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Common threads: the fabric of performance apparel.

Performance apparel represents one of the fastest growing sectors of the textile and clothing industry. Market growth is being fueled by the emergence of new fibers, fabrics, and innovative process technologies.





Today's technology encourages breathability, thermal insulation, moisture management, and odor neutralization. Industry buzzwords run the gamut from wicking to anti-microbial to climate control. And, increasingly, high-tech fabrics and apparel designed for high-performance wear are crossing over into everyday fashion.

Not surprisingly, sports have been a boon to its popularity.

To get a feel for the market, Scholastic Coach & Athletic Director asked a roundtable of company executives and marketing directors for their take on what coaches and AD's should be aware of when purchasing performance apparel for their teams. Our panel included: Steve Battista, VP/Brand, Under Armour; Dottie Dye, VP Marketing/Merchandising, M.J. Soffe; Bob McDavid, President, McDavid Sports/Medical Products; Efraim Nathan, President, Lontex Corp., and Ryan Oliver, Director of Marketing, Zensah.

What is the most important thing consumers should know when selecting the right performance apparel?

Battista: "Our number one job from a marketing standpoint is telling the story, and that means ensuring that the consumer understands the term 'performance apparel' is not just a generic term covering any and all clothing that could be worn in a sports setting. We created the performance apparel category to be exclusive to apparel that does something for you through its synthetic fabrications. That's why we call our logo the Universal Guarantee of Performance, because we don't make 'regular' or cotton products. Ultimately, getting athletes out of cotton is our goal."

Dye: "Performance apparel should deliver the obvious--it performs. Most performance apparel has the wicking properties that move moisture away from the body and quick evaporation time enabling the garment to dry faster."

McDavid: "They should know what is the specific performance feature or features they are looking. Performance apparel is a catch-all name that implies that the product will provide certain benefits that will make the athlete better. Most of these products have a moisture management (or wicking) component that allows sweat to evaporate quicker. This means that the garment will be drier, lighter, and cooler so the athlete is more comfortable and can perform better. This is often also described as temperature moderating--keeping the body cooler in hot weather and warmer in cool weather.

"All performance apparel products are synthetic, usually nylon or polyester. It is important to realize that all performance apparel products are not the same. It is difficult to know the differences because the performance feature cannot be seen or felt. So the consumer must rely on his or her direct experience or the recommendation of others. There are many good products out there and there are many that claim to be performance but they really are not. I have seen some brands that claim to have moisture management properties but when we test them they do not. Also, most brands use topically applied chemicals to enhance wicking that washes out after 5-10 washings. In our view this is unacceptable."

Nathan: "Cotton is natural. Wool is natural. Silk is natural. Which means you cannot alter it. The first thing is to let the consumer know that cotton is bad for them if they are trying to perform an activity that requires them to sweat. Cotton is not comfortable to wear in the wintertime because when you perspire, it freezes to your skin and creates a chill. In the summer, cotton will absorb perspiration. Cotton fiber has no exit. So it swaddles the water and it becomes saturated. When it becomes saturated it stays there for 24-30 hours at room temperature.

"In 1992, DuPont invented a manmade-fiber called CoolMax. They basically said, 'We have to invent a fiber that has exit and entrance.' It is noted for its breathability and moisture wicking properties. Then Nike came up with Dri-FIT. The first people that understood what it meant to wick moisture away was the individual sports, not the team sports.

"There are three things a consumer should ask a retailer before buying a product that claims it has moisture management properties: How does it work? How does it wick moisture away and for what length of period? How many times can I wear and wash it?"

Oliver: "I think what's important to mention is that not all performance apparel is created equal. People should definitely look at the make-up of a products because if they really do their homework they will notice that many of the big brands out there are made in the same factories and are made of the same yarns."

What are the differences between compression-wear and loose-fitting wear? What are the benefits of each?

Battista: "There may be a misconception that only weekend warriors or part time athletes wear our loose fitting HeatGear, but the fact of the matter is we're seeing growth across the board in our core LooseGear offerings, our Streaker collection, and in our Tech T program which is comprised of fabrics that look like cotton, feel like cotton, but perform like Under Armour. Meanwhile, we're seeing our core compression business continue to be a staple of the athlete's wardrobe, and new designs and technology, like our color blocked Blitz HeatGear program and our new Metal collection, have provided our athletes higher levels of performance."

Dye: "Compression helps protect the muscles during a workout or game. Loose-fitting performance apparel usually has the properties listed in compression."

McDavid: "If they both have moisture management properties then the difference is that compression wear is snug fitting and compresses the muscles for added benefits. For almost 20 years we have provided compression products to help reduce muscle pulls and strains and to augment proprioception (the ability of the body to know where it is in space without actually seeing it). Loose fitting apparel fits like a normal cotton shirt except it has all the moisture management features as described above--lighter, dryer, etc."

Nathan: "The whole idea of compression is about the power of the stretch and recovery. As for loose fitting, some people call a t-shirt a performance undergarment. Some people just say that's a t-shirt. It depends how you use it."

Oliver: "The compression-wear, from a moisture management standpoint, can actually do a better job just because it stretches across the skin. So it's going to pull the moisture away from the skin and push it to the outside of the fabric. Whereas, if you're wearing loose apparel, moisture is not as readily trapped and can drip out. The other benefits of compression-wear are preventing muscle cramps and helps with blood flow."

How important are antimicrobial and wicking materials incorporated into today's fabrics?

Battista: "Premium price points dictate premium performance."

Dye: "Antimicrobial properties are an added benefit because it inhibits the growth of odor causing bacteria."

McDavid: "Wicking is very important--the key feature that allows for rapid evaporation of sweat. Without the wicking component it is hard to claim that a product is a performance product. Antimicrobial features are most important if you seldom wash your clothes. Wicking fabrics--the better ones--allow the clothes to dry so rapidly that bacteria and mildew are inhibited from growing because they are dry."

Nathan: "Performance apparel means that it does something extra for your body. The key for performance apparel to do its job is to open the pores in the skin to dry the sweat rapidly. That's the way cools itself, by sweating. But if the sweat is trapped next to your skin, you're in trouble. It clogs the pores in the skin, elevates the body's temperature, and increases your heart function. The wetness doesn't let the body intake oxygen. Not only through your nose and mouth, but through the pores in the skin."

Oliver: "Our fabric is not polyester-based, so it does not have that coarse feel. Polyester is very good for moisture management. But we've been able to take a combination of polyamide and polyester, as well as our own proprietary technology, to create a great feel in our fabric. The fabric has silver ions impregnated into it, which eliminates odor. It's not a silver yarn. And it's not dipped. A lot of other companies, in order to get that performance effect, actually dip or dye the garment in a liquid. And that washes out after 30 washes. What the silver does is fights bacteria and it also helps dissipate heat."

Are today's performance apparel fabrics designed as sport-specific? If not, will that ever happen?"

Battista: "Our gearlines are designed through the framework of a complex technology laid out in a simple thermographic story: Wear HeatGear when it's hot, ColdGear when it's cold, and AllSeasonGear in between. The ColdGear piece that works so well on the football field is the same piece worn on the baseball, softball and lacrosse fields, not to mention on the ski slopes by men and women. There are some sport specific pieces in our line that, ironically enough, end up in other sports through the preference of the athlete. For instance, the Grippy Longsleeve--originally designed for football receivers--has been a favorite of hockey players who like the Grippy pattern on their forearms to help keep their gloves in place. Also, our five pocket football girdle is very popular for basketball players who want that protection on their thighs."

Dye: "Some performance apparel is designed for team specific activities--to be worn under the uniform offering compression, moisture management, etc."

McDavid: "I'm sure we will see that. Currently there are sliding shorts used in baseball; football girdles, etc that are sport specific performance products. We have developed a line of protective apparel products using Hexpad Technology. These products include hundreds of individual pads permanently bonded to performance fabrics and placed strategically to help prevent injuries as well as to enhance performance. Hexpad products are currently available for football, basketball, volleyball, lacrosse, baseball, soccer and rugby. We have seen an immediate acceptance for these products. These are products in which you can see and feel one of the performance components. Already these products are used in football at the NFL and major colleges. And in basketball--NBA and college."

Oliver: "We are only focused on seamless. A regular cut-and-sew garment has been manufactured the same way for hundreds of years. You take the fabric and cut out a pattern and then sew the pieces together, like the front and back. The terminology for seamless is really the way it is manufactured. Does a seamless garment mean it doesn't have any seams? No. It does have some seams in certain areas. Seamless also helps prevent chafing.

"What's important to remember with cut-and-sew is first they make the fabric and then they make the product. Our product is made at the same time the fabric is knitted. That means we can engineer the fabric to include certain functionality for athletes."

Talk about the wearability factor. Many of today's performance materials lose either their antimicrobial and/or wicking technology after several washes. How is that being addressed?

Battista: "Durability is something we demand in all of our products. We're in locker rooms every single day and see the amount of loose and compression pieces from five, six, seven years ago still being worn; it's very impressive. It seems like every equipment manager has a story about buying some of our original or early shirts and shorts that have held up to this day."

Dye: "The industry usually measures the life of a garment as 50 washings. Topical treatments/finishes should meet these standards. There are permanent moisture management & antimicrobial properties in some yarns. Soffe's Dri Release products of tees and shorts are knitted with these yarns and offer permanent moisture management and anti microbial properties."

McDavid: "You are correct; most performance products on the market loose their benefits when the wicking material washes out. This may take as little as 5 washings. We developed our own process we call hDc. Our Ultra hDc technology is permanent--it won't wash out. This is because Ultra hDc technology changes the molecular structure of the synthetic fabrics that are treated. It is not a topical application. It is chemically applied under high temperatures.'
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Author:Newell, Kevin
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2006
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