Material Matters: Gore-Tex
Gore-Tex was born to be a saviour for soggy hikers, grew into the icon of a gritty sub-culture and is now a household name. The coveted membrane adds legitimacy – and a higher price tag – to any outdoor garment with its unbeatable ability to keep water out, while letting your skin breath. It may seem like textile wizardry at first but the story of Gore-Tex is one of discovery and ongoing innovation. As the planet’s top half prepares to plunge into the depths of winter, let’s take a look at what it takes to keep those toes dry.
It was a flurry of frustration that led Bob Gore to discover the basic ingredient for Gore-Tex one evening as he worked in his basement. Bob was employed by WL Gore and Associates, which had been established by his parents William and Genevieve in 1959. When they started their company, Vieve encouraged Bill to leave his job with the chemical giant DuPont, where he’d been working with PTFE – polytetrafluoroethylene, commonly known as Teflon. Bill had seen the advantages and versatility of the plastic and was keen to discover new uses for the stuff.
When Bob joined the company in the mid 60s, they’d experienced success selling insulated cables and was growing competition from new manufacturers. In an effort to increase profitability and possibly create a superior product, Bob had been experimenting with methods to expand PTFE – to stretch it out and change its form into something like foam. The more he tried the harder it seemed, Bob heated and stretched, yet it the more carefully he did it the more likely it was to snap. Eventually he gave a firm yank to a heated rod and to his surprise it stretched 1,000 percent (previously he’d only got as high as 20 percent). The result was the expanded TPFE they’d been looking for, Bob had just invented Gore-Tex.
Until the discovery of expanded PTFE, rainwear would either let a bit of water in, as with many waxed or treated fabrics, or completely trap your sweat, like rubberised rain macs. Gore-Tex hit the market as the only material that could breath and repel water, which might seem counterintuitive, but comes down to the spongy structure and microscopic pores on the Gore-Tex membrane. The water droplets that hit the outside of the membrane are thousands of times larger than the pores and can’t get through, while the water vapour that’s inside is much smaller and escapes through the pores with ease.
The minds behind Gore-Tex knew the potential for varied application immediately and took out a patent for expanded PTFE in 1970. The membrane was laminated to fabric, which was first used as outerwear by Early Winters in 1977. The first range of jackets and tents was a huge hit, so it wasn’t long before brands like North Face and Patagonia were ordering Gore-Tex for their own lines. The stuff was so good that in 1981 astronauts on the NASA shuttle Columbia wore Gore-Tex spacesuits.
One very clever thing about Gore-Tex is the fact that it’s a product, not just a fabric. Since it’s effectiveness became widely known, the name has become synonymous with the highest quality gear. No matter what the application, who’s using it or why, the Gore-Tex brand remains the beacon of functionality. Because of this they’ve been able to innovate on a huge variety of products, while being able to focus solely on the development of their own technology. Once the adventure market caught on to the Gore-Tex hype, the companies that made their hiking boots got involved. Gore-Tex assisted Danner in the creation of their Light Boot with, after meeting in 1979, which made it the first footwear to try out the membrane. In 1982 Gore-Tex developed and patented a sock-like bootie liner that could be used to waterproof just about any kind of shoe. While this was happening, hikers in the Himalayas and other remote locations had switched to lightweight running shoes for arduous treks, in an effort to reduce the overall burden of the journey.
The sneaker industry cottoned onto the demand for lightweight, athletic-style trekking shoes. Nike developed their first hiking range – the predecessor to ACG – which released in 1981 and included the Gore-Tex equipped Approach. In the 70s adidas had sent Reinhold Messner up Mount Everest in their shoes – although they were still very much boot style – and their Adventure line gathered traction throughout the 80s. Once the trail running phenomena became the target in the late 80s, the blending of runner and off-roader really kicked in with shoes like the Nike Air Pegasus ACG in 1988 and the Gore-Tex equipped adidas Torsion SP in 1990.
The 1990s saw Gore-Tex take to the streets and become a staple name for the young and well dressed. With an affiliation for status and wealth, the high priced Gore-Tex label was adopted by rappers who had a penchant for ostentatious gear. Lyrics like those of Big L’s ‘Fall Back’ ‘Nautica sweats with the fresh Gore-Tex’ had kids dipped in the performance fabric. It wasn’t a cool kid secret though, George Costanza gave the membrane a shout out as his preferred jacket material during an episode of Seinfeld. Brands like Nike stayed on trend with shoes like their ACG Air Tarn, lined with the waterproof expanded TPFE it was a more comfortable option to a pair of Timbs but still had a covetable price tag.
These days you can see Gore-Tex all over the sneaker game. In 2014 Bodega teamed up with ASICS for their two GEL-Lyte V ‘Get Wet’ models, while brands drop winter-ready versions of classics, such as the New Balance 580 and PUMA Basket, every season. It’s easy to find current running styles equipped with an expanded TPFE liner, along with hiking boots and even work boots. As tends to be the case for any kind of technological breakthrough, there are a lot of competitors and similar products on the market now, but none have the tried and tested heritage of Gore-Tex.
Next time you’re thinking about giving into the rage that emanates from frustration, just let it all out – you never know what you might discover. Thanks to Bob Gore’s uninspired tug, footwear innovators and the ebb and flow of fashion, now we can get hi-tech waterproof membranes sewn into our everyday sneakers to keep us comfy and dry. In the tumultuous world we live, even the climate change sceptics could benefit from an expanded TPFE sneaker.
Material Matters is our weekly tech section, where we take a peek behind the mesh curtain and break down the building blocks of the industry. Recently, we’ve looked at Hyperfuse, 3M Scotchlite and Velcro.