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No nonsense facts about waterproof garments

No nonsense facts about waterproof garments

I have spent a pretty large portion of my life being wet and cold, such as when hiking in the mountains, while on duty with the Norwegian armed forces or when watching one of my sons playing soccer on a rainy day. And to be honest, most of the time I have worn so-called waterproof garments.
If you ask any outdoor enthusiast or field operative about their experiences with waterproof garments, all of them will tell you almost the same story: only a good old-fashioned heavy-duty raincoat can keep you dry when it really starts pouring down. But there is of course one problem with this: as soon as you start sweating (which you undoubtedly will), you will start getting wet from the inside. And I’m always puzzled by the amount of sweat we humans produce, even when we’re just standing still!
In the ‘90s, we all bought Gore-Tex® jackets and used them in all sorts of conditions, and to various degrees were disappointed: they did not perform as good as the commercial said they would! Twenty years on, and it’s still the same story. Many of my fellow servicemen will almost never use their government-issue waterproof uniforms (the mambrane is called “Helly Tech”, more commonly knows as “Helly Lekk”, in English “Helly Leak”).
So, let’s break it down, what can you expect from garments claiming to be waterproof? But before we dig into the details, let’s start with one conclusion: despite their limitations, membranes do actually work and offer the most versatile uses. But that does not mean they are perfect or that they will keep you completely dry in any circumstance or in all weathers. However, compared to the other commercially available options, they offer the widest range of use.
Now let’s take a look at the different technologies that might be used in a modern waterproof garment and consider each of their pros and cons, and also let us consider what Lynx do:
How it works
This involves a chemical treatment that is applied to a fabric to give it various degrees of water-repellency. Depending on the quality of the treatment (most of them suck by the way), they should last for some time before water penetrates the textile.
  • Can be applied to almost any kind of fabric.
  • Is invisible unless viewed through a microscope.
  • Could be sufficient for a small rain shower or a spillage of wine on your pants.
  • Does not last forever (the cheapest treatments only last for a few wash cycles; the best ones, maybe 20-30 cycles).
  • Could have serious damaging effects on the environment and the user.
  • We use the most advanced DWR-treatment available on our Handler Jeans. This adds some water-repellency, but eventually it will wear down. Luckily for you, it will reactivate with ironing.
  • We regard DWR-treatment as a nice add-on, but nothing more.
  • We ensure that our treatments are proven to be safe for both the user and the environment.
Hydrophobic fabric
How it works
Some fabrics suck up water like a sponge, some do not. Those that do not suck up water are called “hydrophobic”, while those that do, are called “hydrophilic”. When constructing a waterproof garment, most manufacturers choose a hydrophobic synthetic textile as the face fabric for the two or three layer laminate that makes up the main fabric of the garment.
  • Do not suck up water.
  • Are usually stiff, unpleasant textiles unless they are blended with something more comfortable to wear. However, these softer, more comfortable options are almost always hydrophilic.
  • Even if the fibres do not absorb water, water can still penetrate between the threads.
  • Our Handler Jeans and Asset Coats do not have a hydrophobic face fabric (Handler Jeans, for instance, have a regular cotton denim on the outside). So, after the DWR stops working, the face fabric will eventually get soaked. The same goes for the Asset Coat (the face fabric is a blend between polyester and wool). This is, to be honest, a compromise between comfort and function: we just could not find a hydrophobic face fabric that looked or felt good enough. But that does not mean you will get wet in the rain, because we use a membrane.
And now to the core of many debates: membranes.
How they work
All membranes work the same way: they comprise a polyurethane film (plastic sheet) with tiny pores through which drops of water cannot pass, but through which isolated water vapour molecules can pass. Then a bit of thermodynamics comes into play: the difference in temperature either side of the membrane, i.e. between the inside and the outside of the garment, creates the necessary conditions for the water molecules absorbed by the polyurethane to be pushed to the outside.
Sounds cool, right? And yes, membranes do often work like this, but only provided that:
  • The face fabric is dry. If it is wet, no sweat will get out. And as we told you earlier, the commonly-used DWR-treatments that are assigned to be your first line of defence against water, won’t last forever. So when the face fabric is wet, you will get wet from the inside by your own sweat.
  • It is warmer on the inside that the outside. It the temperature is the same, no sweat drops will escape.
So as you see, water cannot penetrate the membrane from the outside, but the breathability of the garment is more unstable. And then we have the concept of water pressure, which we will cover in a separate blog post.
So why on earth do we still want to use membranes?
The reason is pretty simple: If you don’t want to carry three different jackets around with you, a membrane jacket is the most versatile solution. With the right construction and choice of fabrics in the laminate, they are pleasant to wear in good weather, keep you dry in moderate rain, dry in heavy rain combined with low activity and relatively dry in heavy rain and high activity.