Magic Material? Clothing said to 'Cool Wearer with Sweat'

Glowing walls of sandstone tower over and surround Sedona, Ariz., a high-desert outpost famous for the metaphysical effect it has on people. Cults have gathered here, and New Age believers are known to hike the hills in search of spiritual vortexes rumored to exist above town.

It was on the outskirts of Sedona this weekend that Columbia Sportswear and its subsidiary brand Mountain Hardwear gathered a group of journalists for an open-air press conference at a ranch.

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New category of clothing? Tiny polymer “donuts” add cooling effect

The occasion was a New Age announcement of sorts, the debuting of a fabric technology purported to offer “a whole new category of clothing” that features sweat-activated cooling properties and will “improve the way people live around the world.”

Those quotes belong to Mick McCormick, a VP at Columbia, who stood on a stage under desert stars and in front of a PowerPoint screen. He gestured to graphs and images of athletes sweating on a slide. “The world is hot and getting hotter, forget your politics,” he said.

But the night’s news had little to do with climate change. Trail runners and hot-weather hikers were more the concern for Columbia and Mountain Hardwear, who for the first time teamed up to co-launch a technology that will be used in both brands.

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Close up: Omni-Freeze ZERO pattern on shirt

The magic stuff will be called Omni-Freeze ZERO from Columbia, and Mountain Hardwear will dub its iteration Cool.Q ZERO. Both names denote a technology that will debut in spring of 2013 and use tiny donut-shape accents laminated on polyester to “suck, swell, and expel” as an athlete sweats, thus providing a cooling effect, the company reports.

High secrecy surrounded the sucking/swelling donut shapes on the to-be-released shirts and other products previewed in Sedona. But Woody Blackford, an executive who focuses on product development, told me the polymer comes from a product used in industrial water-filtration processes. (That is all he would say.)

Unlike Columbia’s launch of cooling clothing last year, which was based on an endothermic reaction that issued a cooling effect, the new stuff for next season employs a “mechanical” reaction as opposed to a chemical one. “There is a latent heat absorption that sets it apart,” Blackford said.

Essentially, as Blackford explains it, the donut shapes suck up sweat and then react to the moisture. On a molecular level, things stir around and jingle in the polymer donuts to a point where the resulting reaction pulls heat from your skin. In addition, the sweat-filled donuts also aid in wicking sweat, Blackford continued, adding extra cooling via evaporative effect.

Columbia and Mountain Hardwear plan to make many products for next year with the polymer donut technology built in, including polyester-based running shirts, arm wraps, shoes, shorts, hats, and handkerchiefs. Columbia’s McCormick believes the resulting product crush will be so influential that outdoor brands as well as the likes of Nike, Under Armor and other athletic-apparel giants will be left in the dust. “Athletic apparel has been pretty much unchanged in a lot of ways since the 1970s,” he said. “Omni-Freeze ZERO is a huge paradigm shift.”

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Formations above Sedona, Ariz., where metaphysics are purported to override reality

McCormick is a passionate guy about his company and he is known for his stage drama. (See our article “Columbia calls ‘B.S.’ on Outdoors Industry” as example A.) But after trying out an arm sleeve at the Sedona conference I can say the effect of Omni-Freeze ZERO is noticeable immediately once sprayed with water. Air felt cooler on my skin.

Tomorrow we head into the desert to try out Omni-Freeze ZERO and Cool.Q ZERO products in their intended setting. The temps look to be pushing past 90 degrees and with sun — perfect for testing clothing that’s purportedly “activated” and cooled by sweat. I just hope the vortexes above town do not interfere with our results.

Update: Ran 17 miles today (!) through the desert on a tough trail run in clothing made from this material. I wore the Mountain Hardwear version. First impression = good! It’s a slick formula. The cooling effect is noticeable, especially in the wind + the shirts are top notch for running-wear in general — comfy and highly-wicking. Also, unlike last year’s launch of a similar line by Columbia, these ones can get wet, wick and dry, and then produce the “cooling effect” again and again all in the span of a single outing. It was sunny, dry, and in the 80s on our desert run today. I look forward to testing the shirts in more humid climates, but was impressed today on this first real test. Stay tuned for a detailed blog post soon.

—Stephen Regenold is editor of GearJunkie.com. Connect with Regenold at Facebook.com/TheGearJunkie or on Twitter via @TheGearJunkie.

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