How it all started
We’ve all heard the word, but do we really know what it means? GORE-TEX® technology is as synonymous with ski jackets and pants as peanut butter is with jelly. “Waterproof and breathable” is the buzz phrase, but what exactly is that and how does it work?
W.L. Gore and Associates has been making everyday products for years, from cable insulators to medical stents to fighter pilot helmet parts. A lot of items we use are manufactured by or utilize technology engineered by W.L. Gore and Associates. The GORE-TEX® brand is the textile arm of the company and arguably its most recognizable product. And by staying at the forefront of the processes and employing some of the best minds on the planet, they have been able to create and evolve the GORE-TEX® products we all know and love.
What is the GORE-TEX® membrane?
As far as your ski jacket goes, the GORE-TEX® membrane is an integral part of the big picture. Essentially, Gore laminates their membrane technology to a face fabric and then provides these textiles to companies like Arc’teryx, Patagonia, and The North Face for their premium ski wear. The key component is the expanded polytetrafluoroethylene (ePTFE) membrane. While I would love to go into some fancy details here by telling you all about the membrane, Gore is smart enough to keep some things proprietary. But I can tell you that ePTFE is derived from a mineral mined from the earth (fluorspar or fluorite) and then manipulated to become a chemically inert polymer. While ePTFE has similar properties to conventional polymers, PTFE comes from a mined mineral, not oil. One day in 1969, Bob Gore left a strip of PTFE in the oven a bit too long. He literally yanked on it, expanding the material by 800%, and introduced air to create a porous structure. This expanded (e)PTFE is the basis for the GORE-TEX® membrane we know today.
Gore creates a multitude of membranes for different types of GORE-TEX® fabrics. But they all share two similar properties: waterproofness and breathability. If you were to get very personal with a GORE-TEX® membrane, you would see up to nine billion pores per square inch. These pores are 20,000 times smaller than a water droplet but still 700 times larger than a water molecule. These pores, and the structure of the membrane, allow water vapor from the skin to pass through but keep invasive snow and water from ruining your day on the hill.
In the past, early membranes were susceptible to body oils, which would cause it to leak. In 1978, an oleophobic layer was introduced to combat this issue. Unfortunately, it ultimately reduced breathability. Just recently, Gore was able to chemically alter the membrane to withstand contamination on its own, which allowed the removal of the oleophobic layer, and in turn boosted breathability by up to 28%.
The membrane is bonded to a face fabric, usually nylon, and often a backer material like the new Gore C-Knit. Together, these layers make up the GORE-TEX® fabric that is then sold to companies to be manufactured into shoes, gloves, pants, jackets, and more. A durable water-repellent (DWR) treatment is added to the face fabric to repel moisture. Over time, these treatments do wear out but you can actually throw your GORE-TEX® jacket in the dryer to bring the DWR back to life. Be sure to reference your care tag to make sure you’re washing and drying your jacket properly.
What Else is There?
Manufacturers have plenty of textile options to choose from when creating ski wear. When choosing GORE-TEX® fabrics, designers have to stick to strict manufacturing processes to ensure that the textile is fit for use and is utilized to its full potential. While this often increases the cost, it also guarantees that a premium outerwear piece will perform to your expectations. Lower-cost alternatives utilize a nylon face fabric and different forms of polyurethane (PU) coatings for waterproofing solutions. Basically there are three solutions: microporous, monolithic, and bi-component PU coatings and laminates. These alternative textile solutions can, and do, perform very well but, in general, are not as durable as a GORE-TEX® product. Still, often the manufacturer defines them as “their version of GORE-TEX® fabric,” even though they perform differently.
There are also other ePTFE membranes on the market. But Gore has been at this material science thing for almost 40 years now and understands the chemistry at an unparalleled level. It would be hard to find another ePTFE membrane that performs as well as the GORE-TEX® textile. And as for washing your garments, the competitor’s fabrics can be irreversibly damaged when washed improperly. A GORE-TEX® membrane can withstand conventional washing and drying, no problem. We aren’t knocking the competitors’ fabrics. Many of our Jans Experts use outerwear from manufacturers that develop their own waterproofing solutions and stay completely dry and comfortable while partaking in a variety of mountain activities. The difference is that GORE-TEX® products are not susceptible to contamination or manufacturing inconsistencies, and are tested and manufactured to extremely high standards. Our suggestion would be to assess your needs and your budget to determine the best piece for you.
Why the Experts Like It
GORE-TEX® products offer a premium technology that translates into fantastic performance. On a cold, dry ski tour, your body can better manage natural temperatures while staying completely impervious to outside snow and water. Most of the brands Jans carries use GORE-TEX® fabrics because we know it is one of the best fabric solutions for skiing, hiking, running, cycling, and more. Often times you don’t even notice the performance, which is also the point. You’re comfortable, so you keep moving. Yes, these pieces do come at a premium price but, if considered as an investment in your comfort and increased outdoor performance, you are getting great, long-term value for your hard-earned dollar.
Paul Boyle, Content Writer & Marketing