MORE THAN A FEELING
The search for comfort is universal. But comfort is narrowing. It keeps us inside, extinguishing the call of adventure that taps on the window of our souls. It’s in the moments of discomfort that we grow, accepting the challenge of progress. When severe weather is removed from the equation, we are freed to explore the depths of nature, of ourselves. It is here our souls find comfort, in the wildest places.
Comfort is a term doused with so much subjectivity one may find it incomprehensible that a daring few attempt to validate it. To create it, in the name of science.
In an unassuming field, behind an austere exterior, white corridors form a path past rooms lined with crisp lab coats and full of black-topped work benches adorned with a multitude of equipment. It is here, in a seemingly calm and sterile environment that W.L. Gore, the company behind the Guaranteed To Keep You Dry™ GORE-TEX fabric develops their technologies aimed at giving comfort and protection in the most unwieldy of conditions.
Science requires a controlled environment, but no two storms are alike. So Gore built a $5 million Biophysics Lab to create storms with god-like precision. Experiments, data sets and results can only truly be compared when collected under the exact same conditions. Air locks seal the entrances to testing areas, guarding consistency by keeping rooms at a constant temperature and humidity. Any disruption to this system shuts down testing immediately. It takes 4 hours for conditions to normalize, a small delay when building on 40 years of data.
What exactly is it these scientists create that demands this level of rigor? GORE-TEX fabrics are a three-layer laminate construction, consisting of a face fabric and a liner pressed over an expanded polytetrafluoroethylene (ePTFE) membrane. But before a fabric can even become a garment, it is tested beyond most people’s comprehension – not all will withstand the pressure.
Breathability tests determine how much water vapor can pass through a fabric. A fabric needs to be breathable, otherwise you will overheat and be clammy. One test covers a heated plate with fabric and a humidity sensor placed above. As water evaporates from the plate, vapor moves from through the fabric, dropping the temperature of the plate. The measurement shows the energy required to maintain a constant temperature on the hot plate due to evaporative losses. The more energy needed, the more breathable the fabric is and the more comfortable you will be.
Once a fabric receives the green light from these tests, it is then put into an intensive wash test called Wet Flex Abrasion. Upstairs, above the testing labs, over 100 washing machines roar. Fabric is washed up to 1500 hours – yes, 60 days of continuous washing – with the machine drained and refilled every 8 hours to ensure consistent temperature. It’s like an accelerated, comprehensive in situ test. If the fabric is able to withstand the Wet Flex Abrasion test, it is run through the industry standard tests all over again.
On a wall beside another air lock, a simple “Biophysics Lab” sign hangs. Inside are two of most complex testing rooms in the world and a high-tech mannequin. The Rain Tower can deliver a downpour with gale force winds. Steps away, doors lead into the steel Environmental Chamber to recreate usage conditions in precisely controlled environments, because nature cannot be controlled. The light-covered domed ceiling reproduces solar radiation from any point on the planet and can plummet from 50°C to a wind chill of -65°C in a mere 2 hours. The mannequin, named Walter, has sweating pores and sensors everywhere imaginable. Although Walter’s data is reliable, he lacks, well, feeling. A garment might give fantastic results, but if it feels irritating, no human will wear it.
All of this data, this scientific progress of material characteristics does not mean anything without the final layer: human comfort. Well, at Gore, there are comfort scientists who have a way to measure human perception. And it involves a lot of discomfort.
Testers are equipped with temperature and humidity sensors between each layer of clothing, pressure sensors to test mobility resistance and an ingested thermometer pill to measure core temperature.
An in-house psychologist develops questions which testers answer on an iPad in the midst of the uncomfortable situations generated. It turns out, you tend to answer certain questions differently depending on how comfortable you feel. Like most things behind the doors at the Gore facility, these questions are kept secret. Perception is measured at specific intervals to gain insight into the progression of discomfort. This psychological data is paired with feedback from Arc’teryx athletes using the gear, gaining a holistic understanding of comfort for a product.
Arc’teryx can produce garments and get immediate in-field feedback, as well as replicate manufacturing scenarios significantly faster than Gore. These abilities help Gore determine fabric attributes to achieve, which leads to the co-development of fabrics. The new GORE-TEX Pro fabric has been in development for years. With just one of the many tests taking about 2 months, it’s no surprise this update comes 7 years after GORE-TEX Pro was originally released.