By Wes Siler
From seal innards to woven grass, mankind's been staying dry by any means available for thousands of years. And, with the rise of wonder materials like Gore-Tex, even drier for the last few decades. Now, a new technology promises to keep us the driest yet. Here's a look back at how it all worked.
Hunting by spear on the open ocean from kayaks in some of the worst weather on Earth, the Inuits were serious about weather protection. And, they found a waterpoof, yet air-permeable material to dress in — seal and whale intestines. Just like inside your guts, these animals need their stomachs to hold liquids in while allowing nutrients to be absorbed into their bodies.
That's basically the same idea as Gore-Tex — you stay drier if the material not only keeps rain out, but allows sweat vapuor to escape. And the similarities with modern technology didn't stop there. The inuits made glue from rendered bones to connect and seal the seams between the tissues.
This method resulted in very effective garments. The inuits tested them by filling them with water and making sure nothing leaked. They were also thin and light. So thin, in fact, that the garments were see-through.
Meanwhile, in South America, people had discovered tree rubber and were using it to impregnate their clothing and footwear to keep water out.
In China and, according to some reports, in neolithic Europe as well, another air-permeable, waterproof membrane was being used to weave capes and hates — grass and leaves.
Animals furs are also naturally water resistant and retain their insulating properties when wet, thanks to the fur's structure that helps water run off and its natural oils that keep it from soaking through.
Man has been weaving wool into garments that naturally shed rain and insulate when wet since about 1,900 BC.
The Chinese were also early innovators in oiling fabrics. By permeating silk with vegetable oils, they were able to make it both waterproof and stronger, while keeping it light and flexible. You can still buy oiled silk umbrellas today; they're the finest available.
Ocean-going ships had sails made first from linen and later from cotton. By soaking sail material in linseed and similar oils, sailors were able to make their proverbial "oilskin" clothing. That kept the sea spray and rain out, but it was heavy, stiff and difficult to wear as a result.
This is what gave rise to the waxed cotton gear that's still around today. As that was industrialised in Scotland during the 1800s, the cotton used became of a denser weave and natural oils — which had lower melting points and would start running in hot weather — were replaced with paraffin. That oil soaks through the cotton, filling its pores so that they can't absorb water and repelling water on the surface — like on modern materials, rain will bead up and run off a waxed cotton garment. The oil also increases the tensile strength of the cotton fibres, making the whole jacket stronger and more durable.
I've been wearing a Barbour International jacket — a design dating from the early 1900s and pictured at the top of this article — off and on for the last eight or so years. It's as water and windproof as any jacket in my arsenal and nearly as strong as leather, but it's also heavy and while it breathes fairly well, it's no match for modern membranes in that regard. I'm about to re-oil it for the first time, a process that restores its ability to shed water and restores strength to the coat.
How strong can oil make simple cotton? Well, it's not abrasion resistant enough for a serious motorcycle crash, but it was the fabric of choice for that off-road riding into the 1960s. And, tales abound of the material stopping the teeth and claws of big game in Africa to this day.
Charles Macintosh And His Rubber Coat
In 1823, a chemist in Scotland patented a method for binding two pieces of material together with rubber dissolved in naphtha. The benefits of that method were the totally water/wind proof nature of rubber, but unlike previous efforts at rubberised clothing, this three-layer approach gave the Mackintosh (a K was added at some point) good looks and a soft, flexible feel.
This early dissolved India rubber was imperfect though. Stitching it together to form a garment would puncture the rubber, allowing water to get in and the natural oils in the wool face would degrade it over time. It also became stiff in cold weather and would melt if you let it get hot enough in the sun. That was resolved with the invention of vulcanised rubber in 1839 by Charles Goodyear, and the Mackintosh continues as an icon of rainwear to date.
From WWI's Trenches To The High Street
But, the Mackintosh didn't breathe, making it totally unsuitable for outdoor pursuits like mountaineering or making war across rainy Europe. So, a company named "Burberry" sprung up with a new material called "Gabardine," basically a very light, very tightly woven wool that naturally repelled water while remaining breathable. To further aid the evacuation of heat and sweat, vents were included across the back and under the armpits. And, in a further innovation, Burberry's pivot sleeve allowed a full range of motion for its wearer.
At the outbreak of WWI, the British Army contracted Burberry to make some alterations — a D-Ring and shoulder epaulets — and crank them out for soldiers fighting in the trenches. And thus, the trench coat was born. It's still fashionable today.
But, wool was expensive and became scarce during and following WWII. And, even gabardine wasn't totally waterproof in the modern sense. Dunk it in water and it soaks through. Much progress was being made in materials derived from petroleum and stuff made from it was much cheaper to produce.
Enter vinyl rain coats which were light, thin, flexible and totally water/wind proof, but didn't breathe. Vinyl is so cheap to produce that you can still buy ponchos made from it today for like £5.
The Gore-Tex Revolution
By 1969, there was a lot of choice available for rainwear. Waxed cotton was both waterproof and breathable, trench coats looked nice and vinyl was cheap. But none of it combined a light weight with good breathability and performance. Enter Gore-Tex.
Gore-Tex is a thin fluoropolymer membrane that repels water in drop form, but allows it to pass through as a vapour. That membrane has very little strength on its own, so it needs to be sandwiched between outer and inner layers, protecting it from abrasion and puncture and to make it comfortable. This three-layer approach is similar to that employed by Mackintosh and is how the best waterproof clothing has been constructed ever since.
The outer layer is coated in a Durable Water Repellant treatment to prevent it from soaking up water and thereby losing its breathability. If you have a Gore-Tex jacket and have experienced it "wetting through," i.e. soaking up water, then your DWR has worn off and needs to be re-applied. The inner layer is a softer fabric spec'd for against-the-skin comfort and which allows water vapour to pass through unimpeded.
Modern Super Fabrics And Where We Go From Here
That first Gore-Tex membrane had about 9 billion pores per square inch, with each being about 1/20,000 the size of a water droplet. This is what kept rain out while allowing sweat, in the form of vapour, to escape.
With a few tangents like Tyvek — waterproof and breathable, but not terribly long-lasting as a garment — this three-layer approach is still where we are today. Innovation has come in the form of new membranes which may be more breathable, stretchier, better at keeping wind out, lighter or whatever merit you chose. And the outer and inner fabrics of the three-layer, as well as they way a garment can be assembled and featured have similarly evolved.
Today, I wear a Westcomb Apoc jacket (above), a three-layer made using the Polartec Neoshell membrane (bigger pores than Gore-Tex for maximum breathability) and very light, very strong face materials. Combined with stuff like lightweight zippers, micro-taped seams, ripstop nylon and a more long-lasting DWR and huge pit zips, is the most breathable "hard shell" jacket available today, and one that maximises freedom of movement while minimising weight. It's the pinnacle of current rain jacket design.
But, we can do better. A new method created by a startup called Voormi will finally supersede the three-layer by weaving directly through a variety of water or wind proof membranes (the white layer above), creating a single, unified layer that can achieve comfort, insulation, wicking and weatherproofness in a lighter, more flexible, more comfortable garment. Imagine your favourite merino wool mid-layer, just with a waterproof membrane built right in. Neat, right?