There is a ridiculous number of outerwear choices these days for skiers and riders, and jackets range from $60 to $1000 on up. This article aims to help you figure out what you need, what you don’t, what all of these waterproof / breathable ratings mean, and what you’re actually going to get out of that sick neon green jacket you’ve been eyeing for months.
But the truth is, this isn’t really a 101 article. We’ll discuss the 101 basics, but we’re going to jump down the rabbit hole a little bit and discuss various waterproof membranes, the BS that is breathability ratings, GORE-TEX vs. eVent, 2-layer vs. 3-layer construction, Polytetrafluoroethylene, and a little bit of applied chemistry.
As far back as 190,000 years ago, people were draping themselves in animal skins in order to survive the cold. They developed technologies such as the needle and thread (made from bone and natural fibers), and used these to sew their pelts into more flattering patterns.
This rudimentary outerwear production continued for thousands of years, with the first fuzzy evidence of knit or woven textiles showing up only around 6,000 B.C. At this point in time, primitive garments could hardly be considered “outerwear” and were used mostly for decorative purposes.
So the real history of outerwear begins with the Vikings. These guys were burly. They lived in the cold, had huge beards, and spoke a language that sounded like an MMA fight. Hence, you might not expect that these tough guys were actually designers. They were the first to begin wool production, dying, and pattern making, all in a rather desperate attempt to stay warm.
For the next thousand years, wool and skins ruled the outerwear world. Even up through WWII, wool and leather were go-to fabrics.
What these thousand years lacked in textile technology they made up for in advances in sewing and pattern making. Fully lined garments were the norm, with complicated patterns that incorporated multiple types of stiches. Technology such as zippers (all metal), snaps, and buttons were used extensively.
Then, in 1955, Velcro was patented, and the nylon textile industry took off.
History of Gore-Tex and How it all Works
The next advance in the history of modern outerwear was a little invention patented under the name “GORE-TEX.”
By the ’60s, nylon fabrics with polyurethane (PU) coatings that were completely waterproof were available. However, these new fabrics lacked any sort of breathability, which made them terrible to use in active wear garments. Enter Bob Gore.
Working with his parents’ company, W.L. Gore & Associates Inc., Bob Gore began experimenting with polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a polymer of carbon and fluorine (in technical speak, four fluorine molecules per each ethylene- in a polymer). Nowadays, it is better known under it’s DuPont brand name, Teflon™.
More specifically, Gore was researching expanded PTFE (ePTFE) for use in plumbing as thread tape and sealant. It turns out that ePTFE stretches quite well, and forms a stable, though delicate, web-like structure upon expansion, filled with millions of tiny pores. The “stretchiness” of the ePTFE is what made it commercially viable as a joint sealant. In 1971, the first GORE-TEX products hit the market, sealing threads and joints all across the country.