The real softshell story
08 November 2008
Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
The Soft Shell concept is best described as a combined theory of performance protection and heralds a new age of comfort understanding among outdoor users. The theories make sense and, in practice, work but do not sit comfortably with how we have been brought up to dress for the outdoors — going against many of our established layering and waterproof traditions.
The title ‘Soft Shell’ is a tag line given to a design ethos that is producing a growing range of exciting clothing and is primarily used so as to set it apart from ‘Hard Shell’ and to identify items of clothing not easily pigeonholed. The term Hard Shell not only stands for waterproof-breathable shells, but also the traditions of their use i.e. layering. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of confusion and debate over just ‘what is Soft Shell?’ There is no concrete answer, but I have my own ideas and have used this title to describe what I think is a more realistic, pragmatic, intelligent and, in many ways, more demanding approach to how and what clothing active people use.
Here are what I see as being three of the core Soft Shell principles:
* Maximum performance from a minimum of layers, often with one layer replacing two or more other layers (base, mid and shell). * Weather protection that is robust and achievable even though breathability takes PRIORITY over waterproofness. * Clothing that is comfortable in a wide range of temperatures and conditions, does not restrict the user and is tough.
There is nothing radical or even particularly new about these concepts, but rather it is the right time for them to blossom, with several factors all coming together in order to make a receptive environment for this 21st-century approach to outdoor clothing.
Firstly, the big global companies have started to focus on these Soft Shells due to the fact that Hard Shell seems to have nowhere to go. Another factor is the influence of younger designers being able to break away from tradition with progressive companies allowing them to take risks in order to escape from the tired pure Hard Shell focus and try something more radical. Fabric technology has also been evolving rapidly in this area, creating the perfect time for these designers to push this idea into the mainstream.
Outdoor users are also far more responsive to unconventional clothing than they were 10 or 15 years ago — with most keen climbers, walkers or mountaineers looking (and willing to pay) for clothing solutions that will make life easier.
I think the loosely labelled Soft Shell concept offers the outdoor user undreamed of comfort and performance — both in clothing design and fabrics but, perhaps more importantly, because it requires a more open-minded, intelligent and realistic approach to how we keep ourselves alive and comfortable.
Stretch wovens are the most lightweight Soft Shell offerings on the market, popularized by fabrics such as Schoeller Dynamic (a single-layer construction) and Schoeller-Dryskin (a double weave with polyester yarn, typically, on the inside). The construction of stretch wovens remains inherently wind and water-resistant. Stretch wovens are highly breathable and ideal for high aerobic activities.
This category of stretch wovens broadens the ‘versatility’ of Soft Shell by improving weather protection (with enhanced wind-proofing and water repellency). Both Malden Mills and Schoeller maintain a strong presence in this relatively new category with their respective laminated Soft Shell technologies. From Malden Mills, Polartec Power Shield consists of a stretch-woven nylon face laminated to a Polartec inner fleece (sandwiched between these layers is a breathable, discontinuous stretch poly- urethane membrane that transports both moisture and moisture vapour away from the body). Schoeller WB-400 consists of a fabric surface made of elastic and synthetic fibres for freedom of movement, an acrylate layer or polyurethane coating (instead of an additional membrane) as a middle layer and an inner layer of brushed, high-volume fleece.
EPIC (Encapsulated Protection Inside Clothing) by Nextec is a process that encapsulates the fibres of fabric with an ultra-thin polymer film. A durable, breathable barrier film is then placed between the fibre bundles. The advantage of this ‘inside-the-fabric’ process is that it will maintain its breathability, thermal efficiency and water repellency after repeated washes. This technology is used by Patagonia in its Regulator Soft Shell Dimension Jacket, for example. Patagonia describes its EncapSiltreated fabrics as two to three times more breathable than traditional shell layering.
There are many other fabrics that can roughly be categorized as Soft Shell, both new and old, fabrics that provide a great deal of performance for their weight. Probably one of the best is Gore’s N2S, used by Mountain Hardwear on their Transition pieces and is a great non-conventional fabric and one I expect will be at the core of their future Soft Shell programme.
Currently, there are several key fabric suppliers in the Soft Shell business, including Malden Mills, Schoeller and Nextec. The pace of development is increasing rapidly as manufacturers see the potential — and become more demanding of ‘real’ performance from the textile companies. Through this process, the design criteria will become narrower and more focused, as what we know as being necessary in order to maximize performance evolves.
In order to understand what ‘Soft Shell’ is we must go back two decades to a man who really got the ball rolling. Hamish Hamilton was the designer of the legendary Vango Force Ten tent — it was orange because he thought it gave a more ‘romantic interior light’ — and a man, like all great designers, who was an unconventional thinker, meaning he was able to think beyond the current conventions when trying to redesign long-established gear.
It all began when he started looking into the clothing worn by the native people of the Arctic regions, hoping to learn how they could survive without ‘modern’ high tech fleece and breathable fabrics. He found that the classic clothing was far superior to any high tech solutions we had.
This was formed by a tough windproof outer surface on one side (animal skin), which protected and maintained a stable interior microclimate inside and fur on the other, which provided the insulation and formed this microclimate. The native hunter was concerned about minimizing sweat build-up, knowing to chill was as dangerous as getting wet (although there wasn’t much chance of that) and have clothing that would not let him down — plus allow him to move freely when hunting.
This single layer of skin and fur provided excellent insulation even when damp, providing the wearer’s body with enough warmth to stay alive and, in doing so, dry out the insulation from within rather than rob it of what heat it had left. Also because the natives were comfortable in their environment (unlike the centrally heated city dweller) they were in less need of physiological bolstering (i.e wearing many layers) and would often wear a comparatively thin layer even in extreme cold, knowing this was perfectly adequate while active (basically creating a perfect micro-climate with the weatherproof shell). This native clothing is the first ‘Soft Shell’, predating Gore-Tex and fleece by several thousand years — and that’s a lot of R&D so it’s no wonder it works.
Hamish took this concept and tried combining it with lightweight synthetic fabrics, believing he could come up with the perfect outdoor clothing system. He began by setting out to find synthetic fabrics which would best mirror the attributes of the skin and fur. Waterproof fabrics were limited because no matter how breathable they were none were breathable enough when active — which led to chilling. They also created a kind of suit of armour effect that, although playing on the user’s physiological need to feel protected, created a heavy, cumbersome and over complicated shell. Hamish wanted to get away from thick bulky layers and create a more active, better fitting suit that would not restrict the user. Hamish tried several outer fabrics before using Pertex, a fabric he helped develop. This was in no way waterproof but dried super fast due to the fact it wicked the moisture over its entire surface and was very tough and windproof considering its weight.
For the inside, traditional 200 weight fleece just didn’t dry out fast enough, or keep the user warm enough when wet. The fabric that best-mirrored fur was, of course, fibre pile, an excellent fabric first developed (I’m told) for deep-sea divers working in the North Sea and quickly adopted by fishermen, paddlers and mountaineers throughout the world. Pile has a great deal of warmth for its weight and performs amazingly well when wet. This is because the tips of the pile are dried very quickly through body heat, greatly limiting ‘chill’ caused by conductive heat loss which also means that because the body is warm the speed at which the rest of the pile dries is increased. Simply speaking, the pile feels dry when it’s wet. The primary reason that pile was really dropped from favour was not that it was a bad fabric, but because fleece just looked so much smarter. By putting the two fabrics together he found that the combination was totally snowproof, like the native clothing, and vastly superior to a traditional layering system in its ease of use, with one layer replacing three conventional layers. Hamish wore his ‘shirt’ next to the skin finding that one layer was easier to vent and was far more breathable when active as moisture had a third less resistance and the body could be cooled far more efficiently. In wet weather, he found that saturation levels, where you actually felt wet, could only be found in the most extreme torrential rain (half an inch per hour I think?). The pile acted like a wet suit, with the closer the fit the greater the performance. And so the legendary ‘Buffalo’ was born, a concept that took a decade of shouting to bring the idea from a ‘left field’ cult brand to mainstream acceptance.
Buffalo required the user to place total reliance on a flimsy shirt and ditch their traditional thermals and ‘Hard Shell’ waterproofs. Most never did, instead, they shoehorned Hamish’s bold concept into their own conventional system. Nevertheless, the seed was sewn which led to many other companies taking an interest in the concept.
Hard Shell will decrease in importance and lose its dominance over our clothing systems as Soft Shell technology increases, eventually leading to its use only as emergency clothing. Hard Shells will be used to slow down the saturation of the Soft Shell in really bad weather and made totally redundant in typical cold, high Alpine conditions, or as a booster when static. Weight and pack size will become far more important than breathability and toughness — with taping, water-resistant zips, storm flaps all being removed in order to produce a basic rain shield.
British climbers and walkers have been using the Soft Shell idea longer than anyone else in the world, wearing Buffalo, Montane and Paramo clothing for years. It is only now that fabrics are appearing (or being rediscovered and re-invented) that Soft Shell can become less ‘culty’ and more mainstream. What you are trying to achieve is to build a system that keeps you comfortable, with very little adding or removing of layers, 80 to 90% of the time.
For extreme winter and expedition use then shelled pile is the core Soft Shell system. This keeps the wearer comfortable due to the minimum of layers. It keeps out the majority of bad weather and remains warm and comfortable if the weather breaks through. Shelled pile must be close-fitting to maximize the pile wetsuit effect which also creates a more athletic and low bulk suit. Montane, Buffalo, Patagonia, Trax and Arcteryx are all making these kinds of products, using both low tech combinations and high tech super fabrics. This is perhaps best worn over a Soft Shell base layer of shelled polyester microfleece (ME, Mountain Hardware, Rab, Patagonia, Marmot etc) as this can be used without the secondary shelled pile layer in hot to cold conditions when active (see Winter Alpine Gear primer in issue 228). This is the core of the system with items being removed and added depending on the conditions expected. It is very light, low bulk and typically far cheaper than the alternative Hard Shell system.
Still using the shelled pile as your core (because it keeps you comfortable in foul weather), for milder winter, spring and autumn (Alpine summer) you may replace shelled pile pants with a pair of tough, water-resistant trousers made from Schoeller fabric (Marmot, Mammut, Patagonia, BD, Cloudveil) or shelled polyester (Rab, ME, Mountain Hardwear and others) perhaps combining the two or split depending on the conditions. A very lightweight Hard Shell might also be taken and this can be just a cheap PU breathable or a £5 cag off the market. This system is very similar to what Continental climbers have been using for decades.
The Soft Shell user is a climber, walker, trekker, adventurer or anybody experienced enough to know what they want out of their clothing. We all want the same things when we are away from our nice warm houses, to stay warm without getting hot, to keep the rain out without getting soaked in sweat, to have clothing that will last but not weigh us down or hold us back. The inexperienced user wants everything, not realizing that that is unachievable and a balance must always be struck. Unfortunately for many years, manufacturers have actually promised these people the impossible — advertising the fact that they can have all these things, at least on paper or in a laboratory.
The experienced user has spent enough time in the outdoors to have a more realistic approach to their clothing and most importantly they can prioritize what they really want and understand this balance. They do not expect to remain dry 100% of the time, but they do expect to remain comfortable (even when wet through). They want fabrics that are windproof and highly breathable rather than waterproof and not so breathable, because 80% of the time it won’t be raining heavily. They want fabrics that repel water, insulate when wet and dry quickly once the rain stops. They want simple versatile clothing that will stand up to a great deal of hard use and repay their investment.
As people become more and more obsessed with increasing their own performance in their chosen area (cross-training) so too will their desire to maximize their gear’s performance. Every single item of clothing must carry out dual or even triple roles. The age of the fleece to insulate, the base layer to wick and the waterproof to keep out the weather will have ended for the serious user. If that sounds like you then you’re a potential Soft Shell user.
Simplicity is key and low weight in the catalogue blurb should not be gained at the expense of the clothing’s durability and ruggedness. This clothing is not cheap and must get a lot of use in order to repay the investment you make in it. Weight must be lost by leaving out bells and whistles. You must learn to look for what isn’t there — not for what is. The prices of many current and upcoming products are not cheap but these pieces use state of the art space-age fabrics that are mind-bogglingly expensive. Your average pair of Schoeller pants will cost about twice as much as a normal Supplex pair but I guarantee pence per day you’ll be more than happy by the time you run out of fractions on your calculator.
A good place to start is perhaps with a thin inexpensive Soft Shell layer that can be used as the core of your future system. Base Soft Shells like Marmot DriClime, Mountain Hardwear Tempest etc (shelled polyester tops) are relatively cheap but in my mind fit into the Soft Shell concept.
Being a Soft Shell user for the whole of my climbing life (I WAS one of those Buffalo freaks) I can only say a very loud YES. But as I said in my introduction this is a combined theory of performance protection, so it’s best not to get too bogged down being a pure Soft or Hard Shell user, but rather use what works best for you. Like Hamish found with Buffalo, I expect people will begin to use these new products and simply drop them into their existing Hard Shell systems. So if you want more out of your clothing give it go and although I can’t promise you you’ll feel like Superman, you will feel just a little bit more superhuman.