For seemingly forever, layering systems have been an integral part of our sporting lives. Back-in-the-day we wore a t-shirt followed by a cotton shirt accompanied by a wool sweater and then a waxed-cotton coat. If the coat was tan, it doubled in a duck blind, and if not it was traded for one with a camo pattern. These natural materials felt great, they worked well, and we were comfortable. Sometimes we got wet, other times we got hot, but usually, we were cold. No one complained for it was part of hunting.
Also See: If It Fits, Shoot It
The mid-1990's performance fabric revolution changed the way we layered in the field and in the blinds. These new-fangled materials were lighter, kept us warmer and/or cooler, were durable, and repelled both wind and rain. Sure we kept the layering system because it made sense, but these new garments provided us a with yet another benefit: we were able to move. Our gun mounts were smoother and more fluid, we felt fewer hitches when a shirt's cloth pulled tight, and we were warm, dry and happy. Waders were no long thick, rubber boots, for suddenly they were as comfortable as a pair of chinos and almost as light. Humping a bag of dekes through the soft mud was a breeze. Some changes in the world are difficult to embrace, but using performance fabrics was a no-brainer. In fact, this movement was so easy that we wonder how we got along without 'em.
Savvy product developers changed the game. They built on the traditional layering system and modified it by matching yarns, weaves and their inherent properties to each layer. Base layers needed to be more form-fitting to trap heat. They also needed to stretch to allow for movement. Transferring moisture (also known as sweat) away from the skin kept hunters and anglers dry. Staying dry kept us from being either too hot or too cold. Next came a mid layer which needed to be made from a material that offered both warming and cooling properties. Those layers needed a more open weave to allow heat and sweat to dissipate. Keeping out rain and wind was the final step of the outer layers. Yarns needed to be durable, abrasion resistant and quiet, and they had to accept coloration and patterns. What good is a jacket without blaze orange for upland birds or a camo pattern for waterfowl? It's as useful as a jacket that leaks in a downpour, that's what.
Hunting apparel that goes to market is the culmination of a product developers' detailed study of fabrics, properties, and yarns. Some fabrics provide stretch and compression which leads to proper movement and fit. Product developers avoid fabrics that offer less than 20-percent stretch because those materials don't allow us the kind of movement we need when swinging a shotgun on a flying game bird. Instead, they'll look for materials that stretch up to 30 percent or more. It's why elastane (think of a similar word, elastic) and other such materials are commonly used in garments. Hunters need freedom of movement and elastane is how they get it. Next, product developers review wicking yarns that move the moisture off of the body. Laminated fabrics of two, three or more layers are frequently combined to allow moisture to escape while maintaining heat. The micro-pores in the material are small, but they allow osmosis to purge the steam. Those multi-layers are also used in technical outerwear like jackets. It's common to see a jacket with an interior layer of nylon combined with windproof or waterproof materials and an outer shell. The nylon is smooth and strong, the membrane and shell keep out the elements, and the colors are dyed to suit. Fabric finishes sometimes include treatments that improve SPF ratings or increase water repellency. A lot goes into the development of new products, but we don't see a lot of it. What we mostly review are the product's function, features, cost, details, and style.
A lot of industry buzzwords are used such as moisture management, but my favorite is the anti-microbial dressing. It's 5-dollar word which means it's a treatment that keeps your favorite shirt from stinking. Don't let those trip you up for they're part of the fascinating development process that delivers us with shooting shirts, vests, jackets, and pants.
Performance fabrics are made from many different materials that each has its own unique characteristics. For instance, nylon is smooth, strong, wicks away sweat, dries quickly and is durable. Polyester is equally non-absorptive, is naturally sun-repellant, and wrinkle-free. Polypropylene is similar to polyester which it's frequently used in base layers. Like it's cousin polyester, polypro moves sweat from the skin to a mid layer. A lot of blended fabrics incorporate Spandex for its phenomenal stretching properties in items requiring greater movement. Gore-tex or other breathable materials is what keeps water and wind from entering while letting off the steam, and it's part of a laminate. Cotton, our old friend, is natural, adds comfort, and readily absorbs dyes. It comes at a cost for it soaks up and retains sweat, too.
When gearing up for the Fall and Winter hunts give some thoughts to the fabrics and their qualities. Match them up to your use and you'll stay dry which will keep you warm in a blind or cool in the field.