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Patagonia Specter Pullover REVIEW

Product performance review of the Patagonia Specter pullover, a 6.5-ounce rain shell.

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by Alan Dixon and Ryan Jordan | 2005-03-22 03:00:00-07

Patagonia Specter Pullover REVIEW

Overview

At 6.5 ounces (186 g, as verified on our scales) the Patagonia Specter pullover is one of the lightest woven fabric waterproof/breathable shells we’ve tested. The only same-category shell we’re aware of that may be a shade lighter is the Montane 180 Smock (manufacturer specification is 6.3 ounces, 180 g).

Unlike some lightweight rain jackets that barely fit over a thin fleece layer, the Specter offers a generous fit and layers easily over a moderate loft synthetic fill jacket (we tested a size M shell over a size M Patagonia Micro Puff insulated pullover) with a little room to spare. Unfortunately, its short hem requires the use of rain pants for full torso/trunk protection in real rain.

Considering its light weight, the Patagonia Specter offers more-than-spartan features that include a large dual drawcord hood, drawcord hem, articulated sleeves, a webbing stiffened zipper storm flap, and a kangaroo pocket.

Most unique about the Specter is a new seam construction technique, an ultrasonic welded seam manufacturing technology exclusive to Patagonia.

Patagonia also offers the similarly constructed 9+ ounce Specter Jacket (not reviewed, but with a full front zip and core-venting side/handwarmer pockets) and 6+ ounce Grade VI Pants (not reviewed) to complement the two shells.

The Specter belongs to a rapidly emerging category of sub-8-ounce shells. These garments are designed to provide complete waterproof/breathable weather protection at the weight and packed volume of our old emergency gear like a vinyl jacket/poncho, emergency blanket, or a water resistant windshirt. The philosophy is that there should be no reason to leave rainwear at home. By this measure (weight) alone the Specter is a success: it provides good weather protection and reasonable breathability for minimal weight and bulk. In summary, it is the lightest and most compact rain jacket we’ve used.

Specifications

Weight 6.54 oz (186 g) as measured Size M; manufacturer’s specification 6.5 ounces (184 g)
Model Year 2005
Shell Fabric 2.5-layer 1.9 oz/yd2 (64 g/m2), 20d x 22d nylon with 40d ripstop yarns; H2No® Storm barrier
Shell treatment Deluge® DWR finish
FeaturesWater resistant half-length front zipper, dual drawcord adjustment helmet compatible hood, drawcord hem, simple elastic cuffs, single mesh kangaroo pocket also serves as a stuff sack, articulated elbows
MSRP$225

What’s Good

  • Lightweight: The Specter is one of the lightest waterproof/breathable shells we’ve tested. Lighter than last year’s model (our measured weights) by 2.5 ounces.
  • Generous fit: The Specter will layer over a lightweight synthetic fill jacket like a Patagonia Micro Puff in the same size.
  • Hood: Dual adjustment hood accommodates a low volume climbing helmet.
  • Breathability: Waterproof/breathable fabric provides good breathability for its weight, unlike many other PU-coated ultralight waterproof fabrics.
  • The Zipper: The Specter has one of the smoothest operating water resistant zippers we’ve used.
  • Seam Technology: New welded seams have a lower profile, reduce weight, resist soil absorption, and minimize abrasive seam wear.

What’s Not So Good

  • Kangaroo pocket: Wearing a pack hip belt blocks access and reduces ventilation.
  • Ventilation: No pit zips or other core venting system further hampers ventilation of the half-zip pullover design.

Performance

Storm protection is a strong feature of the Patagonia Specter. Of special note is its large and dual adjustment hood that will seal around anything from a low volume helmet to a bare head, and when fully opened, provides a cavernous reprieve from a downpour while keeping the head area ventilated.

The Specter’s shell fabric is one of Patagonia’s most breathable 2.5 layer polyurethane membranes (their Stretch Element’s fabric takes top honors). The shell fabric breathed creditably when we hiked uphill at a brisk pace in 40 °F temperatures. What most limited the pullover’s overall comfort and moisture transport performance was its lack of ventilation options. With no pit zips, core vents, a vented kangaroo pocket that is blocked by a hip belt, and only a half-length, 14-inch front zipper, we overheated in this jacket at exertion levels that were lower than the breathability thresholds for most jackets and pullovers that offer core venting options. Of course, this is a tradeoff of the minimalist pullover design and is not particularly unique to the Specter specifically. With a pullover, which by nature is usually minimalist, you save weight, but limit your options to vent excess heat and moisture. If you need more ventilation options, consider the Specter Jacket (which offers a full zipper and large core vents built into the front pockets).

The 2.5 layer polyurethane membrane in the Patagonia Specter has a highly hydrophilic textured inner layer that is said to swell and become more textured as the inside of the garment gets damp (under the presumption that an increase in texturing improves moisture transport across the membrane by increasing the surface area for moisture transfer). In the field, wearing only a wool T-shirt, we found the inner surface of the Specter to be less clammy than some of the 2.5 layer PU garments we’ve worn, but can't validate the membrane technology claims based on observation - the differences are not dramatic, if even noticeable.

The Specter has the smoothest operating water resistant zipper we’ve used. For a change, the slider moves easily with one hand, a refreshing change from most waterproof zippers on the market. The zipper is backed by a stiffened storm flap that never interfered with the zipper’s operation.

What's Unique

The vast majority of seams on the Specter use a new construction technique by which seams are ultrasonically welded and backed by a narrow composite mesh reinforced seam tape – Patagonia calls this their Composite Seam System™ (CSS) technology, with the specific claims:

  • Lighter weight
  • More compressible
  • More waterproof
  • More supple
  • More aesthetically pleasing
  • More durable (more resistant to abrasion)

Addressing these claims in turn, the meaningful differences in weight, compressibility, waterproofness, and suppleness are not noticeable in the field, although technically, they appear to be valid.

Folding a seam upon itself and visually inspecting it relative to traditionally sewn garments, it is clear that the seams are more supple and compressible, but when wearing or packing the Specter, these features are not particularly noticeable. Narrower (7 mm), thinner seam tape, and a butt-joined sonic weld (as opposed to a felled sewn seam) are primarily responsible for this. A worthy note: The Specter does compress into a ball about four inches in diameter. Considering that the old Specter (which used a heavier fabric weight) compressed to a ball about 5 inches in diameter, and a similarly designed Pertex Quantum/Microlight garment compressed to a ball about 3 inches in diameter, the 2005 Specter certainly provides an industry benchmark for waterproof shell compressibility.

Without an exact replica of the 2005 Specter sewn traditionally for comparison, it's impossible to understand the extent to which the new seam technology decreases weight. Patagonia claims a decrease in weight of 27% in their Spring 2005 catalog. However, some simple back-of-the-napkin calculations that consider garment seam length, tape width, and thread weight indicate that the differences are not quite that dramatic and probably result in a weight savings in the range of 5% or less of the garment weight on the Specter (potentially higher weight savings can be gained for heavier, more complex garments). The 2005 Specter is indeed lighter than the 2004 version (by 2.5 oz), but most of the weight savings comes from a lighter shell fabric - 1.9 oz/yd2 this year vs. last year’s 2.5 oz/yd2 fabric and a slight redesign.

As for waterproofness of the new technology, we feel that the new construction technique makes little difference on a new garment relative to traditionally-taped seams. However, depending on the ability of Patagonia's welded seams to remain durable over long term use, these seams should maintain waterproofness longer than sewn seams, since they are completely sealed during welding and taping, with no potential leak spots resulting from needle holes.

We’ve had no durability problems (with respect to failure of waterproofness, abrasion, or tearing) with the seams on the Specter to date but it’s still too early to assess the strength and long-term durability of this new construction technique. It will take a couple of years of field use and feedback from the market to make a fair assessment of the durability of this construction technique.

A thin composite mesh between the seam tape and the fabric weld adds strength to the seam, since the weld by itself is not strong enough to resist seam tearing on its own (Patagonia has a patent pending on this construction technique).

Patagonia suggests that this construction technique is an improvement over traditional laminated seams (a construction technique gaining popularity in garments by Mountain Hardwear, Arc'Teryx, and others) because it does not expose tape to outer fabric surfaces and suffer seam failure due to "tape-edge abrasion," whereby a glued felled seam, or an outer-face-taped seam, results in either one or two tape or fabric edges exposed to abrasion. While tape-edge abrasion has been noted as a point of failure for waterproof garments, the incidence is low relative to other modes of failure, including most predominantly, abrasion of the exterior fabric face itself, abrasion of the interior coating in high wear areas, and incidental pinholes (a mode of failure important in ultralight fabrics). Tape-edge failure is not expected to be a significant mode of failure for most ultralight backpackers, but this may be a selling point for the very small fraction of users that spend their time shimmying their way up granite chimneys in the rain.

According to Randy Harward at Patagonia, except for some very special cases (concentrated loads in a very small area), the Specter’s welded seams are stronger than the fabric.

Note: a sewn seam is still stronger than Patagonia's welded and taped seam. But Randy points out that you only need a seam that is slightly stronger than the fabric itself so that seam strength does not limit the overall tearing resistance of the garment. Beyond that, Randy claims, seam strength is not a limiting factor in garment design. However, depending on garment design, seams can bear disproportionately high stress concentrations in response to active movement while wearing a pack, notably, in the shoulders and back. To Patagonia's credit, fit and mobility are not a problem with the Specter, and we don't expect these seams to fail in the field as a result of tearing.

We think one of the more realistic, and meaningful benefits of this seam technology (also a benefit of glue laminated felled seams) as compared to sewn seams is that there is less material to absorb water (which may improve drying time as well). One mode of failure in the waterproofness of traditional shells is the soaking through of seams and resulting wicking to the interior of the garment. We don't expect this to be a mode of failure in the Specter.

While writing this review, we debated with each other at great length about the real benefits of this technology. Certainly, Patagonia's claims appear to be incremental at best with performance advantages that may not be noticeable in the field for most users (with the exception of aesthetics). Eventually, we did some industry digging to investigate real benefits to the manufacturer for construction techniques like this, and discovered an important consideration: in the long term, these seam construction techniques will be cheaper for the manufacturer. Garments using them can be constructed quicker and require less skill to operate the machines effectively. An increased capital investment is required up front, but long term cost savings will eventually drive the market to use welded and laminated seam construction techniques. The real question, however, remains: will we as consumers enjoy the fruits of this technology with lower priced garments? In the short term, this is doubtful: new technologies such as this always demand a price premium. Even in the long term, it's unlikely that companies like Arc'Teryx or Patagonia will drop prices to compete with mid-market manufacturers for fear of brand quality dilution. So, instead, the consumer can expect to enjoy the fruits of this and similar technologies as manufacturers adopt the machinery and it begins to appear in a wider variety of garments from more brands.

Recommendations for Improvement

The kangaroo pocket is not compatible with a pack hipbelt, which blocks it for both storage and ventilation (see photo above). We’d prefer a more readily accessible napoleon-style pocket on the shell.

The Patagonia Specter Pullover is great for brief showers but if I planned on wearing a rainshell for long periods, ventilation would be a serious concern - Patagonia's claim (from their Website) that the zipper is "deep for ventilating" doesn't rise to the standard of other manufacturers (especially those in the UK, who are known for creating very functional smocks/pullovers) and is in reality only a 14-inch half zipper (size M). And so, if you are expecting to wear a rain shell in sustained wet conditions, consider the 9-ounce Specter Jacket or similar design with better ventilation.

And a reality check: From a technical design and engineering standpoint, we think that Patagonia's new seam construction techniques are superb, and have no reason to invalidate any of the claims they make about them. But in the field, don't expect the seams to create meaningful increases in garment performance for you. Where this technology could really shine is in long term durability and waterproofness - but it will be a few years before we understand the impact of this technology during sustained field use.


Citation

"Patagonia Specter Pullover REVIEW," by Alan Dixon and Ryan Jordan. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/patagonia_specter_pullover_review.html, 2005-03-22 03:00:00-07.

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