What is The North Face Futurelight? (Ep.74)


  • Scott’s background in product innovation (5:55)
  • Why was Futurelight designed? (9:20)
  • Futurelight vs. Polartec Neoshell (19:45)
  • “Tuning” Futurelight for different designs (21:22)
  • Durability? (29:55)
  • Athlete testing at The North Face (36:40)
  • Competing with GORE (55:32)
  • Sustainability & Futurelight (59:30)

The North Face is attempting to do something that many have tried, but few have succeeded: compete head-to-head with Gore-Tex in the waterproof / breathable fabric category.

So we talked with Scott Mellin, the Global General Manager of Mountain Sports at The North Face, about their new fabric technology, Futurelight; the ideas behind it; what sets it apart in the crowded waterproof / breathable fabric market; sustainability practices related to Futurelight; some stories from athlete testing, and much more.

Below, we’ve included definitions of several key terms related to this podcast. For more on waterproof / breathable fabrics, testing methods, ratings, and other outerwear nerdery, see our Outerwear 101 and Outerwear 201 articles.

Terms Related to Testing, Ratings, Etc.:

  • Air Permeability: A measure of how easily air passes through a textile or laminate. Typically, the more air-permeable a fabric is, the more breathable it is.
  • CFM: Stands for “cubic feet per minute” and is a unit of measure for air permeability (i.e., how much air can pass through the fabric in a minute). CFM is often used interchangeably with air permeability.
  • Hydrostatic Head: A measure of how waterproof a textile, laminate, or membrane is. The units usually represent how much water pressure a sample can withstand before leaking, and this rating is measured by placing a standardized-diameter water column on top of a fabric and filling the water column higher and higher with more and more water until water begins to penetrate the fabric. E.g., a fabric rated to a 10,000 mm (or 10K) hydrostatic head test can have a 10,000mm-tall water column on top of it before it leaks, while a fabric rated 20,000 mm (or 20K) can support a 20,000 mm water column.

Terms Related to Waterproof Fabrics:

  • Laminate: Refers to a composite sandwich of fabrics and / or membranes that are bonded together (usually via glue, pressure, and / or a spray-on layer) to act as a single textile. Laminates are most common in waterproof / breathable garments. Gore-Tex products, The North Face Futurelight, and Polartec NeoShell are all examples of laminates.
  • Membrane: This is what makes a laminate waterproof. Membranes are typically non-textile (i.e., not knit or woven) materials that are designed to protect against water and wind. Membranes are often porous and / or air-permeable to increase breathability. Membranes are often made from PU, Polyester, or ePTFE.
    • PU: Stands for polyurethane. PU is a common material used for waterproof breathable membranes.
    • ePTFE: Stands for “expanded polytetrafluoroethylene.” This is the primary polymer component in Gore-Tex membranes. Different variations of this polymer are used in DWRs and in non-stick coatings for cookware (the common non-stick coating, Teflon, is made from polytetrafluoroethylene).
    • Polyester: A synthetic polymer commonly used as the fiber in knit and woven textiles. Polyester is also sometimes used to make waterproof / breathable membranes.
  • Face fabric: Refers to the outermost fabric layer in a laminate, or multi-density weave (e.g., a hard-faced fleece like the Patagonia R1 TechFace). In waterproof / breathable garments, the face fabric is used for durability against abrasion, it protects the membrane, and it is what the DWR coating (see below) is applied to.
    • Fabric Weight (e.g., g/m2 or gsm): This is a measure of mass per area of fabric. Often measured in grams per square meter (g/m2 or gsm), this is a good metric for understanding how heavy a textile will be, and also often correlates with how thick the textile will be.
    • Denier: A measure of the diameter of the individual fibers that make up a fabric. Generally, the higher the denier, the heavier and more durable the textile. However, the weave or knit and fiber material (e.g., polyester, nylon, cotton, etc.) also play roles in the durability, hand-feel, and other characteristics of a fabric.
    • Yarn: A strand of individual fibers that are spun / twisted together to form a thicker, more resilient, cohesive string. Individual fibers are often extremely small and fragile, so mills spin those fibers into more substantial yarns that they then use to weave or knit a complete fabric.
    • Warp & Weft: The two primary yarn components of a woven fabric. Warp yarns run longitudinally along the fabric, while weft yarns run perpendicular to the warp yarns. The warp and weft structure can be tweaked in the weaving process to create a huge variety of finished woven textiles.
  • Backer: Refers to the thin interior material used in 3L and 2.5L laminates (see below) that sits against your skin. Sometimes called a liner or scrim, not to be confused with the hanging lining of a 2L garment. Backers protect the membrane in a laminate and are made of a vast variety of knit, woven, and nonwoven fabrics.
  • Types of Laminates: 
    • 2-Layer (aka, 2L): A laminate using two layers, consisting of a face fabric and a membrane or coating. Despite the “2-layer” moniker, these garments are often constructed with an additional hanging (rather than laminated) liner to protect the membrane and provide better on-skin comfort.
    • 2.5-Layer (aka, 2.5L): A laminate using two layers (face fabric + membrane) and a printed or laminated “½” layer for membrane protection and on-skin comfort. These laminates are often used on less-expensive and / or lightweight rainwear and often aren’t as comfortable or durable as 3L laminates.
    • 3-Layer (aka, 3L): A laminate using three layers — a face fabric, a membrane or coating, and a backer. These garments tend to offer the best performance when it comes to durability, weather resistance, and breathability (though there are always exceptions), and consequently make up most of the high-end hardshell and softshell market.
  • DWR: Stands for “durable water repellent coating.” DWRs are typically applied to the face fabrics in 2L, 2.5L, and 3L shells (among other garments) to keep the face fabric from soaking through with water. The DWR is the component responsible for water beading up on the surface of fabrics.
  • PFC: Stands for “perfluorinated compound.” PFCs are often used in DWRs and are a source of environmental and human health concerns. Many manufacturers have already or are attempting to eliminate PFCs from their supply chains and products. Listen to our podcast with Nikwax to learn more.
On Blister's GEAR:30 podcast, Sam Shaheen talks with The North Face's Scott Mellin about the brand's new fabric technology, Futurelight

9 comments on “What is The North Face Futurelight? (Ep.74)”

  1. To me it seems that TNF has a few legs up on Gore. I was not impressed by the Gore interview, neither what they do with Gore Pro (just more of the same in a different package) nor regarding DWR coating.

  2. It’s hard to tell whether this is just hype marketing talk from TNF or if it’s legitimately a bit step forward. Even if it is a game changer, I think it’s probably less because of some wunderkind materials and more because they have realized what everyone else has: that a bombproof water impermeable membrane isn’t the be-all, end-all ultimate shell for 99% of situations. I’m guessing that what makes the futurelight system as a whole perform better is just TNF realizing that it’s better to have a bunch of super breathable layers. It’s a hard sell to consumers who just want to see gear tests of people standing in the shower and staying dry regardless of the fact that they use their goretex pro jackets downhill skiing on bluebird days .

    At the end of the day water proof breathable membranes all only perform as well as the outer fabric layer anyways, so isn’t it really down to the DWR performance? Regardless of how breathable your inner membrane is, if the outer layer is wetted out you’re wearing a trash bag. And if you have a functioning DWR coating, you don’t need inner membranes that have super impermeability to H2O.

    I do like the way TNF is actually focusing on some technical gear again in the summit and steep series and it’s not just doing lifestyle gear.
    I haven’t had a north face product in years until I bought a few lately and I’m happy with them. I’m slightly miffed that I bought a shell from both last year’s summit and steep series right before they decided that goretex is trash compared to their new stuff!

  3. I’m very interested if TNF FL walks the walk in long term independent testing. Could you do that please for me and the rest of mankind, Sam?

  4. Sam,

    Do you think that futurlight could have the same issues as neoshell in loosing membrane performance over time? They sound like they are a very similar membrane (He dodged that question in the podcast)

    • Hey Henry,

      It is certainly possible, we have no evidence of that yet, but we’ll be keeping a close eye for durability and performance issues during our testing this year!


  5. It would help if you added a brief 90 seconds to start of podcast to define the acronyms uses for listeners who don’t have an advanced degree in industrial fabrics.
    Not knowing Hydro static head, CFM, and one other makes this unable to understand.

    Ask your professor/founder: If you don’t explain important terms in plain English so that your audience can understand they can’t follow along

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