Material Matters: Ripstop Fabric
Date: November 09 2016
By: Adam Jane
Put simply, ripstop is a kind of fabric that’s woven to prevent the spread of tears, which is something that people working outdoors in rugged environments have been searching to find for centuries. Unlike today, where we have a huge industry based around leisure time adventure, previous generations have had to rely on military innovators for these kinds of breakthroughs – there’s no driving force like war.
The oldest attempt to weave fabric in such a way that it wouldn’t tear comes in the form of a broken twill – like the famous herringbone pattern. If you look at a fabric you’ll notice there’s a general line in which the weave runs, this is the twill. These uniform ridges can act like a grain, when a small tear develops it can quickly run up the twill line of a fabric and you’ll end up with a mighty big hole. The alternating twill in herringbone fabric doesn’t allow that to happen and has been a popular pattern for thousands of years, all the way back to ancient Egypt. One of the most famous examples is the shroud of Turin, think about how many years that’s remained strong.
Wind the clock forwards a couple of thousand years and we find ourselves in the grips of the Second World War. The previous World War had seen the introduction of aircraft into battle, they were used to fly up and see where the enemy was and that was about it. By the late ‘30s the infrastructure of flight was ready for war. Planes had come a long way from their wood, canvas and resin counterparts and industry was capable of producing them on demand. The obvious use for aeroplanes in war was to drop stuff, not just bombs but people too – and so the paratrooper was born.
In the early days of the war, jumpers would plummet towards the earth with a canopy of silk as a parachute. Silk was the perfect material, lightweight and strong, but incredibly expensive – so much so that any trooper who missed his target and landed near civilisation would be mobbed by civilians who wanted to chop the parachute up to make fancy panties and other such finery.
The American chemical company DuPont was hard at work figuring out how to adapt their newly discovered nylon polymer into a useful fibre for the war effort. Once the fibre was perfected, the unique design that gives ripstop its characteristic pattern was developed to prevent parachutes tearing under the immense pressure they would endure through descent. During the weaving process a thicker thread is interwoven at regular intervals in a crosshatch pattern. This thicker thread acts as a barrier for any tear that attempts to make its way along the line. The original grid pattern is still the most common, although these days you get ripstop with all manner of geometric patterns like diamonds and hexagons.
Ironically, throughout the war the demand for nylon fabrics – including ripstop – grew as the military consumed the majority of the material. It became as much a commodity as silk had been in the early years. Once the war was over there were plenty of parachutes that found themselves repurposed into elegant dresses. Once the demand for performance fabrics grew in the following years, in line with a burgeoning outdoor industry and a healthy new leisure culture, ripstop found its way into the wardrobes of the discerning adventurer.
During the 70s the big running shoe boom kicked off, in which woven nylon was a staple fabric. It was lightweight, strong and did the job as far as track running was concerned. Ripstop didn’t really hit the sneaker scene until the 80s, when brands started producing lines for trekking and trail-running, like Nike’s ACG and adidas’ Adventure categories. For a shoe that would spend a lot of time kicking around the undergrowth, ripstop proved to be just the right stuff. Not only that, but the outdoor industry had already pioneered all kinds of waterproof membranes that could be laminated to ripstop – resulting in a strong, lightweight and waterproof material.
Once the on-foot benefits of ripstop had been established it began to spread. The revolutionary Nike Mayfly found ripstop to be just the thing for its stripped back upper, while modern runners like the adidas Terrex Swift Solo continue to harness power of the reinforced weave. With its uniquely patterned finish, it’s no surprise that ripstop has been adopted as a design feature in a lot of casual retro-runner styles. The recent Nike Air Footscape Motion releases gave the diamond pattern some shine, as have some of ASICS’ latest Kayano releases. A lot of contemporary streamlined styles, like the adidas ZX Flux are perfectly suited to the textured surface of the fabric, with their large panels susceptible to tearing and smooth surfaces primed for the texture. It looks like we’ll see plenty more of the tough stuff in years to come.
Whether you’re a bush basher, an urban explorer there’s a reason to love ripstop. The simple innovation has pioneered an industry and even saved lives. It’s amazing what a little weave can do.