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There are two key elements to sailing clothing, the garment design and the fabric itself. The fabric represents over fifty percent of the cost of the garment, and if that fails then so does the garment. The best looking garment in the world is not much help when you are battling into a westerly gale and soaking wet. That’s why at Gill we take fabric so seriously.
In 2002 we took the decision to move away from high profile branded fabrics. Not only were they adding significantly to the cost, but they also limited the choice of materials we could use. Most branded waterproof fabrics were originally developed for the larger outdoor clothing industry, so when it came to introducing sailing wear fabrics the choice was limited. We wanted the ability to adapt fabrics specifically for the marine environment. If you are out walking and it rains you can only get wet from above. When you are sailing, water is coming at you from all angles. Spray or solid waves are coming over the bow, you are sitting in water and it could be raining as well. Then there is the water itself, in most cases it is salt water. Salt water molecules have a much larger surface area than fresh water and have an abrasive property with it. Off the shelf fabrics are not going to do the job as well as specifically adapted materials.
Working directly with different fabric suppliers and coaters we can keep adapting the fabric until it passes all our stringent tests. If the water resistance is not high enough after artificial ageing we can add another layer. If the abrasion resistance on the outside is not good enough we can change that too.
Fabrics have changed enormously over the last twenty years or so. I am not just referring to the waterproof technology but also the weight, handle and feel.
We have gone from stiff heavy PVC and neoprene coated fabrics to lightweight woven fabrics with the latest membrane technology.
Today all fabrics are breathable so the choice comes down more to the handle and feel. This in turn is affected by the weight, density of the weave, and whether the proofing is a coating or laminate.
Some of us still refer to wet weather gear as “Oilies” or “Oilskins”. As the name suggests these were canvas type materials with fish or linseed oil rubbed into it to make it water proof and used by the early fishermen and sailors alike. Whilst the process has improved enormously over the years, it is still a case of spreading a coating of polyurethane onto the fabrics. Today this is done on the inside of the textile fabric so it is protected from external damage. The element that makes water bead up and run off is an invisible durable water repellent finish, usually Teflon®. This is not relied on for waterproofness but prevents the fabrics from absorbing water.
Coatings are the more traditional approach. A Polyurethane based resin is spread onto a woven fabric, a bit like butter is spread onto toast. It first has to fill in the weave undulations to seal it and then build up a layer that covers it all evenly. Finally the fabric is dipped into a solution of Teflon® for water repellency on the exterior.
Laminates are a more recent development. A laminated waterproof fabric is made by spreading the coating resin onto a long roll of non absorbent paper. This means the coating thickness can be finely controlled. The paper and waterproof film is then laminated to the textile woven fabric and the paper is removed. The end result is a fabric that is lighter, whilst being just as waterproof. It is more flexible, softer and much more comfortable to wear.
Two or Three Layer
Conventional waterproof fabrics fall into two main categories.
A two layer fabric is a woven textile with a laminated or coated finish on the inside. In most cases the garment would then have a lining. This protects the coated surface and makes it more comfortable to wear as an unlined fabric may feel a bit clammy. The advantage of two layer fabrics are that they are generally lighter and less expensive to produce. Examples would be Inshore/ Coastal Sailing Waterproof Clothing and Dinghy Wear.
Three layer fabrics take the two layer material and laminate and a lightweight mesh type fabric is bonded on the inside of the fabric to protect the coated surface. Inevitably it makes the fabric a little heavier but this can be offset because the garment does not need a lining. It is a modern misconception that lined garments are better, they can reduce breathability, increase weight and add a layer to get caught and snagged. Three layer garments are considerably more expensive to produce. The speed at which the seams can be sealed is slower and the sealing tape itself is much more costly.
When it comes to waterproof and breathable fabrics you may well be confused by numerous technical sounding names, not to mention being confronted with a host of fancy swing tickets all claiming to be the best. At Gill we choose not to use high profile branded fabrics as they not only add to the cost of the garment but limit the choice of both quality and suitability of materials available to us.
We search the world for the best fabrics to suit the end use and then test them to destruction. If a fabric needs an additional coating to withstand the rigours of the southern Ocean then we give it one. Our tests are carried out in our laboratory (see video Fabric testing.) They are then corroborated independently. We test our fabrics not just as new but after artificial aging to simulate years of use. Finally they are put out into the field for further testing. There is always a product some where in the Southern Ocean under test.
When the testing is complete we rank the fabric according to end usage and classify it according to our renowned Fabric System™. These tests are not one off tests but are repeated before each production batch. This attention to detail ensures that the Gill fabrics perform as well if not better than anything in the market today and ensures the quality of our products remain at the highest level.