Next to Skin by Warren McLaren
Not content with pioneering so many of the concepts which the outdoor industry now takes for granted (stretch legwear, softshell jackets, Napolean chest pockets, hipbelt/harness aware rainjackets, lightweight wind shirts and insulated sweaters, etc) Rohan also broke ground on probably the first ‘no shrink. no stink’ body wear.
With the 1982 catalogue Rohan introduced ground-breaking next-to-the-skin garments made of Dunova, a modified acrylic fibre from Bayer.
It was around this time that Patagonia hit the headlines for making polypropylene apparel, something Helly Hansen had been already doing for nearly a decade.
It should be recorded that Rohan had previously offered some polypro garments: “Hydrofill” – a three layer fabric sandwich polypropylene loop knit next to skin, cotton inner and wind-resistant nylon outer; and “Dryline” – garments of polypro terry towelling inners with poly-cotton outers.
Yet Dunova was streets ahead of polypro. It looked and felt like a fine cotton. It arrived soft and stayed soft. And unlike polypropylene, and its running mate chlorofibre, Dunova didn’t shrink into baby clothes when you hot washed, or tumble dried, it. Nor did it retain stinky body odour, which those other two contenders were renowned for. Dunova absorbed moisture and perspiration, whilst always feeling dry against the skin. Rohan had Dunova five years before Patagonia would replace polypropylene with Capilene, a polyester material that exhibited some similar characteristics, though via a quite different manner.
Rohan co-founder Paul Howcroft liked to describe Dunova as like a hose pipe filled with foam. Another analogy might be that of a kernmantle rope—an outer sheath around an inner core. The outer was hydrophobic (water hating) whilst the core was hydrophilic (water loving). Pores in the sheath allowed moisture vapour, like perspiration, to pass through the outer of the fibre where it could then be absorbed by the inner core. The fabric always felt dry to a wearer’s skin and comfortable. But being synthetic, Dunova fibre didn’t swell when wet, and this kept the fabric indices open allowing moisture to evaporate.
At this time Rohan was about the only manufacturer using Dunova, (North Cape would later make some pile jackets from the fibre) and the company endeavoured to exploit its many positive attributes across a wide range of garments. Long sleeve tops, T-shirts. vests, jumpers, jackets, track pants, bandanas, lined windproof pants and tops, and even socks. The fabric was knitted in an interlock jersey, a loop pile terry towelling, and a brushed loop knit. My personal favourite was the Dunova mesh wondrously described in the 1982 catalogue thus, “the holes are sufficiently wide to encourage free air flow around the body, yet small enough to protect the wearer from sun and (for more interestingly shaped Rohanists) blushes.” There were also special Dunova Multiflex stretch legwear: the Outsider breeches, and Spyder pants.
Dunova had few drawbacks. Though it was slowing drying than polypro. However, whilst being worn this was never an issue, as it just ‘felt dry’. Of greater issue was its availability. It was common in missives from Paul to learn that deliveries from mills had failed to eventuate, or they were only able to provide limited quantities. Eventually these supply problems became untenable and alternatives were sought.
Although Dunova was tough act to follow, it was not a challenge Paul shied away from. The oft-mooted Dunova loop pile ‘fleece’ garments were superseded by Airlight clad padded garments with non-woven polyester Insusoft and Insuflex insulation. The Dunova Mariner jumper thus gave way to the iconic Olfio, so maybe the problems with Dunova supply were a blessing is disguise.
In 1987, Rohan would repeat their original industry leading feat with yet another pioneering next-to-the-skin fabric. Borrowing the name from their previous terry towelling fabric, Rohan called it Dryline. Though it was actually FieldSensor from Japan’s chemical giant, Toray. With it Rohan had the outdoor industry’s second ‘denier gradient’ fabric (the first being Rohan Multiflex for legwear).
Denier is a measure of a fibre’s fineness, or fibre diameter. A denier gradient means the fabric uses a spread of different deniers. Dryline had thicker fibres in an open structure next to the skin and this tapered to a dense knit of finer, thinner fibres on the outside of the fabric. This, in affect, created a funnel, that drew moisture off the skin, and by capillary action, moved it to the exterior of the cloth, where they could safely evaporate without over-cooling the wearer. The result being the inner surface always felt dry to touch. As did the skin.
The long sleeve Major T shirt in Dryline was a brilliant redesign of the original Dunova Jeykll. Maybe it looked a it Luke Skywalker-ish, but the side mesh panels allowed ideal ventilation, while the wind-resistant Fineknit Dryline overlay gave the mesh great insulation when worn under windshell. And the kangaroo chest pocket was another clever utilitarian touch. Chris Townsend rated it one of the best outdoor shirts he’d worn. Aside from the short body length, I would concur.
Fieldsensor was being used by Pearl Izumi for the cycling market, but Rohan pioneered it, as Dryline, for the European outdoor market. It would be almost ten years before Lowe Alpine would come along with their Dryflo underwear using the same concept. And even longer before Malden Mills (now Polartec) would offer the industry their now ubiquitous Powerdry knits.
But Paul Howcroft never gave up on his beloved Dunova, and in 88/89 catalogue it made comeback, in a simple zip turtleneck shirt, as a blend of 65% Dunova with 35% cotton.
It should be remembered that at no time did the Rohan garments look like underwear either. They were stylish garments that could be proudly worn on their own as shirts, yet they retained high performance, moisture transfer attributes.
I still regularly wear my Dunova and Dryline garments, even though some are 32 years young. Testament to the well-informed fabric selection.
A very big thank you to Warren from us all at Rohan for this wonderful record of some well loved Rohan garments.
Warren McLaren curates an online museum charting the history of outdoor gear. A labour-of-love, and perpetual work-in-progress, the website “Compass” currently showcases the legacy of over 75 outdoor brands. It has recently been migrated to the new web address of: http://www.outdoorinov8.com/compass.html