Breathable But Unbeatable: Alternative Membranes Take on Gore-Tex

By Norman Chan

Outwear materials is a multi-billion dollar a year business, and Gore-Tex still has the lions share of it.

Do you own a North Face jacket? If so, it's likely that you've seen a Gore-Tex logo either on its sleeve of interior tag. In fact, you've probably seen the Gore-Tex name on almost every piece of expensive sporting outerwear on the racks or an R.E.I. or other premium sporting goods store. That's brand awareness by design; over the past 40 years, Gore-Tex has become a household name thanks to considerable marketing efforts and smart business deals. It's worked: when you ask someone to name a fabric that's waterproof but still breathable, there's a good chance they'll name Gore-Tex. But some competitors--and even partners--are calling foul when it comes to the power and influence of the Gore-Tex brand.

Photo Credit: NewBalance

This Outside magazine feature is a fascinating exploration into the dominance of Gore-Tex and the ways it keeps its partners in line to protect its market share. It's not that Gore-Tex doesn't have competitors, but that alternative membrane technologies struggle to find buyers who are willing to use their fabrics in fear that they'll lose a precious Gore-Tex license (brand recognition is extremely valuable when you're selling $450 jackets). What's I found interesting, though, is the science behind these waterproof fabrics, and how each membrane maker differentiates itself in testing and marketing. From the Outside magazine story:

In the lab, there are plenty of ways to measure those [differences]. There are “cup tests,” “inverted cup tests,” “sweaty hot plates,” “sweaty mannequins,” and half a dozen other contraptions that each company has devised to measure the rate of “moisture vapor transfer” and “resistance to evaporative transfer” and “dynamic moisture permeation,” using formulas, numbers, and jargon fit for an MIT lecture hall. Unfortunately, there’s no global standard, and none of these tests are universally conducted or regulated by an independent party. Gore, eVent, Polartec, Columbia, you name it—they’re all essentially cherry-picking their own data and then stamping an A+ on their ads and catalogs. Furthermore, scientifically measuring performance in the field is nearly impossible. There are dozens of variables, from how many and what types of layers you’re wearing to the thickness of a garment’s face fabric to relative humidity and wind speed.
Photo Credit: The North Face

So the next time you're shopping for a ski jacket, here are some of the brands to look out for, and how they differ from Gore-Tex.

  • eVent: The most high-profile Gore-Tex alternative, made using an ePTFE (ie. stretched teflon) membrane that's similar to Gore-Tex. Initially developed by BHA group but eventually acquired by GE Energy (ripe for 30 rock parody) and licensed to clothing manufactures to be sold under different names.
  • Sympatex: Waterproof, windproof, and breathable membrane made from a "closed" polyther-polyester copolymer. It differs from eVent and Gore-Tex in that it doesn't have micropores for breathability--water vapor is passed through by way of an absorption and evaporation process.
  • Omni-Dry: Columbia sportswear's proprietary fabric.
  • NeoShell: Another recent major competitor to Gore-Tex, by Polartec. Claims to be the most breathable waterproof fabric on the market by not requiring high heat or pressure for air flow.
  • OutDry and Dry. Q: Proprietary technologies owned by Mountain Hardware clothing company. OutDry omits extra layers between the breathable membrane and outer shell, so water is not kept in the garment. Dry Q. lets moisture and air pass without getting warm. and uses technology licensed from GE's eVent.
  • HyVent: The North Face's own proprietary fabric.
  • H2No: Made by Patagonia, uses polyester and polyurethane laminates to achieve waterproofing and breathability. Reportedly very durable.
  • MemBrain: Similar to H2No in that it uses a polyurethane polymer laminate, but doesn't "breathe" as well as Gore-Tex.