls of rock and ice block are very effective at blocking out the wind.  We got two climbs in an afternoon and a morning of climbing.

In the canyon, there is little wind.  However, upon reaching the clifftop ridge and setting up a belay on each climb, I was hit with the full force of the wind that is blocked from the bottom of the ice climbs.  The blowing snow and wind were uncomfortable and came through my soft shell.  I was already wet too, because there was a lot of wallowing through heavy, wet snow on certain parts of each climb.  Needless to say, this made for an uncomfortable belay.  My friend, who had a hard shell, did not have a similar experience.

This made me begin to think about sewing myself a hard shell.  I started reading some reviews on hard shell fabrics. Like everyone else in the outdoor clothing world, I wanted something both weatherproof and breathable.  Waterproof breathable fabrics are a contentious topic, so I decided to do some fabric testing of my own, and I decided to start out with the breathable half of WP/B.

My goal was to see how air permeable, and hopefully therefore, water vapor permeable, the wicking side of different fabrics were.  I realize there is some argument as to whether air permeability and breathability are at all correlated, but I decided to do this comparison anyway and see what I found.

After doing a little searching, I discovered that many WP/B fabrics are very heavy in comparison to the ripstop that many backpackers and other DIY gear people usually sew.  This dissuaded me from considering many versions of WP/B fabrics when I ordered samples.  While I tested a couple WP/B fabrics, for interest’s sake I also threw in a variety of other fabrics that are popular for commercial climbing clothing and are available as fabric to the sewing public.  I compared nine different fabrics.  There were three ripstops, four soft shells, and two WP/B fabrics.

To compare these fabrics in the air permeability of their wicking sides, I bought a $6 fish tank oxygen pump, three kitchen measurement cup/shot glasses, and some rubber bands.  I filled the measuring cups up (but not all the way) with water and rubberbanded the fabric squares tight against the top, with their wicking sides out and their water-resistant or waterproof sides towards the water.  I flipped the cup over so the water was against the fabric, and put the oxygen pump tubing against the wicking fabric to see if I could make bubbles.

While I am sure that there are some scientific or logical errors in this method of comparison, the fabrics that were supposed to be more breathable (generally) did let far more air in and made more bubbles than the fabrics that are considered less breathable.  While not perfect, these tests gave me a valuable visual of breathability for the nine fabrics.

(Please forgive the video quality.  I am not a maker of movies, but I thought the visual was important.  The music is one of several to choose from on iMovie for iPhone)

Uncoated 1.1oz ripstop: The uncoated ripstop breathed as expected.  After a few seconds, the water bubbled quickly, and the air pressure easily pushed the water out of the glass, emptying the measuring cup in under ten seconds.  The bubbles were large and constant.

1.1oz Ripstop with DWR: The ripstop with DWR breathed similarly to the uncoated ripstop, taking a few seconds to bubble and then emptying its water fairly quickly, but slower than the uncoated ripstop.

0.9oz Ripstop with DWR: The 0.9oz ripstop, even with the DWR, breathed as well or better than uncoated 1.1oz ripstop.  It bubbled right away, with quick, large bubbles, and emptied its water in a few seconds.

Low-loft Powershield: Powershield bubbled consistently with medium bubbles, one after the other.  There is definitely some air permeability, but obviously less than ripstop.

Fuzzy Powershield: The fleecier Powershield bubbled quickly and pretty consistently with a bunch of tiny bubbles.  It breathes less than ripstop but seemingly more than low-loft Powershield.

Gore Soft-shell: Curiously, Gore soft-shell simply did not let any bubbles through.  This is strange in comparison with its hard-shell cousin Pro-shell, which at least let a few bubbles through.

Generic Soft-shell: In the vein of fuzzy Powershield in weight and feel, but not air permeability.  It did not make any bubbles.

Gore-Tex 3 Layer Pro-Shell: Let through medium-sized bubbles very slowly but consistently.  Surprisingly breathable compared to some soft-shells.

Generic WP/B: Let through a single bubble in about a minute of holding the tubing against its wicking side.

Waterproofness soon to follow...

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Call to Sewing Machines (or Rotary Welders)

Last winter, I bought a Patagonia Ascensionist jacket as my main shell for ice climbing.  I really like this jacket and have worn it quite a bit in the last year.  One thing I was very impressed with was that there are very few sewn seams on this jacket.  The seams appear to the uneducated, naked eye, to have been very carefully glued, which apparently is exactly what Patagonia has done.  “Patagonia soft shells with stitch-free construction use a lap-gluing technique. Stitch-free seams help speed dry times and reduce bulk to create the best performing soft shells possible.”

The technique that Patagonia uses to “sew” their hard shell jackets is even wilder sounding than “lap-gluing”.  Apparently on their hardshells, Patagonia “uses a form of sonic welding, reinforced with thin mesh and backed by flexible tape. This unique construction method minimizes weight, speeds dry time and reduces abrasion that can compromise fabric performance.”  The term “sonic welding” doesn’t mean anything to me offhand, but I’m assuming it’s the same or similar to “hypersonic welding,” which Wikipedia says is “an industrial technique whereby high-frequency ultrasonic acoustic vibrations are locally applied to workpieces being held together under pressure to create a solid-state weld. It is commonly used for plastics, and especially for joining dissimilar materials.”  That is a pretty cool and innovative idea.

Patagonia is not the only company welding seams instead of sewing them.  Mountain Hardwear has a patented technique called zWeld.  Mountain Hardwear claims: “The patented Mountain Hardwear zWeld technology is currently the most advanced welding technique in the outdoor industry.”  Apparently zWeld allows Mountain Hardwear to forgo taping seams on waterproof jackets and makes for less bulk and lighter weight.  Textile Exchange Online describes a type of fabric welding quite well:
“Rotary welding is a continuous process where the fabric pieces move continuously through the welding area, usually pulled along by a pair of drive wheels. Heat is sent through any of the sources like heated metal wedge or hot air, just before the fabric passes between the drive wheels. On the drive wheels, the welding pressure is applied which seals the fabric permanently.”

I wonder if that’s what they’re doing in this video from Patagonia and Polartec from 2:27-2:33?

(I originally  found this video on Cold Thistle)

Change in clothing technology has made a huge impact on advancements in alpine climbing and it is great to see continued innovation by the main brands.  At the same time, welded seams seem (ha!) funny to me.  Just to emphasize again, I am an extremely mediocre weekend warrior when it comes to climbing.  I am sure things are different for people who depend on outdoor clothing for their survival in high, cold environments.  That being said, I have never said to myself, “boy, these regular seam-taped seams are really leaky today!” (I don’t talk like that, anyway) or “jeez, there is so much bulk in this regularly seam-taped seam!”

As an outdoor clothing seamster, I feel like I am left in the dust.  In a post called “Joe Tasker and Dick Renshaw Alpinists” on the awesome blog Cold Thistle, Dane writes, “Long gone are the days when most serious climbers owned a sewing machine and actually knew how to use it!”  The implication in this is that at one time serious climbers knew how to and did make their own clothing and gear.

It’s up in the air as to whether it is even possible today for serious climbers to make equally serious alpine clothing.  Most climbers (and the general population) have little interest in sewing or otherwise crafting their own clothing.  Even the few people who do know how to sew and also have an interest in outdoor clothing must have a harder and harder time justifying do-it-yourself, or competing, in a sense, with sonic welded or zWelded seams.  High end clothing for climbing has evolved over the past few decades into a top down, extremely technological creation process that is not at all accessible.

The ultralight backpacking community might provide a contrast.  There is an active DIY community on the forums of Backpacking Light.  There might be many reasons why backpackers with a focus on the ultra light feel compelled to make their own gear rather than buying from major outdoor clothing brands, but possibly their needs are not being met by these brands.  Instead, much innovation comes from the bottom up, and even brands that cater specifically to ultra-light backpackers are involved in the DIY community and sell fabrics.  There are constantly new ideas being bounced around by the ultra-light DIY community.  There is no equivalent, as far as I know, for ice and alpine climbing clothing.

This might (doesn't) matter at all.  Maybe unlike ultra-light backpackers, climbers are well served by brands like Patagonia, Mountain Hardwear, and others and have no real need for DIY.  On the other hand, who knows what a DIY climbing clothing community, like what the “Make Your Own Gear” forum on Backpacking Light is for ultra-light backpackers, could come up with.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

"Tunturi hat" Pattern, by Shelby

In the process of trying to find modern outdoor clothing patterns, I came across the Finnish company Shelby.  Shelby has technical outdoor and climbing clothing patterns that, unlike many other pattern makers, would not be significantly distinguishable from commercial, high-end climbing clothing available in 2012.

In addition, Shelby generously has free, printable patterns for basic clothing items like tights, a pullover, and a hat. After reading through the directions for the “Tunturi hat” on their site (, I decided to use some scraps of fabric I had around to make one. Shelby recommends fleece, but the directions say it is also possible to go one size up and use non-stretchy fabric.

I made my “Tunturi hat” out of scraps of blue Momentum 90 ripstop from Thru-Hiker, Primaloft sport from OWFINC, and cheap black lining fabric from the local fabric store.  Shelby’s directions were good and the hat came together fairly easily.  First, I had to cut out the pattern, which is printable in different paper sizes, and tape it together.

Next I cut out my pieces of fabric, and then sewed the Primaloft to the black liner.  Primaloft is a bit strange to sew, because it stretches and gets caught on the presser foot, or if I flip the pieces upside down, in the feed dogs.  I cut a few of the edges, but then I realized that if I serge them it doesn't matter.

I was a bit nervous about sizing, being that ripstop and liner stretch very little, but the sizing worked pretty well.  I created one hat out of Primaloft and liner and one out of the blue ripstop.


Joining them together following Shelby’s directions was surprisingly easy, and the finished hat, I think, looks good.  It fits well and is quite warm.


According to my incredibly inaccurate kitchen scale I recently purchased and will probably return, the hat weighs a little under two ounces.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Powerstretch Fleece Pullover

When I first started making my own outdoor clothing a few months ago, I tried to stick to not making anything of which I already had a decent commercial version. One of my favorite pieces of outdoor clothing is the Patagonia R1 fleece top. I have a good amount of fleeces, but my R1 gets more than its share of mileage. I have had it for several years and worn it in every season and for a variety of activities. Its design is great and it fits pretty nicely. I wear it over a t-shirt climbing in the fall and as a base-layer or mid-layer for ice-climbing and skiing, depending on the temperature. I really saw no reason to replace my R1 as an under-the-shell fleece for winter climbing.

However, I have a few issues with it too. First, the R1 has no shock cord in the bottom. I wish every piece of outdoor clothing had shock cord in the bottom, because I think this makes a huge difference in trapping in heat or venting if needed. Second, regulator waffled fleece is soft, but for some reason it can feel scratchy at the seams. Third, I feel like the waffled fleece falls strangely between base-layer and mid-layer. It isn't a long underwear top, but it's not a very thick fleece either. Lastly, although Patagonia makes a hooded R1, I already have one without a hood and didn't want to spend the $100+ dollars it would take to get a hood.

A month or so ago though, my wife asked me to make her sweatpants. I saw that Seattle Fabrics recommended Polartec Power Stretch for climbing tights, so I ordered some and made her pants. I was very impressed with the feel of the fabric. Powerstretch is very soft and fairly light while being a bit thicker than the waffled fleece used in the R1.

I thought powerstretch as a mid-layer fleece might work even better for winter climbing that my R1, so I decided to make one a couple weeks ago. I ordered powerstretch from Mill Direct Textiles, and I already had a Green Pepper pattern for fleeces.

I began work over the weekend and finished today. I thought it would be easier to sew powerstretch the second time around, but I've found the fabric a challenge because of its stretchiness. The waffled regulator fleece was also difficult to sew, though, so I guess the fabrics are equal in that regard. I've found Lycra to also be a challenge, and sewing the Lycra bindings to powerstretch was interesting.

Of course, there will always be errors (at least for me) in made-at-home outdoor clothing that must be taken into account in comparison with commercial products. Recently I have been frustrated with the eyelet tool I bought from the local fabric store, which seems to destroy the eyelets more than it installs them. So instead of eyelets for the shock cord at the bottom, I decided to cut holes in the fleece and sew around to reinforce them. This turned out to be quite ugly:

Overall though, I'm pleased with the result. 
After fairly vigorous hiking in cold weather for about an hour, my first impression is that powerstretch breathes very well and is quite warm.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A little background...

During the summer of 2010 I went on a climbing trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota. Packing a few days before we were leaving, I realized that I only had one pack and it was barely going to fit my rack and shoes.  Being a college student and relatively short on cash and knowing that my mother knew how to sew, I asked her to sew me a pack.  She went to the local fabric store, picked out some generic ripstop and made me one in an afternoon.  She made it without a pattern, and although the pack was not perfect, it worked and started me thinking about making outdoor gear at home myself.  
My new pack worked well on my trip, and coming back I decided that I wanted to start making outdoor gear myself.  I had several reasons for this. First, because of certain climbing literature's influence on me, and despite being a slow, mediocre climber, I think that climbing clothing and gear should be as light as possible and very simple. For me, this means not needing the many pockets, straps, and buckles on today's commercial gear that for me are unnecessary. Second, being 6'4” and skinny means that not many commercial products fit me. Third, for me there is a huge sense of satisfaction and pride in making something myself that works as well as something I could have bought. Lastly, being obsessed with gear and clothing technology can be expensive, and making my own climbing clothing allows me to be obsessed for slightly cheaper.
Sewing always looks easy when watching someone else do it, especially when that person is particularly skilled, so I figured I’d quickly be making high quality stuff.  I went out and bought a sewing machine.  For some reason, I tried to figure it out on my own rather than have someone explain how to use it.  I could not figure it out, so I took it back and exchanged it for a different one.  This one I was able to figure out, and I started sewing.  Again refusing instruction, I made several ugly fleeces without any kind of pattern, and then I gave up.
This past fall I started sewing outdoor clothing again, and for several reasons this time I had much more success.  I started using patterns and paying attention to little details.  I learned how to actually operate a sewing machine, and I have been moving gradually between projects of appropriate difficulty.
The main activity that I am attempting to make outdoor clothing for is ice and rock climbing.  I am an extremely mediocre climber, but I have always had an interest in the gear and in the clothing systems involved in winter climbing.  That being said, I’m also obviously a very novice seamster, so bear with me as I make mistakes and explore what works.
I intend to start this blog to document my journey in producing my own outdoor clothing and gear.  I plan on trying out and reviewing different patterns, fabrics, and techniques.  I want to create a resource for others who create their own climbing, backpacking, or general outdoor clothing in showing what works and does not work for me.