Almost every piece of adventure-ready clothing now has advanced tech woven into its fabric in an effort to be as waterproof and as breathable as possible. Although those two things seem at odds, The North Face has dug down into the nano-fibers to discover the next phase of making these opposite design ideas work together.
The North Face will put what it calls Futurelight fabric into its 2019 outdoor garments—but it won't stop there. Futurelight will eventually be woven into nearly everything the company makes.
“Before, your outer shell was a fortress and you only got in it if you were under attack,” says Nate Rowland, ski mountaineering guide. “Now, with Futurelight, you put it on, you leave it on. It’s so lightweight and soft that I even wore it against my skin.”
To get the new wave of breathable waterproofing, The North Face borrowed a production process already seen in electronics and the medical field, nanospinning. The process takes a polyurethane solution and through a nano-scale extrusion process, says Jason Israel, The North Face global creative director of performance, turns that solution into a fiber and a membrane through a process of curing and separation.
This allows the company to create nano-sized fibers small enough for air permeability, but too small for water to seep through. Coupling the new membrane with a fresh approach to lamination, the fabric can adhere to basically any textile without sacrificing its properties.
Scott Mellin, global general manager of performance sports for The North Face, says the project started two years ago while on an alpine ice climb . “We were in a full kit, in and out of clothing as the sun came out,” Mellin says. “It was a very typical process and, man, it would have been so great if we just could keep our shells on all day. It could have been so much faster and safer.”
Along with years of research and on-mountain testing to ensure the usefulness of Futurelight, The North Face turned to Underwriter Labs, an independent research agency with 120 years of history testing fire and hazmat suits, to test the fabric. The lab certified Futurelight as totally waterproof using a test that exceeded firefighter standards by dumping 235 gallons of water per hour on the garment. With the highest level of cubic feet per minute of airflow and highest moisture vapor transmission rate of any waterproof fabric ever tested. That means, that while waterproof, The North Face finally solved the breathability problem.
“[Futurelight] allows athletes to generate heat within the shell while dissipating [moisture],” Mellin says. “It is a completely new method of ensuring athletes stay dry, comfortable, and safe in the mountains.”
Working in 200-nanometer-fiber dimensions, engineers create different thicknesses of a film that they can then transfer onto fabric for a mixture of uses. The ability of the membrane to get as thin and light as three grams per square meter (the average is usually 20 grams) allows the company to increase the durability of the face fabric, according to The North Face.
“We have far more freedom to dictate what that end material package is,” Israel says. “Another component that popped out of this was the ability to have stretch ... something not common in the waterproof space.” He adds that the soft stretchy material is also quiet, so it doesn’t “swoosh in your ear with every movement.”
Futurelight launches in fall 2019 on its top-of-the-line gear, but expect spring 2020 to see the fabric extend to all rainwear, lifestyle, and footwear before conquering the entire company's lineup by fall 2020.