Under the skin of Polartec’s fabric development

We discover how Polartec develops next-generation fabrics used by some of the biggest clothing brands in cycling

Have you ever paid attention to the label in your cycling clothing? No, I mean, really paid attention? Because in truth, if you have, it’s likely that you’ve spotted only a select few fabrics. The words lycra, polyester, elastane and merino wool should ring a bell, but that only tells half the story.

As an industry, we’ve seen the proliferation of wool jerseys back in the fifties, sixties and seventies, and a move to lycra and synthetic materials as fabric specialists began experimenting with new and emerging technologies in the eighties.

Latterly, major steps forward have been made in the aerodynamic efficiency of materials, but we’ve also seen big advancements in breathable and waterproof materials that are able to help regulate body temperature and keep the rider dry, both from the inside and outside. In fact, it’s fair to say cycling clothing has leapt forward in the past five years.

Polartec’s history dates back to 1906, when the company was founded as Malden Mills

Polartec is one of the textile firms working behind the scenes to develop the fabrics used by some of the biggest brands in cycling, including the likes of Rapha, Castelli, Sportful and RH+. Sure, it may be the design gurus at those companies who bring the latest technology to consumers, but it is Polartec that, in many cases, is the brains behind some of the leading garments on the market.

We caught up with one of Polartec’s top research and development gurus, Michael Cattanach, to find out how the American firm is pushing fabric technology to the next level.

Where does Polartec fit in?

Polartec is one of the leading fabric innovators of the past thirty years. In fact, back in the eighties it invented the fleece, a fabric that’s now become so ubiquitous that it practically owns its own corner of the thermal layer market.

As Cattanach, Polartec’s global product director, explains: “It’s no exaggeration to say that Polartec is responsible for the way outdoor clothing is today. Fleece was invented by our company to be a paradigm shift in thermal performance for lightweight materials, and since then fleece has become somewhat ubiquitous in performance, fashion and comfort clothing.”

It’s also clear Polartec’s gurus don’t just invent a fabric, sell it, and move on. It’s a game of constant innovation, according to Cattanach.

Polartec created the synthetic fleece in 1981 (Pic: Polartec)

“Once a fabric is developed and released, Polartec is always constantly improving, tweaking, developing it,” he says. “It means we can keep on setting new standards for all sorts of clothing layers.”

Polartec’s Power Stretch fabric is one example of that, with the two-way stretch fabric based on fleece. It offers a combination of warmth, breathability and comfort for cyclists and is used in Castelli’s Potenza jersey, described by the Italian firm as ‘more-than-a-jersey-but-not-quite-a-jacket’ thanks also to the addition of a DWR water resistant coating to keep drizzle and brief showers out.

Returning to wool

Interestingly, despite the emphasis on forward-thinking technology in fabric creation, natural fabrics have seen a resurgence as some brands have realised the old ways, in many respects, remain the best.

Wool-based garments in particular have become fashionable once again in a performance sense, having been re-engineered for the 21st Century rider to take advantage of the latest technology – a trend that Polartec has helped to define in the past few years.

“Polartec introduced the Power Wool range a few years ago,” says Cattanach. “These are amazing products using all our knitting know-how in synthetic base layers, pairing it with some of the highest quality wool on the planet. This results in garments which are quite unbelievably warm, comfortable and above all, versatile for the rider.

“It’s this versatility that we and our customers and consumers are chasing all the time. Power Wool is a technology platform that allows products to be worn as a base layer in cold conditions without hindering performance by being too thick, heavy, water laden or smelly. For these reasons it’s been chosen as part of the kit for the Fundacion Contador [under-23] team that we’re affiliated with.”

The Fundacion Contador team use Polartec’s Power Wool fabric (pic – Polartec)

How does a new fabric go from an idea to being a reality?

Of course, It’s not just wool that Polartec is working with. Three of Polartec’s latest cycling-relevant fabrics include Alpha, Delta and Neoshell, developed for cold, hot and wet conditions respectively . Given Cattanach’s job in the R&D department at Polartec, he’s well placed to explain how new fabrics come to see the light of day.

“First of all, it starts with ideas,” he says. “These ideas can come from various places. It can be a request from a customer or brand to make something lighter, warmer, fluffier, smoother… but often the innovation originates in-house.

“Firstly, there is a great deal of dialogue and sharing between Polartec and our development partners. In general terms, every development starts with listening; listening to the problem the customer is trying to solve.

“We work to quickly define the problem and work out what can be done to solve it. There’s no one time-frame to achieve this – sometimes it’s very quick, and often it takes many trials, prototypes and iterations of product to get it right.

“The bottom line is that Polartec is only really going to release something if we’re confident that it’s fit for use. That stems from the confidence and knowledge that we’ve been doing this for a long time, and we know what makes a good fabric for activity x, y and z.”

NeoShell is one of Polartec’s latest fabrics and has been designed as a waterproof, breathable outer layer (Pic: Polartec)

Cattanach uses Polartec’s NeoShell fabric, which can be found in cycling garments including Sportful’s all-weather Fiandre Extreme Neoshell Jacket for its breathability and waterproof qualities, as an example.

“With NeoShell we decided we wanted to have a credible waterproof and breathable fabric to be used in outerwear. We didn’t just go and source something, we decided we wanted to be different and better so we focused on the real problem: air permeability,” he says.

“The end result is a product that is 100 per cent waterproof but allows moist air to pass from the inside out so you don’t get all wet inside from your own sweat. It’s really only an extension of what we’ve been doing for years, focusing on the twin pillars of protection and comfort. The bottom line is that NeoShell is made differently, works differently and therefore experienced differently.”

There’s no such thing as bad weather…

Beyond NeoShell, Delta and Alpha are two key fabrics developed by Polartec for use by cyclists. Ultimately, all three fabrics are designed to meet the key needs of cyclists, by keeping them dry in torrential downpours, cool in hot weather, and warm in cold conditions.

Polartec’s Delta fabric, used in the RH+ Dryskin AirX jersey, is designed to utilise the body’s natural cooling process – sweating. Delta uses elevated yarns with hydrophilic (moisture absorbing) and hydrophobic (moisture repelling) properties to increase airflow and wick moisture away from the skin, while retaining that moisture in the fabric’s outer layer to aid cooling.

Polartec Alpha offers lightweight, breathable insulation and is used by a number of clothing brands, including Sportful (Pic: Sportful)

Alpha, meanwhile, was originally developed for the US Special Forces and provides low-bulk insulation with high levels of breathability. We were really impressed with Sportful’s R&D Light Jacket, which uses Polartec Alpha, when we tested it last winter, and Alpha is also deployed in Rapha’s Brevet Alpha jacket and vest, as well as the Lightweight Transfer jacket.

Ultimately, Cattanach summarises, Polartec’s aim is to enable cyclists to enjoy the ride, so the weather is no longer a barrier to riding.

“What we aim for is to create a fabric that allows the rider to ideally forget about what they are wearing; instead it just offers protection and aids comfort,” he says.

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