New Zealand / United States – Garments and footwear for many sporting, industrial, emergency services, or military uses are often designed, built, and used in special ways. They have to do their job regularly and in harsh or high stress environments. Chances are these products are charged with the task of protection from harm, be it in the name of fun and breaking records, or for preserving and protecting life.
These protective products can be regarded as technical garments or footwear, and are often blends of materials that form an integral part of an overall ensemble. These ensembles allow the human body to enter or to operate in environments where an unprotected person would certainly face injury. Here we take a few examples of each and look at the various material combinations and how they can be mixed or blended to offer performance at the very highest levels.
Track and Rink Sports
In sportswear, there are many areas where special properties are required. This can be achieved by blending fiber types with differing properties. In one such application, technical reinforcing garments might be made of specialist fibers with the ability to stretch and return to their original shape with great accuracy. Other fiber types may even have directional properties, which allow stretch to be controlled or limited in one direction and relatively free in another. They may be compressive reinforcing fibers used to augment and maintain an athlete’s muscles. Certainly, perspiration control and low weight will be a primary concern. Often such fibers will be blended with others by stitching, cementing, or direct molding of polymers or similar materials designed to work as an integral part of a product—like knee pads for skaters. This can be especially important in sports where regular impact with other competitors or the playing surface is to be expected.
The Beautiful Game
A leather outer, which may be developed with special ball control interface properties in mind, may be used in conjunction with an internal fabric moisture control lining and interlining system. Uppers are often cut and sewn composite structures with a particular mobility and support structure—a subject of huge research and development investments by both manufacturers and elite players. Polymers with aramid or even carbon fiber reinforced insoles provide a foot platform. Purpose-built polymer soles with purpose-designed studs, again developed at great cost with the input of elite players, provide grip and control on the playing surface.
Some of these products blend several materials and use stitching, cementing, or direct molding of materials—challenging the traditional methods of blending and the manufacturing plants that build these creations. All items in the player’s kit can possess control elements in the garments and under garments.
A key factor and challenge is to provide moisture control and muscular support/enhancement at low weight and low hindrance to player mobility. These, as we know, are almost mainstream at this level of sport where the stresses and strains on the body are massive. Add national team colors and uniformity to the mix. The huge audience of the event means the potential for disaster is monstrous. The importance of a good development process and the science and technology involved in all aspects of the chain are showcased on a grand stage.
Motorcycle Track Racing
Motorcycle race leathers are highly specialized products. They are expected to allow a rider almost super-human control of the machine while the rider tempts gravity at every turn—at the limits of physics, at many levels. They are made with a durable leather outer layer to resist track or in-field abrasion in the event of an “off.”
Special pads for protection against impact are incorporated into racing leathers by sewing them into the garment at the body joints. Given the travel speeds and the grip of some race motorcycles, a crash can happen at frightening speed with massive impact force.
Significant research goes into protecting the rider’s body, including an unsightly hump structure on the upper back, built to prevent the helmeted head of the rider snapping backward in a crash, which can lead to catastrophic neck injury. Special sheets and panels the length of the spine help prevent spinal injury as integral parts of the garment. These must be joined to the dissimilar material of the main garment by sewing, cementing, or molding so that the protective panel cannot come loose or fail.
External sacrificial non-stick pads for knee, outer foot, and elbow (sometimes also found on boots) combine to allow for speed and control of the machine in cornering. Note that at the top level of track racing in this sport, lean angles of 64 degrees from vertical are typical.
A typical race may find the rider sliding the machine though turns, under braking, or under power on high grip tires. Considering this behavior provides some indication of the potential for a fall or slide. During this action, the rider is almost off the cycle—sliding the knee, elbow, and possibly foot along the track. Boots are shaped for a rider’s foot, and in addition to the above, they can also have special grip pads for contact with the foot controls of the machine. Boots have ankle protectors, and sideways crush protectors—should the machine fall upon the foot while the rider has fallen from the machine. All of these elements must remain in place and function as required, all the while not hindering the rider’s mobility.
Multisport and Extreme Multisport Events
Technical garments for conditions such as extreme hot wet weather and extreme cold weather may also have many unseen additional components, including nano-technology, which may be used to provide a specific property. Nano-particles may be applied to enhance or provide special properties such as water resistance, heat retention, cold resistance, antimicrobial resistance, and even freedom from washing in the case of longer, more extreme, events. Such features and properties also find their way into garments and footwear used in ultra-long-distance sporting endurance events lasting many days, or long alpine or trekking ventures. Multi-discipline events often require a “does-all” type of garment for swim, run, cycle or similar events. These may be enhanced with a multitude of properties designed and built in, like motion control, breathability for sweat, or quick dry for swim to cycle transition.
Occupational and Services
There is a crossover where sports meet occupational/industrial and service wear. Some occupations involve high levels of exposure to extreme weather. In some areas, protection is required from hazards like alpine cold, desert hot weather, prolonged high UV from the sun, wind, ice, and heavy rain—and there may be special construction requirements to achieve this protection.
Oil, gas, and mining might come to mind where people operate at climatic and situational extremes, but firefighters and first aid responders also need to operate in whatever conditions prevail. One important area of function and protection that technical garments and footwear must be given is that of comfort and ergonomics. This means if a product causes discomfort in use, there is risk it won’t be used or worn.
Firefighters don’t just attend a blaze. They face many hazards, including chemical and biological exposure, and in any weather. A firefighter’s equipment must be able to withstand a flash of flame, so a crew can retreat and regroup. A sudden flare can generate enough radiant heat to instantly turn sweat to steam, so moisture control is critical below the shell garment. A firefighter must be able to move well enough to respond to any situation to save property or life. Through all of these challenges, garments and footwear must be ergonomic and retain significant levels of function and appearance.
In the area of chainsaw protection for forestry workers, the leg-ware is made of bulky loose knitted/woven or non-woven inner pads of very tenacious fiber layers. They are made this way to foul the teeth and the sprocket of the chainsaw. This idea of function and ergonomic function can be achieved with a comfortable lining and tough breathable outer shell to protect against the elements outside and sweat inside, while the inner webbing performs the safety function when required. Footwear used in forestry may be of special high skid rubber which the saw teeth can’t bite into, or of leather augmented with technology to repel or to foul the fast moving teeth of a chainsaw. Visibility and mobility are two further keys to the function of design.
Making It Look Good!
Long gone are the days when outdoor clothing and footwear looked unsightly. Style is of huge importance, not just for aesthetics, but for such reasons such as camouflage for low visibility/observability for hunters or the military, or high visibility for those who need to be clearly seen from distance, say in rescue work. Snowboarders and skiers want style incorporated into function; climbers need high level protection, observability, and protection from the elements.
It appears that outdoor gear is a wellspring of knowledge and challenges. Rock climbers, mountaineers, skiers, snowboarders, and hikers endure some very diverse and challenging conditions where performance can mean survival. Visibility is important for search purposes, and styling combined with visibility remains a major selling point too. All of these must be maintained to a high standard in demanding conditions. Many of the world’s leading sportswear and outdoor wear companies trade on emerging technologies—capturing them and incorporating them into their wonderful design catalogues.
Even bulky winter sports recreational clothing and footwear has to “look great” and yet perform at the top level. It needs to do its job and protect, yet in the reality of a commercial world, it may be one of a number of products the consumer can choose from—so designers must meet all of the protective and ergonomic challenges, and also make their product look good as well.
Source: American Association of Textile Chemists & Colorists (AATCC)