Tale of the tape – why is wet weather gear so expensive?

Keeping dry and warm while sailing appears to be an impossibility given the factors stacked up against that happening. So it stands to reason that companies attempting to provide us with clothing face an uphill battle.

It is easy to bemoan the cost of buying a set of good wet weather gear. When considered rationally, however, it is easy to see just how costly it must be to bring such a difficult product to market.

Cruising Helmsman decided to check that process out. We chose three brands that follow different paths to service our need. Musto was the first company to devise the three layer system now used widely; Burke is an iconic Australian brand that has been around for over 40 years, so must be doing something right especially under new ownership; and Zhik has only been in existence for just over ten years but brings a different approach again to solving the problem of wet weather gear.

Here, then, is each of their ‘tales of the tape’.

Musto

Musto does not put aside a set budget for research and development.

“It depends on the project,” says David Oliver, CEO of Musto Australia. Having first developed the now ubiquituous three-layer sailing clothing system, Musto finances its R&D until all involved are satisfied with the end product. The product determines the budget.

Working closely with Gore fabrics is the starting point for the English company first started in 1965. “Having technology partners is crucial,” says Oliver, “they are constantly looking at new developments in their products and we see how we can use that to improve our range.

“Gore make the fabric, Musto works on the construction.”

So a typical timeline for planning, designing, testing a new set of wet weather gear may proceed as follows. Gore come up with a new fabric or an improvement on existing product and put it through its standardised laboratory stress tests. Musto take that fabric and make a product for them to initially test, using its in-house cutting loft.

Over the next six months to two years, the testing team will take that mock-up sailing. Constantly reviewed, the design team will look at the stitching, the seaming and every panel shape in the gear to see how it may be improved. The cutting loft can remake the product within the day and have it back out sailing.

Once the product satisfies the R&D team, or the fabric is returned to Gore for further improvement, then test samples are made to a commercial level and given to Musto’s professional sailors for further stress testing at the highest level. The Volvo Ocean Race is Musto’s testing ground; a year of the most gruelling sailing anyone could endure, let alone the equipment.

This test is a double blind, in which sailors are given the gear but have no idea for what it is they are testing. It is spread amongst the crew and the sailors maintain a log book to keep track of the hours. The wet weather gear is then returned. Musto check out the end product for wear and tear before cutting it up and returning to Gore for more lab testing. Here, Gore will subject the cloth to microscopic inspection.

When all that is done, any redesigns are made and the whole process starts again.

Once both parties feel the testing is nearly complete, the fabric is once again cut up and subjected to standardised lifetime tests for wear plus the garment is placed in a ‘monsoon tunnel’ and blasted with water jets to simulate two years of constant work.

Did it fail? Back to the drawing board.

“This is why,” Oliver states, “we claim ‘guaranteed to keep you dry.”

This process is not single stream, claims Oliver. During the testing phase of the fabric, designers meet to see if they can better the end product design. In the next HPX clothing roll-out Musto managed to cut out 450 centimetres of seaming; reducing the overall weight by 400 grams with the added benefit of a better fit for the wearer.

As an example of the importance of feedback from the testing sailors, its premiere product HPX will now include Kevlar-lined pockets on its jackets. How often has a jacket pocket been subjected to knives and all manner of tools being thrust into them?

If you think that the high-end racing sailors wet weather gear has nothing to do with cruising, then Oliver begs to differ (as do all the companies we interviewed).

Musto’s cruising range, designated BR2, benefits from the intense R&D to which its more expensive big sister is subjected. All the panel redesigning and shaping used in the HPX and MPX range for the final jacket and pants are then repurposed for the BR2. One of the most significant changes to the cruising range is the addition of a more form-fitting jacket and salopette that moves less around the body and is also lighter for the improvement.

This year also sees Musto target the cruising market more than it has previously, Oliver notes that the high level racing market is actually not that large and there is much more scope in the mid-level market, such as cruising and off-the-beach boats

My guess is: watch out for Kevlar pockets coming soon.

Burke

Along the same lines as Musto, Burke does not put aside a set budget for research and development. But for different reasons.

Anthony Elliot is the new director of Burke. He bought the company only 18 months ago (October 2014) but he comes from previous success in retail clothing. Elliot likes the pitch of Burke. His experience in the clothing business has shown that people like brands and they do not like those brands to change.

To that end, the research and development of the company is not such an ongoing expense compared to the other two companies profiled here. “Zhik is in the innovation business, we work on being reliable at a price point,” Elliot says. Once
a product has found a market, the company tends to see no need to change excepting feedback from customers or on seeing an opportunity.

All of Burke’s wet weather gear and clothing is made in factories in China, understandably which makes most of the world’s wet weather gear. Although Elliot has full confidence in the quality, he visited them anyway. By visiting the manufacturers and tightening up Burke’s supply chain, he has managed significant savings to the company and, hence, to the products on sale.

One example Elliot relates regards the latest shoes from Burke, the Evolution deck sneaker. On his visit to the Chinese shoe manufacturer, the owner told him he had proprietary ownership of a sailing shoe sole designed by another brand that was subsequently not used. The two put their heads together to design the upper and the result is the Evolution.

For Elliot this fits in with the Burke ethos: “good product at the right retail price.”

Having given the indication that Burke does not do much in the way of R&D, “we prefer to keep a keen eye on manufacturing and transport costs to maintain the price,” Elliot proceeds to tell the story of how long it took to tweak its offshore Southerly range of wet weather gear: “18 months! Ever since I first bought the company!”

Burke does not invest in much laboratory testing but takes its prototypes out sailing, hence the long timeline. “We historically know what works,” says Elliot, “so it is mostly small tweaking to keep up with style and improvements in fabrics.”

Burke has not been around for over 40 years by not knowing what its market is. They target the entry-level sailor, not the high end racer.

As Elliot himself explained as to why he thought Burke was a good company for him to invest, he tells the story of when his son decided to take up the sport, “we walked into Sturrocks and I bought him everything he needed,” explains Elliot, “including hats, a bag, trapeze harness, gloves … the lot.

“It wasn’t until I got home I found that it was all Burke.”

Zhik

Located in a suburban Sydney warehouse, walking into Zhik reminded me of a wetsuit loft during the surfing heyday of the 70s.

Cloth samples everywhere, all manner of technical fabric-testing equipment, a seamstress hard at work on the loft table and several others working at design stations. A buzz of activity.

Tom Hussey, research and development manager for Zhik, explains that this is all part of the ethos of the all-Australian company. From its inception in 2003 the company’s principals decided to do all its planning, designing, testing and construction in-house, “design, material, construction, all feed back on each other before production is even considered,” says Hussey.

After success in supplying off-the-beach dinghy sailors, Zhik set about designing keelboat gear. Its Isotak and AroShell wet weather gear provides another choice for offshore sailors.

To begin the process of bringing a product to market, the Zhik team form a design brief based on team feedback, customer input, limitations of existing products and areas that have been flagged for improvement.

At the back of its loft all the designers work together coming up with designs that fit the brief, then a computer aided design-drawn plot is given to Linda the seamstress to sew up.

Her feedback as to what will or will not work is also considered and designs go back and forth until final layout mocked up.

New material requirements and technical boundaries are flagged for development.

The important factor each person continually looks for is the use of the least amount of material without compromising the purpose of the garment. At all times they maintain a minimum set standard, “competitors could copy our final product and produce cheaper, but that is not Zhik’s concern,” says Hussey.

Where Zhik differs from other manufacturers is the use of its own proprietary materials. “Materials research and development is on-going at Zhik, lab. tests may include: waterproof testing, waterproof durability testing, breathability testing using simulated skin models, abrasion and tear strength testing, colorfastness and resistance to ageing as well as many other tests to ensure the long term quality and durability of a material.

“One difficulty we have with the development of materials for sailing wet weather gear is that the material requirements are quite unique, it can be difficult to test how a material will perform in an ocean environment using existing testing standards.

“That’s why, in some cases, we have developed our own testing equipment and processes to more accurately replicate real world conditions.” A good example of this is Zhik’s waterproof fabric durability tester which is an accelerated durability testing machine for fabrics in wet and rough conditions.

“Our garment design and development processes are focussed around functionality, comfort and durability. We pay very close attention to the way a user will interact with the product and how it will function in real world use, this is particularly evident with elements such as hood and collar design and high abrasion areas.”

Once the overall design, material and construction has been considered Zhik then goes to work on little details that add to the usability and comfort. Stiffners are added, for example, wherever cold hands grab fabric, eg. in pocket tabs and where Velcro is used. Drain holes in pockets have seams back-sewn to ensure hole does not get blocked.

Next, construction must make sure the design is not compromised from performing as a sailor needs. Says Hussey, “we work very closely with our team of professional athletes as well as everyday sailors. Our major concern with wet weather gear is long term durability which means that products must be tested for months and even years of continuous use.”

In the case of its latest range of Isotak wet weather gear, Zhik has had over ten sets of gear out for testing at any one time, some for over 12 months. They have been passed from sailor to sailor as they set off on long trips. “We are always very busy before every major ocean race,” says Hussey, “preparing new prototypes for testing.”

Before the first step in production of the gear, Zhik checks the manufacture of the materials. Bulk fabrications are tested for waterproofness, colorfastness and lamination strength before leaving the mills. Once the materials have arrived at the garment factory they are inspected and tested again for any defects.

Zhik’s QuLock process introduces extra steps in its seam taping process. Panels are stitched and then seam taped using a hot air seam-tape machine. Reinforcement patches are also applied to critical junctions for extra security and additional heat pressing steps are used to secure all seam tape junctions. This provides a better seal while also ensuring the once bulky spot is flatter and less irritating for the wearer.

During production, each piece of a new garment, such as the arm or hood, etc., is tested individually before sewn together. Taped panels are continually selected and pressure tested for leaks during the production process to ensure that the tape has been applied correctly.

A full quality control inspection check is undertaken to ensure that all construction details are correct and the product is ready for use. On the first production line run the first ten finished product off the production line is tested and approved. Once full production is under way there is continual random sampling.

For Hussey this lengthy process is all part of what Zhik is about, “we are essentially problem solvers.

“Everything is designed for the end user in mind. We want our customers to know that we are doing everything
to help them cross that finish line.”

To that end Zhik has introduced probably its most ambitious product to date. Isotak 2 offshore gear is the company’s answer to Gore Tex, Zhik claims it will provide extreme levels of protection with minimal weight and bulk to ensure flexibility, freedom of movement and comfort.

Extended field tests in numerous offshore races, including the Volvo Ocean Race, resulted in Zhik’s proprietary multi-layer composite membrane construction being combined with a lightweight, durable, high-tenacity nylon face, significantly reducing bulk and weight without compromising waterproofness.

Phillip Ross

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