Tech skills: caring for waterproofs

Posted by Dan Jones on 08/01/2008
Is your kit up to the job? Photo: Dan Jones.

Bring together two outdoor enthusiasts and within minutes they’ll be talking about gear - the newer and shinier the better. Strangely though, care and maintenance of equipment is less often a topic for discussion. It’s obviously just not shiny enough.

When you buy a new car, you’ll book it in for a service every so often, to make sure that it’s roadworthy. But when it comes to outdoor gear people often just expect it to keep on working, year after year. Sure, you might have to wipe off a bit of dirt now and again but other than that your jacket/boots/tent should just keep working like new, shouldn’t they?

Well, yes and no. Gear manufacturers say that for instance, they often get waterproof garments returned to them with a complaint like “I’m getting wet inside” or “It’s not breathable any more”. The state of these returned garments is usually a big clue. If you spend every weekend on the hill but fail to wash your jacket in three years, it’s going to be grimy.

To some extent it’s understandable, given that these are outerwear garments and that loss in performance is gradual. You usually don’t wear them next to the skin, and it’s not like your jacket just stops breathing all of a sudden. Often it’s the high-wear areas like sleeves and hems that show signs of distress first, but it’s what you don’t see that really affects the way a waterproof/breathable garment works.

When a hard shell waterproof garment is first purchased the fabric will perform exactly as per the fabric manufacturer’s benchmark tests. The factory will have applied a treatment known as Durable Water Repellency (DWR), a fluorocarbon-based process that positions molecules on the surface in a way that allows the fabric to actively repel water. You’ll have noticed that pleasing beading effect when water falls on a new garment – it collects and rolls off almost like mercury. This means that the exterior of the fabric is remaining dry and able to fulfill its role of carrying moisture vapour from the interior to the atmosphere. This DWR treatment is designed to remain effective through many cycles of machine washing.

In time your garment fabric is attacked from several different directions. Externally, thrutching up granite chimneys – or even carrying a rucksack - will abrade the face of the fabric, pulling fibres loose and microscopically ‘furring’ the exterior weave. This affects the surface tension of water that lands on the fabric, holds dirt more efficiently and generally degrades the ability of the DWR treatment to repel water.

Internally, even though you’re often not wearing the fabric next to the skin, oils excreted by your body are carried in perspiration vapour through the interior structure of the fabric and deposited inside the coating or membrane. Because these coatings and membranes are the key technologies that allow the fabric to transmit moisture vapour to the outside, any contamination will affect their ability to perform.
So assailed from both sides, these wonder fabrics can begin to lose their original performance. And it’s not just clothing – increasingly boots are constructed using waterproof/breathable membranes and become affected in similar ways.

So what to do? Well, the obvious first step is to wash garments. Check the manufacturer’s care guidelines and source a washing product that’s designed to do the job. Never use detergents as they are aggressive and seriously affect the fabric. Often the correct washing process followed by the application of heat to reset the DWR treatment will leave the garment performing as new. This process can be followed many times before a re-proofing treatment may become necessary, and these are available in spray-on or wash-in varieties.

Soft shell fabric technologies also rely on DWR treatments to keep water out, and exactly the same advice applies. Maintaining water repellency is often more essential than with hard shell garments - hard shells usually keep exterior water out even when the DWR is shot, but soft shells really need to retain their water repellency to keep you dry. Apply a re-proofing product the minute you find that washing is not enough to maintain water beading on the outside.

With footwear it’s more a question of keeping the outside of the boot clean and using a care treatment that’s specifically designed for the construction, e.g. leather or fabric. This maintains the material and gives any internal waterproof/breathable technologies a better chance of retaining their performance. Cleaning (washing) the interior of footwear is essential in order to remove natural salts and oils generated by the body. This can be done by using a garment cleaner such as Granger’s Wash-in Cleaner Plus, diluting one capful per four litres of warm water, allowing time for it to soak then rinsing out with clean water.

Other gear that requires cleaning and looking after includes tents and rucksacks. Tents are increasingly making use of lightweight fabric technologies that reduce pack weight and rely on effective DWR treatments to keep water at bay. While breathability is not an issue in the same way as garments, dirt and dust will affect the fabric’s ability to repel water and looking after your flysheet will pay dividends. Always check the manufacturer’s care guidelines and re-proof using products specifically designed for the job.

Rucksacks clearly are not protecting you directly from the elements (unless you’re really in trouble!) but they do protect your gear, including stuff that must remain dry. Very few rucksacks are actually designed to be waterproof using sealed seams, but they do use waterproof-coated fabrics which will last longer if kept clean.

Dan Jones holds the MIA, Winter ML and is a member of the International Ski Instructors Association. He works as a Senior Lecturer in Outdoor Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University and runs a small activity business, www.highonadventure.co.uk.
 

EXPERT Q&A

This issue’s guru is Don Gladstone from care and performance experts Granger’s International. An outdoor industry veteran, before joining Granger’s Don pioneered cascade learning techniques in retail training where key staff members build product and brand knowledge, then train their colleagues. Don also wrote and implemented Gore-Tex UK’s footwear training programme. He’s a keen mountain biker and hill walker. Find out more at
www.grangers.co.uk.

Q. If I have a hard shell garment, how long can I expect the original DWR to last?
A.
This depends on the fabric used by your garment manufacturer. Some are extremely good and last over ten machine washes, while others will need attention sooner. It also depends on usage – if you’re a mountain guide and out every day the garment will get more of a hammering. Generally, just wash according to the garment guidelines until you feel the water repellency is not lasting long enough, then re-proof.

Q. How long will re-proofed DWR last for?
A. Again, this depends on the proofing product and garment usage. Granger’s proofing technologies replicate the DWR formulation originally applied by fabric manufacturers, so this effectively just restores the original treatment. In fact Granger’s treatments will, as a rule, last longer than the original treatment.

Q. What do washing and re-proofing systems cost?
A. They’re relatively inexpensive given that you usually get several treatments out of one bottle or spray – you’re looking at between £4 and £9 depending on the product and volume. Cheaper than buying a new jacket, tent or boots anyway.

Q.. Where can I find out more information about care and maintenance?
A. Your product should have a hangtag or leaflet giving specific care instructions. If you’ve lost these try the brand’s web site.

Q. Can gloves be treated in the same way?
A. Gloves are similar to boots in that they can be constructed using a waterproof/breathable insert. As the insert is hidden within the product’s construction you can’t directly apply a treatment, but keeping gloves and boots clean using manufacturer’s instructions will make sure they give their best for longer. To re-proof, wash gloves then re-proof with either a wash-in or spray-on product. Bear in mind that the DWR treatment on glove uppers will last for a respectable amount of time, you’ll soon find the palms and forefinger areas will be abraded very quickly due to contact with rock, ropes etc.



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