Fabrics for sports apparel and gear match demanding expectations and show continued market growth.
Whether participating in an ultramarathon or exploring the arctic poles, serious athletes need the same thing in their apparel and gear: comfort and protection. Fabric technologies are delivering above and beyond these goals, helping to serve the extreme-sport mentality that has an insatiable interest in new and improved performance.
Gear that goes further
Americans spend $120.7 billion on outdoor recreation products; that includes a lot of tents, backpacks and other fabric-based gear. Fabrics that can deliver lighter weight, more strength and longer durability are the driving demands in gear.
“Ultralight fabrics: that’s one of the challenges that has been given us by a lot of the outdoor and recreational customers,” says Roger Walker, vice president of manufacturing and product development at Performance Textiles Inc., Greenboro, N.C. “As an ex-Boy Scout, I remember the heavy-coated canvas, two-man tent that might weigh 15 pounds. Now they have to weigh virtually nothing.”
Fabrics used in sleeping bags that could withstand five machine washings in the past would not meet today’s standards, he adds. Many of today’s fabrics must perform after 20 or more washings, be lightweight, strong and able to stuff into a very small bag. Demand for antimicrobial, dirt/stain resistance and mildew resistant is also on the rise.
The basic nylon and polyester mesh fabrics used in gear haven’t changed much, but improved durable coatings and finishes and better yarn chemistry are helping to meet many of the higher performance demands.
“There are certain yarns that can be used today that will give your sleeping bag lining an antimicrobial characteristic. In addition, there are durable finishes that will give the fabric improved dirt and stain resistance as well as a better degree of water repellency,” says Walker. “On some proprietary coatings that we use, we have seen the life of the product increased significantly. Some fabrics were exposed to 40 machine washings with no loss of performance. We have some anecdotal evidence for 100 machine washings.”
According to Leisure Trends Group Outdoor RetailTRAK™, apparel makes up 48 percent of the outdoor retail dollar sold, and outdoor sportswear (not including apparel accessories) grew 12 percent in 2012 to $920 million. Sporting goods apparel rose 15 percent in 2013 to $420 million. Fiber technologies that allow fabrics to heat and cool the body; manage moisture; breathe; flex; repel water and stains; offer less fabric to skin friction; and have antimicrobial features, durability and other properties are all growing the market for sports and recreation apparel and expanding into other applications, including everyday wear.
“There’s been such a big movement toward performing technical fabrics in the last few years that the current trend for performance technology has reached a pinnacle. The biggest thing happening is technology is getting better,” notes Ken Siecinski, active/outerwear manager for Top Value Fabrics, Carmel, Ind. “We have numerous types of performing finishes in fabrics. The processes have improved, consumer demand has increased and price points are dropping. That is allowing more companies to get into the performing fabrics market and consumers are better able to afford them.”
Without question, a wicking finish is the biggest thing in sports apparel, he adds. Moving moisture away from the skin is of utmost importance to remaining cool or warm and comfortable during exercise and recreation. Today, more athletes and outdoor enthusiasts are reading the labels, looking for water repellency, waterproof, breathable, stain and dirt resistance, UV/sun protection, and antimicrobial or odor-resistant features—and they’re willing to pay more for the quality and performance.
“That goes for apparel for any on-the-go activity,” says Siecinski. “It can be at the gym, on the playing field, the great outdoors or in the workplace. Use of these technologies across markets is growing. The performance has become better as companies keep researching and doing more with the product. Materials are improving and lasting longer.”
With growing consumer awareness, these same performance features are finding their way into everyday apparel as well. “Typically performance features start with high-end applications, such as medical, military or athletics, and then begin to branch into work wear and casual wear, especially synthetics that are lighter, stronger, more comfortable and that offer wicking capabilities,” says Siecinski.
Yoga pants are a good example, he adds. People love their flexibility and comfortable fit, and are buying them in various prints and colors for other activities. Stretch fibers, such as spandex, are now common in men’s and women’s casual slacks, jeans and shirts for a better fit. Shorts purchased for soccer can offer the necessary performance for running, and are comfortable enough for light activities.
Leisure Trends Group reports that women’s dresses, made by outdoor giants Patagonia, PrAna and Horny Toad, among others, has grown by 75 percent since 2009, driven by the comfort of four-way stretch fabrics with wicking capability and improved comfort.
Allon Cohne, director of global marketing at Polartec® LLC in Lawrence, Mass., says the outdoor industry has led a lot of categories in fabric innovations and technologies. The introduction of synthetic fleece more than 30 years ago reduced dependence on cotton and wool and greatly contributed to comfortable moisture-regulating, cold-weather apparel. Next the layering system was adopted by the outdoor industry, and as outdoor recreation moved to more intense sports, higher peaks and faster climbs, the military saw the innovation and wanted the same temperature-regulating system for its personnel.
Polartec made innovations in flame-resistant fibers in its fleece technology and developing base layers for the military, which attracted the flame-resistant work industry. Like the outdoor industry, they’re moving toward lighter and more durable protective wear as well.
Hybrid constructions are trending now because using different fabrics with specific performance characteristics in certain areas of a garment can achieve results such as maximizing breathability, weather protection and warmth while minimizing bulk, says Cohne.
The proprietary membrane Polartec NeoShell® is both fully waterproof and air permeable, explains Cohne. Polartec’s new Alpha® synthetic was developed for the military. (See “Polartec wins IFF Innovation Award.”)
“We’re trying to build more system-related programs so that the base layer works with the outer layer,” he says. “What we find is that the product-focused companies know what they’re trying to accomplish and it’s more of a problem-solving situation, trying to get more warmth or less weight, add flame resistance. For us it doesn’t matter; we’re agnostic when it comes to the brand. We’ll source the technology, find the yarns and calibrate the machines to meet that solution.”
Cracking the recycled code
Polartec was approached by apparel manufacturer Patagonia in 1993 to make fleece out of recycled bottles. It took 10 years of engineering to crack the code on how to make a blended PCR (post-consumer recycled) performance fleece, but that has now been accomplished and Polartec offers a 100 percent PCR fleece.
The push for environmentally friendly fabrics has increased now that the learning curve on recycled fibers has advanced and processes have improved. Volume is going up and price points are getting better, says Siecinski. “The difference now is astronomical; now we’re seeing [sustainable] fabric prices that are more affordable than they used to be. We’re definitely seeing more products using recycled fiber.”
Another big push in technology is using less water or no water in the dyeing and finishing of textiles, he adds. This can greatly reduce the polluted discharges into waterways near manufacturing plants.
Wicking and cooling
Columbia Sportswear Co., Portland, Ore., whose motto is “Trying stuff since 1938,” decided six years ago to try its own hand at innovating fabric technologies. The company wanted to focus on fabric technologies that would differentiate them and perform at a higher level than other performance wear companies.
“With so many licensed, commoditized technologies in the market, there’s a perception in the industry that everything has been done, but there’s always room for improvement,” says Columbia spokesman Andy Nordhoff.
Taking wicking to a new level, the company introduced its Omni-Freeze™ ZERO (OFZ), a sweat-activated cooling technology in a line of products launched last spring. The wicking fabric is embedded with a polymer in the form of thousands of tiny rings that absorb moisture from sweat, swell rapidly and cool the surrounding shirt. A medium men’s shirt has as many as 40,000 tiny rings that can absorb 200 times their weight in water. The idea is to go beyond just wicking moisture away to actually cooling.
“Consumers are led to believe wicking equals cooling. But the body sweats to cool itself, so you might feel dry (with a wicking product), but not feel cool. We utilize sweat and cool the surface of the fabric so you feel comfortable,” says Nordhoff.
Remember the space blanket?
Similarly, Columbia introduced a winter technology called Omni-Heat™ Reflective (OHR) that looks and acts like a space blanket. The breathable fabric is embedded with shiny metallic dots that reflect and retain the body’s own heat to maintain a balanced temperature. Like OFZ, OHR is a mechanical technology rather than chemical.
“In terms of extreme sports, our customers really appreciate that the fabric works so well that they don’t need to layer and bulk up. We don’t need that bulky insulation in our jackets, knowing we can line them with Omni-Heat Reflective for added warmth and mobility,” says Nordhoff.
Columbia is providing uniforms with OHR for the U.S., Canadian and Russian freestyle ski teams competing in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The uniforms offer mobility as well as the ability to stay warm and dry in challenging performance situations.
Nordhoff says the company’s main goal, however, is to be accessible to the general public, not just world-class athletes, and it is making sure price points are amenable to them. “We really want people to get outside and stay warm, dry, cool and protected—whatever they do.”