“Do shoes also breathe?” I remember seeing this advertisement on a billboard when I was young. It was about sports shoes, and the USP was that this sports shoe had a simple technology, that allowed air to pass through the shoes.
Sportspeople have specialised clothing manufactured to meet the demands of different sports. The technology that goes into manufacturing sports apparel is undergoing rapid changes. It is important to understand why International sportswear brands like Nike, Adidas, Puma,etc. have been developing their entire sportswear range using functional fabrics made of Polyester & Nylon instead of focusing on traditional Cotton fabrics. Also the impact can be seen across all sports, whether it be the printed Cricket jerseys, Body fitted running/ cycling gear, or the extreme trekking garments.
In this article, we peek into some of the reasons why specialised fabrics are required for sportswear:
1. Thermal properties – The fabric needs to consider the thermal insulation properties of sports. In hot weather it should stay cool, while in cold weather it should stay slightly warm. In case the garment is unable to push sweat to the exterior, it results in increasing the body temperature of the sportsperson. Depending on the season, the properties of the fabrics can be altered to suit the requirements of the wearer. Eg. For summers the fabric is kept light and loose constructed, to allow better breathability. Whereas for Winters, the fabrics are brushed on the inside to provide better insulation through the air packets, that keeps you warm. This property is also useful during warm up session, so that the player is ready for the game quicker.
2. Moisture Wicking Properties – This is an essential feature that goes into sportswear. Moisture needs to pass through the fabric to the outer surface, allowing it to dry quickly. This ability is dependent on the construction of the fabric, and with the use of special chemicals the capillary movement of moisture is enhanced in the Sportswear fabrics. Like for Summers, the more airy the fabric the more comfortable it shall feel. As little as 15% moisture, can halve the airiness of the fabric. Hence a traditional Cotton fabric that has a long drying time, will feel comfortable at the beginning, but as soon as you start to sweat, the fabrics air flow will drop drastically. Now this function is very well accomplished in Polyester Quick Dry fabrics, which has a low moisture regain value of 0.4%, hence dries quickly, making it feel airy all through.
3. Lighter Weight – Sportswear is required to be smooth to the touch and light in weight. As Man-made fibers like polyester and Nylon are available in much more finer counts, so the overall fabric weight can be lighter. Eg. Just for comparison sake a 20D Poly yarn (meaning 20gm/9mtr yarn length), would be equivalent to 268’s count of Cotton, which is technically not possible to produce. The light weight and fineness of the yarn, enables better fabric construction, making it more light and comfortable for the end user. Every gram that is shed off the body of the athlete, would help him perform better, and that might just be the difference of split seconds between the 1st and the 2nd position.
4. Stretchability properties – Sportswear needs to be elastic so that it does not restrict movement. Stretch can be induced into Sportswear fabrics by using Spandex yarn or special Mechanical Stretch yarns. Imagine your movements being restricted due to the garment you are wearing, hence not being comfortable. The sportswear garments need to be able to withstand the strain of different forms of sport and activities. Various forms of sports require varying degrees of stretchability. Gymnasts, for example, require fabrics that are stretchable for smooth movement. Stretch fabrics are gaining more importance in Lifestyle as well, as it provides a better fit and shape, providing better comfort at the same time. Stretch properties are better in fabrics having a knitted construction, and for woven fabrics it can be achieved by using Spandex or Mechanical stretch yarns.
5. Compression Properties – When you see people at the gym wearing tight compression clothes, its not only for the style, but mainly for performance. Research has shown that the compression garments, having high spandex which fits tightly to the body, improves Blood Flow, and provides support to the muscles as you exercise. It helps the blood to flow back faster to the heart, effectively reducing the fatigue and allowing higher performance. These fabrics are available in Polyester Spandex and Nylon Spandex blends with 15-30% spandex content. Preferably Warp knit fabrics are used for this as they are more closely knit. Applications include Gym wear, Cricket inners, Cycling wear, Skating wear, etc. It is also very useful for its aerodynamic properties, as its fit will help reduce the air drag. Eg. A Cyclist can increase his speed by 91 seconds just by switching from casual medium jersey to a fitting size garment.
6. Weather Proof Properties – The outermost layer associated with sportswear, helps protect the wearer from the adverse weather conditions like wind, rain and snow. These fabrics are required to be constructed and treated specially to be able to keep the wearer comfortable under all conditions. Wind proofing is done by tight construction of the fabric (generally >300T density is suitable). An added functionality of Water Repellency (WR) is also useful, which is achieved by doing a chemical treatment. WR safeguards from light drizzle and mist, so that the water can float off the surface of the fabric. At the same time for protection from Rain and Snow, the fabric is required to have Water Proof (WP) function. To achieve WP coating of PU, TPU, PVC needs to be done on the fabric, which acts as a water resistant layer on the fabric. Depending on the extremeness of the weather conditions in which the garment is to be worn, varying degrees of Water proofing can be desired. The industry uses waterproofing from 800mm to 10,000mm depending on end use, which depicts the pressure of water that the fabric can hold.
7. Durability and Easy Maintenance – If you are wearing your sports kit regularly, you wouldn’t want it to start looking dull and worn out. As Polyester and Nylon are man-made fibers, and are dyed under a high temperature and pressure they have a better Colour Fastness, giving it the same colour effect throughout its life. Infact with the growing use of Sublimation printing, the garments are printed in beautiful designs to look good. Being Filament yarn, they have better pilling resistance as well, and hence are easy to maintain, and technically not much care is required for repeated use. However some of the added functions like wicking tends to reduce with repeated usage, so it is advised to change the garment periodically for functional users.
Conclusion : The whole idea behind the development of various functional fabrics for sportswear, is to help enhance the performance of the wearer. A deeper and proper knowledge of the fabrics and its functionality, will help the garment brands and end users to make a proper choice on the type of fabric/ garment to be used depending on the end use, climatic conditions, endurance level, etc.