Waterproof/Breathable Shells — construction options

More tech geek stuff on waterproof/breathable shells. Non tech geeks might just skip down to the micro-rant, or read a real rant. One of the comments to my last post on w/b shells got me thinking about definitions – what’s the difference between the w/b shell types we hear about: 2-layer, 2.5-layer, 3-layer? Well, it’s a construction thing. Specifically, the construction as it relates to the interior layer of the garment. Each type of w/b laminate shell construction has pluses and minuses, which can help determine which best suits your needs.

First, I should mention that un-laminated waterproof shells, like raincoats, exist. I believe the standard raincoat is made of rubber or polyurethane-coated nylon. I don’t know. They’re heavy, don’t breathe at all, and, so far as I’ve seen, not cut for athletic movement or featured for technical use. Single-layer fabrics can be treated with waterproof coatings, but they wear off, just like a DWR coating will wear off over time. So, as per current technology, the only way to achieve true, lasting, waterproof/breathable protection is with these laminated fabrics. And you still have to keep up with the DWR coating, to keep the face fabric from getting saturated. Once that face fabric gets saturated, you have no effective vapor pressure gradient between your moisture on the inside, and the saturated fabric on the outside – and thus, no breathability. Some companies claim theirs will still breathe due to the temperature difference driving

Ol' Jim Turner climbing in his favorite 3L shell in Silverton. Good thing he also has a rope.

breathability – and temperature does drive vapor pressure – but with a physical barrier like a laminate already there, this claim is bullshit. They can “prove” this breathability claim in a lab, yeah, but anyone who’s ever worn a laminate in the field, when the DWR has worn off and the face fabric is saturated, knows it’s bullshit.

Side note: you might not need a waterproof shell that’s also breathable. Sometimes you just want what amounts to an emergency rain smock. Will present some ideas on that another time.

By the way, any shell labeled “waterproof/breathable” by a reputable company will be seam-sealed. Either stitched seams with seam tape, or welded seams.


2-layer

The w/b part is just the outer two layers – the face or shell fabric, bonded to the w/b laminate. Since the w/b laminate is fairly fragile, and thus needs protection, a hanging liner gets added to the inside of the garment. Doesn’t this make it three layers? Kind of, but the hanging liner doesn’t “count” in this type of math. The hanging liner helps wick moisture, and feels soft and comfortable, especially since they’re often made with brushed poly, soft mesh, or microfleece. Doesn’t usually feel like a garbage bag next to skin. But doing it this way adds considerable weight and bulk. They’re usually quieter, not as crinkly sounding or feeling. Sounds nice, but they’re heavy and bulky. Though I’m probably wrong here, I don’t think anyone makes a technical, climbing, w/b shell in 2-layer construction anymore. Since that hanging liner isn’t glued/bonded to the w/b barrier, it can actually make for pretty good breathability, but it’s hard to compare straight-up breathabilitiy across the garment construction categories; as I understand it, it’s a mixed bag, a can of worms, and goes above my pay grade – too many factors with construction, whether it’s bonded with glue or lasers and stuff, the distance from the heat/moisture source (your body) to the w/b barrier, and so on. 2-layer garments aren’t very compressible due to the hanging liner, which can also get bunchy over layers. These things best make for an around-town jacket, or maybe resort skiing, things like that. Usually good price-point pieces, not as expensive, not very technical.

2.5-layer

The interior of a 2.5L (left; the Patagonia Spectre p/o, unfortunately no longer made), and a 3L (right; the Patagonia M10).

These have a bonded inner liner (not hanging), but it’s not a full liner – hence the “half” part of 2.5. It’s like elevated specs, or parts of a bonded liner, sticking up off the w/b laminate, often in a dot or cool little printed interior pattern. Thus, there’s less bonded liner material on there. This decreases durability, and can allow contamination of the w/b laminate, because it’s partially exposed. It also makes it more susceptible to mechanically breaking down over time, thus reducing the shell’s effective life. But it does make for superb compressibility and the lightest weight. Smooth layering, too. Depending on construction, these can be super technical, stretchy, good features, good breathability, all that – or made as an emergency-only shell. Naturally, price therefore varies. You can get some good 2.5L shells for pretty cheap, and they aren’t necessarily bad. These emergency-type shells have some merit, particularly for summer alpine rock, like a “If you’re in the Park and hell unleashes with afternoon thunderstorms and it dumps for two hours emergency shell.”

3-layer

A complete bonded liner is laminated to the inside. Thus, the w/b film is completely sandwiched between the inner scrim and the outer shell fabric. The scrim does a number of things well: it disperses water vapor (which helps keep it from becoming actual moisture) along the inside, to enhance breathability and keep you dry from the inside. Also has a much better next-to-skin feel than a 2.5L, like if you’re wearing it over a short-sleeved T (I find this of very rare value,though, at least with climbing – if I’m concerned enough to bringing a w/b shell, I’m usually up someplace where I’m wearing long sleeves, even in summer). Significantly, that bonded liner on the inside protects the w/b barrier (which, as we know, is prone to contamination), making for longer life (of the shell, that is) and, typically, better performance over the course of the shell’s life. A 3L fabric package also has greater tear strength and abrasion resistance. It usually has a softer feel than a 2.5L, but is usually heavier and less compressible (though Patagonia’s M10 – yes, I’m biased – does a remarkable job of being light & compressible for a 3L). Those who favor 3L shells tend to wear a hard shell for regular, dedicated use, and thus want something with a good feel and durable, solid performance day-in, day-out. But 3L shells are usually the most expensive – especially if they’re also technically dialed and honed-in enough to also be lightweight, maybe have some stretch, etc.

Again, all of this is if you’re going with, or need, a hard shell vs. a soft shell, which is a different topic – soft shells are great for many uses. An aside about definitions: there are no stone-set standards for what constitutes a hard vs. soft shell, but — ah, hell, time for a side rant.

Side Rant on Definitions:

My understanding, and one embraced by most in the outdoor industry, is that hard shells are waterproof, while soft shells are not. Since a laminate, or waterproof barrier, sandwiched into the garment makes these shells waterproof, all that sandwiching makes them feel “harder.” Soft shells, without that barrier, have a much softer hand. This definition makes sense, at least as I understand things in relation to the origins of soft shells. I think the concept really grabbed hold with winter climbing in Scotland, when people started realizing that their “waterproof” shells were leaving them soaked anyway, just from the inside. So, somewhat counter-intuitive as it may seem, some climbers started wearing jackets that were non-waterproof, but significantly more breathable. The jackets just resisted exterior moisture, slowing it down, but meaning that, in those nasty Scottish conditions, they’d allow some moisture to penetrate the shell fabric. But with such a breathable shell, and layered underneath with directional pile to help channel their own outward-driving heat, their own body heat would help keep them dry and combat the moisture that tried to enter. The shell and pile feel soft, and have no laminate barrier or stiff polyurethane coating. This “modern soft shell concept” works when you’re generating your own heat – it won’t work for watching Tiger Woods in the Kentucky Derby or whatever it is (obviously, I’m not a golfer), in a pouring rain. Though it might work for him, as apparently he generates plenty of heat.

Anyway, I’ve occasionally heard companies market something like a “waterproof soft shell,” which is a contradiction of accepted terminology. In that case, you’re just making up definitions however you want, aside from any semblance of reason. They might say “well, it doesn’t feel hard” (is that what…oh, nevermind) or claim it has a soft feel, but, fuck, ya can say that about anything, it’s wildly subjective. The claim of “waterproof” isn’t an exact science, either, but at least it’s some sort of standard. There are rules here Smokey, this is not ‘Nam. (OK, there really aren’t rules, but that doesn’t mean I’m over the line.)

Need to get back to work. Coming soon, maybe next week – my ideas as to which end uses might steer you to a 2.5 vs. a 3-layer shell. The 2-layer ones are usually best for walking to coffee shops in the rain. Or watching the Tiger Driving Open Master’s Derby or whatever it is.

Over the line!

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~ by Kelly Cordes on April 13, 2010.

14 Responses to “Waterproof/Breathable Shells — construction options”

  1. Thanks for the post Kelly. For some reason I am having a hard time figuring why anyone would use a 2 layer hard shell… 2.5 would make sense if you are weigh conscious or if you know that you’re not going to making any hard core activity on them, but for real outdoors, nothing beats a 3 layer shell.
    That M10 is sweet. So light and “soft”. I think the price might be right in that one.

  2. Awesome feedback Kelly. Great meeting you today, and thanks again for the hospitality!

  3. The only water-proof breathable material I’ve found is skin.
    Though I have to admit at 40 below C the pores don’t breath as well.

  4. I think a “technical” un-laminated waterproof could be this- “http://orcind.com/webstore/proddetail.asp?prod=SF2348″. I have the soft shell that’s supposed to worn underneath. I suppose it could be the emergency rain smock you also mention.

    To me though, using my hardshell means I have conceded to be- tolerably ‘drier’ (a bit damp) and tolerably ‘cooler’ (warmish) especially when I’m exerting and moving. If I’m staying still, bouldering at the local crag/choss pile and waiting out a rainspell then it’s tarp time .

  5. ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzz……………….. oh, you were saying?

  6. I’m not sure if I should respond to this or the first B/S-post, but where in this 2/2,5/3-thing would you put eVent? If I could only bring one piece of outerwear I that I would count on doing it all it’s really no contest, it would be eVent 10 times out of 10. Well of course not if it’s going to be cold or dry, then you always go with a softshell, waht I’m talking about is when rain or “real” wetness is at all an issue. Climbing in Scotland caould be a good example. Ice climbing in Norway could be another.

    I believe eVent to be better than everything made by Gore and better than all waterproof/breathable/dwr-treated fabrics made by the big P yet it seems like most people don’t even know about it.

    It would be interesting to learn your take on it.

  7. yeah, agreed, Uri. in fairly dry climes, the 2.5L “emergency shell” thing works well, i use it lots. for full-time w/b shell use, seems nothing beats a 3L.

    thx, Volk, good thoughts, and the link — looked sweet, like that could be the cheap emergency shell solution (helmet-compatible hood, etc). didn’t see a weight on there, so i called them — they told me it weighs 0.98 pounds — yikes, 16 oz. granted, the price is right! but i was hoping it was going to be less than half that. there’s some company, more a general outdoor thing, like hunting/fishing or something, that makes some wicked light rain shell. i’m totally drawing a blank, though. trying to think of where i might have it written down… will let you know if i figure it out.

    sorry, Corey, but i warned ya in the second sentence, man…the rant link was way more entertaining, i think. glad to contribute to the cure for insomnia, though:)

    Per — i’m totally wondering the same thing. i want to know more about eVent (though i probably need to be careful about personal conflicts of interest). i’ve heard from everyone that it’s great stuff, yet it seems to have zero hold in the marketplace. don’t know why. Gore has huge market power, and, how shall i say (especially since i have some friends there)…is known for playing hardball with their market power when it comes to keeping competitors far, far away. so do you have an eVent piece? what is it, model/brand, etc? sounds like you love it. a friend was by the other day and was gushing about his eVent stuff. interesting.

  8. Red Lodge could be that hunt/fish gen. outdoor. I’ve seen some basic super light feeling rain stuff for around $60 or less. Not sure on the exact models or even weights but just a thought.

  9. (…the internet ate this the first time…)

    OK, so this is going to be a seriously nerdy comment….fair warning to everyone….

    eVent can be either a 2L, 2.5L a 3L fabric. The big deal is that there isn’t a polyurethane layer (aka plastic) protecting the membrane — bonded right onto the membrane, as most w/b laminates have — because BHA (the parent company or something) figured out how to make the membrane oleophobic (oil hating). This is best seen in the SEM images shown at the eVent website, which shows that most waterproof/breathable fabrics have a smooth, nearly defect free polyurethane coating on the side closest to the body while eVent has the porous membrane closest to your body.

    The polyurethane is necessary in most other membranes because the oils from your body, sunscreen, etc… will eventually turn the membrane from hydrophobic (water hating) to hydrophilic (water loving). This is basically an interior-side version of the “wetting out” that KC discusses in his post of the face fabric. At this point, your waterproof breathable jacket is useless.

    The first generation Gore-Tex had lots of little holes in the polyurethane layer to enhance moisture transport. However, if you owned a piece of clothing with the very first Gore-Tex, you know that the performance steadily decreased over time. This was due to the contamination of the membrane with oils, as discussed above.

    So in a typical waterproof/breathable fabric the water vapor (your sweat) will condense on one side of the polyurethane layer, which is why there are hanging liners and 3L fabrics, to first spread out this condensed water vapor, and once you eventually create enough of a temperature differential the water will diffuse through the polyurethane layer where it finally meets the membranes and can diffuse through to the outside. Diffusion through the polyurethane is slow and requires much more heat than diffusion through the membrane, which is why it feels like waterproof/breathable fabrics don’t really “breathe.”

    By coming up with a way to remove that polyurethane liner that’s bonded directly to most w/b membranes, eVent has taken out a major barrier to moisture transport in waterproof/breathable fabrics. I’ve been using a set of eVent pants and an eVent jacket (made by Rab) for the last few months and have to admit, it seems to work. My last two pairs of boots from Kayland have used eVent as well, and my feet have stayed nice and dry with minimal sweat soaked into my socks, even on long aerobic days.

    Is it as breathable or comfortable as a soft-shell when you are generate a lot of heat? Hell no! But, I can vent the pants and walk in with a windshirt on and then change to the eVent jacket and zip the pants up for climbing. I climbed all day this week in 60+ mph winds, snow, and spindrift coming from above and below me. I stayed dry and comfortable in my eVent clothes, even when slogging through some pretty wet snow.

    Given that eVent is more than a few years old and we still aren’t seeing much expansion into the market (I actually think there has been a contraction), I’m not too hopeful for its long-term prospect. It’s definitely a step in the right direction technology wise, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

    Whew. OK, if you’re still reading, well, I’m done now.

  10. I actually have an event 3L shell too. It was made by Pearl Izumi and cut for cycling so the fit was perfect for me. I found it at some Pearl Izumi outlet store so it was like $80. As for the event itself the lab test says it ‘vents’ almost as good as Schoeller dynamic (forgot the scientific study citation).

    Current US market- I know that Integral Designs, Wild Things and REI have event jackets and for a time Kayland may have used it in their boots.

    to answer your question- as for superlight emergency shell, I heard something like froggtoggs(?) has some ridiculously light like garbage bag light totally impermeable shell.

    finally, everytime I think of Gore I feel the need to cite Twight’s book on page 90, “Counterattacks made by alternative fabric manufacturers have almost always been crushed under Gore’s marketing juggernaut. Despite the lack of market recognition, many alternative fabrics exist, and one of them may suit your specific needs and climate better than Gore-Tex.”

  11. Thanks Kelly for keeping it real with your description of W/B fabrics. How would you compare Patagucci’s H2No stuff to Gore ProShell/XCR (as far as breathability). The laymen looking in would think that outdoor companies “proprietary” 2, 2.5, and 3 layer fabrics are cost saving/profit maximizing efforts. Your thoughts, however biased toward the Pata brand. On a side, the M10 looks sick and it’ll be my 2011 winter jacket…

  12. Agreed about the Spectre P/O. Great piece. We’re all very fond of her…

  13. Doug – great post!
    Kelly – I have a Montane Quickfire jacket. Twofold unfortunate the model is first of all discontinued by Montane and my dog has chewed up mine pretty bad, because that jacket was pretty much everything you would ask for in a foul weather jacket. I used it ice, rock and alpine climbing, running, hiking (walking for hours carrying a heavy pack in the rain), cycling, multisport comps, hell – I even played golf in it!

    What made the Quickfire great? The fabric, the cut, the no extras.
    The cut was slim but still wide enough over the shoulders and back. Very good and easy to adjust hood (accomodates a helmet) and best of all LONG in the back. This is where all other brand always kook out.
    They all cater more to street fashion, and to be sure a drop seat isn’t very fashionable.
    Also, the arms were long and sort of pre-bent. All in all the best I have ever used. Come to think of it, think of the Quickfire as a hardshell RI-hoody. There you have it.

    My normal system would consist of a Houdindi baselayer T-shirt and a RI-hoody. At belays I would use a puff-jacket or a Wild Things EP or a DAS depending on where and when.

  14. hey guys. nice conversation going on above. what about schoeller fabrics. they talk about their C-change temperature control technology. Howevre I havent seen too many of their fabrics being used. Can anybody give some feedback on this?

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