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M Pertex/Pile History and Products

by Chris Townsend

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Article Summary:

Pertex/Pile products were born in the wet cold of the British hills, way back in the late 1970s. Mountaineer and gear designer Hamish Hamilton, famous in the British camping world for creating the distinctive orange double-A pole Vango Force 10 tents that took tent design to a new level in the 1960s, became intrigued by the possibilities of a nylon fabric. Moisture was drawn along the fibers of the nylon by capillary action, so it could spread out and evaporate quickly. Hamilton worked with Perseverance Mills in Northern England to develop such a nylon, which was named Pertex. (Since 2005, Pertex has been owned by Japanese company Mitsui.) Initially, Hamilton used Pertex as a shell fabric for sleeping bags made from a shaggy fabric called fiber-pile, making them windproof and water-resistant. He soon realized, though, that the combination of Pertex and pile could be used for shell clothing.

Unlike other designers, Hamilton was looking at shells from the point of view of comfort rather than waterproofing, on the basis that in heavy rain, nothing will keep you totally dry, and thought that Pertex/pile clothing would wick moisture rapidly, insulate well, keep wind out, shed all but the heaviest rain, and dry fast. The result was the first Pertex/Pile garment, the Mountain Shirt, made and marketed by Hamilton's company Buffalo Systems (http://www.buffalosystems.co.uk). At the time, Hamilton's approach was off the wall and radical. Every outdoor clothing designer assumed that the main purpose of shell clothing was to keep all rain out with the escape of moisture vapor as an important but secondary consideration. Concentrating on removing moisture vapor and putting breathability above waterproofness was a startling idea. Unsurprisingly, it took some time to be accepted at all, and it has never become mainstream. Sealed barrier rain clothing is still the norm. However, soft shell clothing adopts the same approach as that worked out by Hamish Hamilton thirty years ago. Indeed, Buffalo Pertex/Pile clothing can be seen as the original soft shell, developed long before that term first appeared. In Britain, the system was soon being used by many mountaineers for winter climbing both in the UK hills and abroad in the Alps, Himalayas, and other ranges. Since then, it has caught on for a variety of activities from mountain biking to yachting and is used by mountain rescue teams and other emergency services.

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