F YOU’VE LOOKED AT THE STACK of fly-fishing catalogs on your bedstand lately, you’ve probably noticed a lot of recent growth.
Just 15 years ago, fly fishers could reliably choose from a small handful of products for their wader, jacket, vest, and sundry other needs. Established companies such as Hodgman, L.L. Bean, Orvis, Patagonia, and Simms have been providing technical products for decades, but lately they’ve been joined by such upstarts as Albright, Cloudveil, William Joseph, and even Under Armour, to name just a few. Having all these new players at the table means an increase in competition—and where there’s competition, innovation thrives. Unfortunately, all that innovation can add substantially to the level of confusion when an angler walks into a fly shop and takes a couple wading jackets or pairs of waders down off the walls. What makes a $350 wader a $350 wader anyway? Why is a $350 model worth more than the one that costs $99? To answer these questions, you need to understand a little about how fly-fishing clothing is designed and made.
The cutting edge of fly-fishing product design—the main battlefield, if you will—is in breathable waterproof fabrics. Ever since anglers flopped out of the primordial muck of cotton and rubber and began evolving towards the sleek, modern creatures we are today, breathable products have differentiated the fly fisher in the know from his Neolithic brethren. The cotton clothing our granddaddies used was great at breathability but pretty darn poor at keeping out water, even if you waxed it. Plain old rubber, and then neoprene, offered flyfishers the ability to remain dry underwater, but at the cost of a complete lack of breathability, which led to wet, cold bodies and the potential for surprise hypothermia. The body’s own sweating and cooling mechanism worked against it, creating discomfort and danger. The invention of breathable waterproof fabric offered a way to keep liquid water on the outside while allowing water vapor (sweat) created by the body to make its way outside, as well. This remarkable technology is found in most products on the market today. Breathability keeps the fisherman dry—as well as warm or cool, as the case requires. Scientifically, most products achieve this magical feat by sandwiching a microporous membrane between an exterior and an interior fabric. (The interior fabric provides comfort, while the exterior fabric provides durability.) Some microporous membranes are created in sheets, like cloth, and glued between the covering layers. Others are applied in a “knife over” technique, which basically means they’re squeegeed directly onto one layer of fabric, smoothed out, and then covered with the other layer. As the name suggests, microporous membranes have many tiny holes in them. On a molecular level, these holes are big enough for water vapor to pass through, but small enough that liquid water molecules can’t fit through the same holes. Thus, water vapor can go out, but liquid water can’t come back in. (Kind of like how your cat door won’t admit your muddy Labrador.)
That’s what any breathable fabric does: it acts as a one-way door for water vapor. Even better, it continues to work under water, so long as the exterior liquid is substantially cooler than the body temperature of the wearer. (When the water is 90 degrees, the “high pressure system” created by the angler can’t push the vapor hard enough to counteract the resistance of the “low pressure system” outside.) When we clothe ourselves in this miraculous stuff, we no longer have sweat dribbling down our backs in summer or freezing us like Popsicles in winter. We thus stay cool, avoid the dangers of hypothermia and, to be honest, we smell a lot better to boot. Ten years ago, breathable fabrics allowed weekend warriors to hike farther and with more comfort than ever before, but like most innovations in their infancy, these new fabrics had a long way to go. Early waders were thin, failed easily (one model famously had a 100% return rate), and turned many customers off. Today, breathable waders are more reliable, much more durable, and, unsurprisingly, have come to dominate the market. However, breathable waders have a lot of room left to grow, and many new developments are on the rise and coming to fly shops near you.
Manufacturers are dabbling in such arcane areas as welded seams (no more tape to fail), waterproof zippers (sweet streamside relief), and new stretchable, durable, breathable fabrics. Gore-Tex, the most famous name in breathability, has been joined as a major player by several other companies, adding new names—such as No Sweat, Softshell, and 3xDry—to the alphabet soup of fly-fishing products. While we can’t know what the future holds, the current state of the market has all the appearances of hitting critical mass. Here’s a look at the technical fabric side of the sport just as the technology really hits its stride:
Know Your Fabrics
First, a little overview of the players at the table. Cabelas, Cloudveil, L.L. Bean, and Simms share Gore-Tex licensing and thus the same basic breathable membranes. However, that doesn’t mean the fabrics they offer are all the same. The breathable membrane manufactured by W.L. Gore can be fitted to several different types of exterior and interior fabrics. A fabric in this sense is different from the chemical membrane layer that it covers. Today’s breathable fabrics are mostly made of polyester, but they are all woven just as fabric has been woven since the Ancient Greeks: on an interlocking grid. Control of this weaving process and of the materials in the fabric itself varies from company to company, and can make a big difference in the cost and quality of your garment. When the fabric is woven, it is used to “sandwich” the Gore-Tex membrane and create the breathable cloth you see made into waders and jackets.
W.L. Gore licensing is an intensive procedure that requires a company to get approval from Gore of each new product before it goes to market. Also, each product manufactured with the Gore-Tex membrane must be individually tested according to Gore’s guidelines. As a result, Gore products tend to be among the most expensive on the market. They are also very breathable, thoroughly tested, and backed by a respected provider company. Some suppliers have opted to rely on their own in-house testing and quality-assurance programs. This group, including Dan Bailey, Hodgman, Orvis, and Patagonia, employ similar microporous fabric techniques to achieve breathability, which tests show is highly comparable to Gore-Tex, but in some cases these companies retain more control over the product testing (for better or worse).
For example, take Patagonia. The cloth that goes into Patagonia waders is actually manufactured by the Japanese textile giant Toray (see sidebar). Toray makes many kinds of fabrics and, in an industry known for cross-pollination, it even sells some fabric to its competitors (most interestingly, Gore). Patagonia waders mostly employ the knife-over style of breathable membranes, which are applied at the Toray factory when the fabric is woven. However, Toray does all of this according to Patagonia’s in-house specifications. Patagonia is renowned in the clothing world for its sophisticated fabric lab, where scientists constantly experiment with new designs. When they come up with one, they send it to Toray. When Toray has manufactured the cloth, Patagonia creates the waders in its own facilities.
Don’t get the impression that this is a Gore-Tex or Toray market. William Joseph has chosen to go yet another route. Their new Drynamic wader features a lower component designed around a DuPont microporous membrane so new it doesn’t yet have a trade name. The upper portion of their wader uses a fabric—designed by the Swiss Schoeller company—called “Softshell,” which is also finding its way into many other new designs. Originally intended for the mountaineering industry, Softshell is trickling into fly-fishing for its waterproofness and breathability. More of a family than a specific type of cloth, Softshell fabrics share one key capability: they stretch. This makes Softshell the most likely candidate for Next Big Thing status in wading-jacket, vest, and accessory design. The major downside to Softshell fabrics is their lack of immersibility—they really aren’t a viable lower-wader material.
Another new Schoeller technology just hitting the market goes by the 3xDry (pronounced “three times dry”) moniker. Although 3xDry isn’t really a wader material, its use in other fly-fishing products by Cloudveil, Simms, and Albright Tackle makes it something that should be on your radar. 3xDry isn’t actually even a fabric at all: it is a waterproof application which can be laid on to almost any kind of textile, potentially making next year’s breathable flats shirt into an impromptu rain jacket. This treatment is similar in many ways to the “durable water repellency” (DWR) treatments you may already be familiar with.
One of the areas of greatest innovation in the past ten years has been DWR treatments applied to breathable fabrics. This is the stuff that makes water bead up on your waders or jacket. The first DWR treatment to hit the market was called Scotch Guard, and you may recall having applied it to your sofa. According to Ned Hutchinson, the fly-fishing product designer at Cloudveil, you can imagine DWR like “a forest of trees.” On a molecular level, the DWR coating has a series of tiny, round, water-repellent spheres, which make up a “canopy.” The canopy stands above the exterior layer of the breathable fabric on a set of tiny “trunks,” just like a forest. When a droplet of liquid water hits the DWR treatment, it gets caught in the “leaves” of the canopy and cannot penetrate to the actual fabric, making water bead up.
Unfortunately this tiny protective forest is not indestructible. Over time, through use and wear, the trunks of these trees can break, removing the protection and resulting in “wet out.” Dirt is also a major culprit in causing wet out, since it crushes those “trunks” and crusts over the canopy. Remember the last time you got in the water with a set of breathable waders on and saw that your fabric had turned dark? It probably felt like you were getting soaked, right? That’s wet out. In reality, you are still dry inside your waders, but because the exterior fabric is saturated and the microporous membrane sandwiched inside the wader cloth doesn’t provide any insulation, you can get condensation on the inside and feel much colder. Wet out is bad. Manufacturers like to prevent it if they can. Hence, DWR treatments. “The biggest change in the past ten years in terms of avoiding wet out,” Cloudveil’s Hutchinson explains, “is that now the forest has many more trunks. Instead of just one trunk holding up your ‘tree,’ now that trunk has support trunks going every which way.” After a given number of wash cycles, a DWR treatment will fail, so manufacturers have begun measuring this increased wet-out resistance by the number of wash cycles the treatment can endure. (Manufacturers recommend that fishermen wash their waders to maximize DWR performance and avoid wet out.) Products are beginning to hit the market that advertise a “30 DWR” treatment, which means the DWR coating should last through thirty trips to the Laundromat. A “100 DWR” coating is functionally a life-of-the-product application, and some products are beginning to reach this level (though not without cost).
Well, you say, how many wash cycles can the DWR treatment on my waders withstand? The likely answer is around twelve (a historical average), and since few of us wash our waders as often as we ought to, that number seems sufficient for the current lifespan of a set of breathable waders. If you are getting wet out, follow the manufacturer’s cleaning instructions on the inside of your waders and get rid of as much dirt as possible. Also, consider a DWR-replenishing treatment from a product like ReviveX (also made by Gore), which will return your waders to their water-droplet-beading natural state—though, unfortunately, never for as long as when they were new.
Another of the most active areas of fabric innovation is in the realm of control-of-fit. One of the problems facing manufacturers is that breathable fabrics aren’t very conducive to sewing. According to Bill Crawley, owner of William Joseph, breathable fabrics suffer greatly on industrial sewing machines. “Those machines grab the fabric from above and below, stretching it out of shape,” he explains, “and they punch holes in it, which must be sealed back up.” Most companies have solved this problem with expensive seam taping procedures, in which a sewed seam is sealed with breathable tape. No matter how carefully the tape is applied, this still amounts to a weak spot in the garment. More importantly, the need for taping considerably reduces the amount of control a designer has over the shape of a product, resulting in same-old, same-old designs.
“What we can do now,” Crowley continues, “is really cool. Instead of sewing and taping, we use RF [radio frequency] welding.” RF welding works kind of like nuking a microwave burrito. Two fabrics are placed over each other (in any conceivable configuration), with a membrane resembling cellophane between them. That seam is then zapped with radio waves, which melt the membrane and lock the two fabrics together. “It works great,” says Crowley, “and it gives us a waterproof, breathable product that can have seams where we couldn’t put them before. I think this is going to be the future of a lot of products.” Patagonia is also exploring the seam-welding world, but their technique includes the kind of thing you expect to see in the hands of a James Bond villain: lasers. According to Patagonia’s Bill Klyn, laser welding differs from RF welding because the fabrics are not overlayed, but are joined “butt to butt.” This butt-to-butt welding creates a strong, smooth fabric with little chance of failure. The downside is that the process doesn’t work very well with fabrics of widely different thicknesses.
Despite all the new treatments and innovative ways of bonding fabric available, the unquestioned Holy Grail of breathable product design remains lifetime durability. No breathable wader on the market can approach rubber or even neoprene for sheer durability. In waders and fishing jackets, durability is measured in terms of abrasion resistance and puncture resistance. With all the hooks flying around in our sport, puncture resistance tends to get the most attention.
This wasn’t always true, which is part of the reason the first breathable waders were so flimsy. The first breathable wader designers focused on abrasion resistance as the most likely reason for failure and used a DuPont Cordura fabric for the exterior layer. (This is the same stuff most fly-fishing luggage is made of today). Unfortunately, Cordura yarn has a critical flaw: it gets fuzzy. Fuzziness and puncture resistance are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Puncture resistance, as in what a wader needs to survive being stuck with a hook, depends not on strength but on density. In order to be puncture resistant, a fabric weave must be densely packed—and Cordura simply can’t be packed tight enough. The story of wader durability in the past few years has thus been a constant fight for denser weaves on the exterior fabric layer.
The Cordura-finished waders you may have bought in the 1990s work the same way as those on the shelves right now, but the component fabrics you actually wear have changed and greatly improved. Today’s top-of-the-line waders feature an exterior polyester microfiber fabric that greatly exceeds the thread count of the earliest waders. This also accounts for why today’s newest wader materials feel harder and slicker than previous incarnations: they are literally made of billions of particles of extruded plastic thread packed as tight as is scientifically possible. Understandably, these tightly packed materials work against most anglers’ desire for stretchable clothing. The tighter the weave, the less comfortable a set of waders tends to be, as well. “It’s a constant balancing act in the triangle of comfort, durability, and breathability,” Mike Gawtry of Orvis explains. “You can do things like add multiple layers, but you sacrifice breathability,” he continues. “We’re always trying to hit the sweet spot.”
That sweet spot may be just over the horizon. Patagonia is currently experimenting with crimped yarn cloth in its Stretch SST jacket. The crimps in the fabric can “unbend” when the angler needs stretch, without compromising the density of the fabric’s weave and letting in water. Other manufacturers are also exploring the stretch fabric area intensely.
What’s It All Mean?
For the consumer walking into a fly shop, a thorough understanding of the technology of breathability is important. Today’s top-of-the-line waders are on the cutting edge. They have the densest exterior weaves, the most breathable membranes, and the softest interior layers. Some of them are starting to experiment with stretch panels and welded seams. Most manufacturers are employing a multi-layer construction on the lower portion of the wader. A few are exploring other breathable fabrics, which are less immersible, for the upper wader. In the $350 and up class, you are purchasing the most advanced product the manufacturer can come up with.
However, as in many things, you may get a really good deal by staying right behind the cutting edge. Most of the technologies available since 2000 have allowed for durable, breathable, comfortable products. Last year’s waders were pretty darn good. Don’t be afraid to explore the middle classification on the sale rack—there are often excellent products to be found for great prices, employing almost-new layering and breathability technologies. Many entry-level waders today are functionally the same waders that gave people fits in the mid 1990s, so if you fish frequently and fish hard, think twice before trusting that a bargain priced, $99 wader will keep you dry for long. As manufacturers move into higher technologies, the obsolete products get moved down the chain, with prices reduced accordingly. However, these products are fine for a back-up to keep in your trunk or as an emergency solution. Buy entry-level waders if you are in a pinch or need to get a loved one on the water only a few times a year. Otherwise, go with the old axiom, “you get what you pay for.”
This article originally ran in the April 2006 edition of American Angler and is reproduced here with permission.