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Not Just a Blend

The science of fabrics and how it affects how we play

By PAMELA DITTMER MCKUEN
      Years ago Red Ball Jets, a popular tennis shoe brand, promised 
wearers that they would run a little faster and jump a little higher. 
Consumer protection laws won’t permit such grandiose claims today,  but a bit of truthiness remains: the right clothes can improve your  game.
    “Clothing can enhance your overall experience, as well as your performance,” says Michele Casper,spokesperson for Lands’ End. “If you’re a seasoned athlete competing with yourself or others, or if you are exercising for personal enjoyment, what you wear plays an important role.”
     Whether your moves are on a court, course, trail or waterway, sports apparel has come a long way in recent years. Technology advancements in fabric, finish and design come together to offer a wide range of performance features. Your clothing can keep you warm and dry, or cool and dry, as the case may be. It can protect you from harmful ultraviolet rays and odor-causing bacteria. It can help keep you in motion. And it can become one with you, merge you with your environment and carry you into that intoxicating zone of achievement.
    When choosing your apparel, the first consideration is moisture management, says Nike spokesperson Cindy Hamilton in Chicago.
     “It doesn’t matter if you’re on an elliptical machine,snowboarding or out for a run along Lake Michigan, you’re going to sweat,” she says.
     Fabrics with wicking capability direct the perspiration away from your skin and into the air to evaporate. Nike’s Distance Race Singlet, for example, maximizes venting with lightweight wicking DRI-Fit poly on the front and thousands of tiny perforations on the back.
     Lululemon Athletica creates athletic apparel for yoga, Pilates, running and, according to its website, “other sweaty pursuits.” The company’s signature fabric is luon, a nylon and Lycra blend with moisture-wicking and four-way stretch. It’s used in pants, especially the Groove Pant, a banded low-rise with hidden pocket to hold your club card.
     “Luon feels like a second skin,” says Brooke Johnson, community regional manager for the Vancouver, Canada-based company. “When you go from Warrior 2 to Warrior 1, it moves right with you.”
     Another Lululemon staple is Silverescent, a moisture-wicking fabric entwined with silvery fibers that repel odors and bacteria in tech tops. For the outdoors, fabric science tames moisture with outer layers that allow interior moisture and body heat to escape while warding off rain and snow. Without the breathability factor, such as that found in eVent and Gore-Tex fabrics, perspiration pools because it has nowhere to go. Once you stop moving, the moisture chills and so do you—perhaps dangerously so. REI’s private label jackets, Kulshan for women and Shuksan for men, are fashioned from eVent. The Lands’ End Dory Down coat has a water-resistant poly shell with a brushed finish that doesn’t crackle when you walk. It has a detachable hood trimmed in faux fur and comes in three lengths.
     So many fabrics, some synthetic and some natural, plus blends and laminates. They’ve all got their fans—and pros and cons.
     “It’s a personal choice,” says Casper. “There are so many great synthetic fibers out there that are very functional. And there are people who no matter what, will always choose natural fibers.”
     However, if you are highly active and perspire a great deal, a 
synthetic base layer wicks better, she says.
     “There has been a huge expansion in all clothing categories of wool, specifically merino wool,” says Burnham. “It’s the ‘original’ insulator. It keeps you warm even when wet, just as synthetics do. However, it’s not recommended for outer layers. It’s air-permeable and generally not waterproof.”
     PrimaLoft, the current top synthetic insulator, is non-allergenic and less expensive, but isn’t as durable as down, Burnham says.
     Your clothing should never distract you from what you’re doing.Nike’s Boxing Singlet uses a touch of spandex so the garment fits, but allows big motions. The racer-back design solves the problem of straps that don’t stay in place. Lands’ End lightweight poly fleece is anti-static so it won’t cling and anti-pilling so you won’t chafe on the build-up.
     “The last thing you want to be thinking about when you’re practicing are your clothes,” says Johnson. “You just want to focus on what you’re doing without giving your clothes a moment’s thought.”
     She pauses for a moment before adding: “Unless someone stops you and says how great you look.”
     The compliment isn’t hard to come by. The line between performance apparel and traditional sportswear has delightfully blurred. Greater warmth with less bulk eliminates the Michelin Man appearance. Runway influences abound. Watch for down-filled trenches, inner passport pockets and MP3 access ports.
     “You see moms dropping their kids off at school wearing a 
fleece pullover with yoga pants,” says Casper. “They might be going to yoga class or they might be running errands.”
     “You’re getting the same performance without looking like you 
just got off the trail,” says Burnham.

Published: October 11, 2009
Issue: November 2009 Sports Issue