The Great Soft Shell Mystery – Moveable Meanings

Some ruminations on what Soft Shell actually means by Peter Clinch.

Some while ago I mooted the idea of the Bags design in a stretch fabric on the Rohantime Forum, and having batted the idea back and forth around the design department at Rohan Towers for a bit, now we have them, and I have a pair to test-drive. The marketing release that came along too says the following…

To include one ground-breaking innovation in an item of clothing is pretty special.
But two – in one pair of trousers – is nothing short of amazing.

Rohan Tundra Jacket

Back in the Seventies, Rohan was a pioneer in the development of soft-shell fabrics for outdoor wear. Combining polyamide with stretchy elastane is fairly standard now. And it’s no surprise. Soft shell fabrics are hard-wearing, water resistant, quick drying, extremely stretchy and incredibly comfortable to wear.

Rohan Bags – introduced 35 years ago – are the original multi-functional outdoor trousers and the blueprint for all contemporary travel trousers. Unchanged over the years, the thoughtful design and unique pocket configuration have proved their worth, time and again, all around the world.

Our brand new Stretch Bags combine the two.

The tried-and-tested design of Bags in combination with the unbeatable functionality of a soft-shell trouser.

The best of both worlds?

Well, if you like Bags – and are looking for something that you can wear all year round – for walking, trekking, travelling, working or pretty much anything, then Stretch Bags might well be the perfect solution.

The only question, which arises with all the best ideas, is: why didn’t we think of it before?

So how come Escapers, made from the same stuff, aren’t marketed as “soft shell”? And the answer is, I think, all about marketing, and how the meaning of “soft shell” changes according to who’s saying it, and who’s listening. At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter as long as you know how your kit will manage in whatever conditions, but to help select the right kit it’s useful to know the range of things that might inspire “soft shell” to be written on a swing tag or marketing release.

How Hard is Your Shell?

Since soft shell appears to be somewhat moveable ground, let’s start off from somewhere we know is solid and stationary, and hard shells (or “waterproofs”, as we used to call them) are a good place for that. A hard shell is made from a fully waterproof fabric (i.e., it has a hydrostatic head that will surely keep out any rain, wayward waterfalls etc. thrown at it) and excepting stuff like the holes for the face/neck etc. ought to keep the wearer dry from the weather, and also to block most of the cooling effects of the wind. So, near as dammit waterproof and windproof regardless of the duration or amount of incoming unpleasantness. Even if you’re wet through from water wicking down from the neck and/or your own sweat, the garment itself isn’t letting water directly through its fabric.

How Hard is Your Shell

He might not still be smiling in another two hours, but he’ll still be fairly dry and as a result much warmer than without the jacket

Of course, no matter what marketing tells us about modern waterproof fabrics most of us have found out there are downsides. First up, despite the wishful thinking that “breathable” fabrics somehow stop us from sweating, “breathable” is on a spectrum rather than a binary on/off and even the most air-permeable fully-waterproof fabrics aren’t that breathable compared to, say, a T-shirt, fleece or even a fairly windproof weave like Airlight. Second, and probably less appreciated, is that using hard shells tends to wear the DWR coating a bit and the more one does that the less well they work at “breathing” in the wet, because the outer face wets out quicker.

Although lots of people are very happy walking in hard shells any time they go out, even in sunshine, there’s quite a few of us aren’t (maybe we sweat more, maybe we’re just fussier, maybe we’re just gear junkies…) and we’re looking for something that will keep the wind off, and a bit of dreich, while not having us stew in our own juices quite as much as wearing our full-on waterproofs would entail. And this is where the idea of soft shell comes from: keeping out the weather, but for values of “weather” that aren’t quite as serious as wind-driven Proper Rain™ that’s set in for the day, and not needing to be quite so weapons-grade being a bit more comfortable for most of the people, most of the time.

Moveable Meanings

Some stuff is marketed as “soft shell” on rather different grounds to the above. Gore-tex Soft Shell, for example, is hard shell Gore-tex with a fleece backer laminated to the inside face. This is no more breathable than normal Gore-tex hard-shell (unsurprising, as that’s exactly what it is underneath) so the only “soft” aspect is the feel of fleece against the skin. Rather missing the point as far as I’m concerned, but that doesn’t make it a useless fabric combination for a garment: if you always wear a light fleece with your hard shell you might as well integrate them, but it’s a good illustration that not everyone means the same thing when they say “soft shell” and also a case in point that you want to find out what whoever wrote the marketing blurb really meant before you buy it. I like my “not as hard as a hard shell” definition, but it certainly isn’t the only one out there!

Stretch

Lots of people associate soft shell with “stretchy”, because a lot of it is… The original Rohan Superstriders, for example, but does something have to be stretchy to be soft-shell? I don’t think so… Superstriders were “soft shell” because they’d keep out gales and could take quite a soaking and they’d still keep you warm, so it didn’t really matter if you had overtrousers. Pop on a pair of Escapers between you and windy cold and damp and you’ll probably be, well, cold and damp in short order (this is not a criticism, pop on a pair of Superstriders between you and a hot sun and you’ll start to melt!). And you can take something like Buffalo’s Pertex/Pile salopettes in to similar conditions as the Superstriders and they’ll keep enough of the unpleasantness out to keep you warm even if you’re not dry, and there’s no stretch in those.

As I’ve noted before, I think stretch can be a Good Thing, especially in trousers where most of the movement is typically going on. More freedom of movement, less flapping about and combined with a tighter cut quicker drying. But as any Buffalo wearer will tell you none of that is actually necessary to keep out the wind and the worst of the wet.

Another interesting case would be the Windshadow, which now features a material with a bit of elastane in it where the original didn’t. To be honest, owning an old one and having tried on a new one there’s really not much obvious difference. For stretch to make a real difference the cut needs to be close enough that the stretch makes the difference between restricting movement and not, and with a Windshadow that’s not really the case.

In summary, you can’t assume it’s stretchy because it says “soft shell”, and while stretch has functional implications including comfort, which is ultimately a part of what soft-shell is about, just because it’s stretchy isn’t top of the list of charcteristics that help keep the weather out.

Insulation

Lots of people associate soft shell with “insulated”, because a lot of it is… The Buffalo “melt in the middle” Mountain Shirt is something of a benchmark among soft shell tops and thanks to the pile lining can keep an active wearer at a steady roasting temperature on even very wintry days.

But like stretch, while it’s often useful for the flexible, comfortable mix soft shell aims at, insulation isn’t always necessary. If you like the general idea of keeping out the wind and dreich on an otherwise not too cold day you probably don’t want what amounts to an extra fleece on. A windbreaker that can deal with a bit of a shower is often enough, and is arguably a soft shell.

So, don’t assume soft shell will keep you warm. It might be as toasty as a fleece (and might be quite a bit better in many respects), but it won’t necessarily be. If you want a soft shell to provide warmth the windproofing will usually help but you need to check what, if any, insulation is there.

Layering

Another associated-by-garment take on soft shell is something that replaces several layers in a single garment, and the Buffalo Mountain shirt again a pre-eminent example with the marketing suggesting it replaces up to four conventional layers. With layering practically a Given for outdoor clothing in a climate like the UK’s, is this amazing, too good to be true snake oil, or what? Probably “or what”, with the reality of use not quite the same as the first impression from the blurb. While it would be nice if you could open up the vents on a Mountain Shirt and be magically cooled to the point you’d feel if you only had a thin base layer shirt on, in practice you’d go from frying to simmering: a Mountain shirt replaces 3 or 4 layers, but not really 1 or 2.

The point behind layering is flexibility: if you don’t need a layer you can take it off, and you can combine different things to optimise the overall effect. So if you combine, say, insulation and windprooing in one garment, rather than take a windbreaker and fleece, doesn’t that reduce flexibility? It does… but if you’re going to be wearing both all day anyway that really doesn’t matter, and it means you don’t have to replicate features like pockets and venting. While two garments are more flexible, when you’d be using both together a single one will typically a little lighter, more comfortable and generally user-friendly.

And multiple layers in a single garment doesn’t stop you layering anyway, so pull a waterproof over the top of your Olfio and both still do their bit while combining their features. You don’t really need the windproofing on the jumper any more, but it’s hardly a problem.

The take away here is soft shell may, or may not, replace several layers, just like a hard shell that may or may not have an insulated lining.

So Do I Want It or Not?

As is often the case, the big new(ish) thing isn’t really anything new, but it’s always been potentially useful for all the decades it’s been in regular use. I’d suggest that rather than wondering, “Do I want a softshell?”, ask questions about direct function. Some of those questions (for example, “Is there a windproof jacket that is a lot more breathable than my hard shell?”) will come back with some of the answers as soft shell garments, and in those cases assess the candidates according to how they work for you (fit, feel, pockets how you like them etc.). That way you might end up with a soft shell… but it doesn’t really matter if you don’t, and you don’t have to worry about exactly which of numerous possible meanings of “soft shell” the garment meets. Hard shell is, at least for a lot of people a lot of the time, something of a necessity for a lot of UK outdoor pursuits. Soft shell, on the other hand, is there to make you a bit more comfortable in certain situations and you don’t need that, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth having.

 

rohan spark reviewNote from Rohantime: It is the intention that all reviews of Rohan gear on Rohantime will be undertaken by Rohanists who have an understanding of outdoor gear, the fundamentals of keeping warm, dry and safe on the hills, an appreciation of  Rohan’s core values and how they are expressed in the clothing and a working knowledge of similar products that are available. These reviews, will represent a fair and balanced evaluation.

Reviewed by Peter Clinch

Gift Your Gear - Donate at any Rohan Shop

3 Comments

  1. charles ross says:

    Peter

    Great article: there has been a range of misnomers applied to soft-shells. To me a hard shell is waterproof & semi-breathable; whilst a soft-shell is water-resistant (i.e. not waterproof as it doesn’t have a membrane) & highly breathable. The brands that put a membrane in (& then generally don’t tape it) create something that is not waterproof & semi-breathable. It is a lazy thing to do in design terms – they are just creating a soft feeling shell. I would say that the majority of British walkers suffer from dampness prompted by wearing a not-breathable enough outer shell, as opposed to the dampness being prompted by leakage (i.e. water coming in); thus the less breathable your garment is – the more likely you will be to suffer from dampness

    Whereas I think you are hinting that a soft-shell does not have to have an insulation backer, I would disagree. Water conducts heat 38 times faster than air, thus if the shell is wet, the wearer could loose vital body heat if they are not wearing a spacer layer (like a non-absorbing fleece) as the shell could be in contact with the skin. If the garment is a real soft-shell, then it is highly breathable, so the effect of the insulation is negated. To me if a water-resistant shell (i.e. a windproof) does not have a backer – then it is just a windproof. With a windproof you can create your own soft-shell by matching it with a lightweight fleece layer.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you about the windproof being an underused garment that the waterproof membrane makers want to indicate is redundant. A good case of the new generation of soft-shells is what Polartec have created with their Alpha fabric garments. As long as there is a windproof outer a soft-shell will be wearable when it is completely soaked & will dry out initiated by your own body heat. In the UK, because it is so humid (due to us being comparatively near the sea), I always choose a soft-shell set-up to wear & carry a hard shell for when I stop

    What do you think?

    rgds

    • Peter Clinch says:

      This rather reinforces my point that my, or your, or Random Person X’s view of what defines “soft shell” isn’t going to be something you can assume up front. Your idea of separating windproofs from soft shell has an entirely rational basis, but there again so does mine for thinking of windproofs as soft-shells… This is especially the case when you think beyond the UK context (my (uninsulated) Patagonia Ready Mix soft-shell jacket was really aimed at ice climbers in places like Colorado, though I’ve found other uses for it).

      “Hard shell” has a very definite job, but “soft shell” has currency mainly as a marketing term which covers a large range of functional issues. People buying outdoor kit need to think about function directly.

      Membrane soft shells… neither of us are keen, but credit where it’s due, they actually make very good light ski touring gloves. Also the case that e.g. Gore Windstopper also omits the PU smear from what is otherwise Goretex membrane and that makes a tangible difference to the breathability, so its another point on the spectrum of more breathable to more protective. All points on that will potentially be of use to someone.

  2. Peter Clinch says:

    Looking over that I see I’ve failed to emphasise that different “soft shells” will afford very different levels of protection. Hard shell/waterproof has to pass a certain test (IIRC 1m hydrostatic head) to be marketed as “waterproof”, but soft-shell carries no guarantees like that, it’s purely a marketing term.

    Typically the case that the more protection you get, the less breathable the garment. A lot of soft shell garments are made of a membrane sandwiched between two layers of thin fleece and these will often be effectively waterproof aside from the seams and thus far more showerproof than typical woven fabrics… but what makes it harder for stuff to get in makes it harder for stuff to get out, and such membrane-based fabrics are far less breathable.

    Thus the trick is finding your personal compromise point between breathability (comfort when it’s nice) and protection (comfort when it’s not so nice). I dislike membrane based fabrics (aside from lower breathability they take forever and a day to dry out if they do soak through), but my son practically lives in a membrane-based soft shell jacket, so it’s each to their own and also horses for courses: my needs are different from his. As usual with compromises, you choose, you lose!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*