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A Billion Pores: Quest for ‘Most Breathable’ Waterproof Jacket

OR Skyward II Jacket
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Update: GearJunkie covered AscentShell and the Skyward jacket after their launch in 2016. New for 2019, the Skyward II jacket and pants employ the electrospun membrane with improved design, durability, and stretch.

A jacket membrane technology called AscentShell from Outdoor Research balances waterproof with breathable in a different way: venting via billions of microscopic pores when you sweat.

Take liquid polyurethane and add an electrical charge. In a lab setting, this process causes fine fibers to rise from the chemical brew. Next, the microscopic wisps are set in a matrix formation and sandwiched inside a winter coat.

In simple terms, that’s the process to create the guts — the electrospun laminate membrane — used in Outdoor Research’s Skyward II jacket and pants. It may sound wild, but outerwear is arguably the innovation hotbed in the outdoor industry.

outdoor research skyward jacket: Electrospun laminate membrane looks like a fine web
Nano view: Magnified, the ‘electrospun’ laminate membrane looks like a fine web

Thinner, more stretchy, and with the highest breathability of any hardshell in its ski line, Outdoor Research is bullish on the Skyward and its AscentShell electrospun membrane technology.

In the winter of 2016-2017, we tested the original OR Skyward shell, made with AscentShell. (In 2019, the company updated the jacket and pants for men and women.)

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In the GearJunkie test, the jacket proved air-permeable (air can pass through), breathable (water vapor can escape), and waterproof. It’s also soft and quieter than a traditional hardshell — as advertised.

For more technical context on the AscentShell technology, we spoke with the Outdoor Research design team. See our Q&A below.

Jacket Tech: Electrospun Membrane

GearJunkie: What is an electrospun membrane?

Outdoor Research: Think of electrospun membranes like cotton candy done on a microscopic level. It is made from very small polyurethane short-staple fibers that are electrically charged and then randomly laid to create a waterproof barrier that is actually air-permeable.

This technology is very challenging to make, and only a few suppliers in the world are able to control the quality to use it in textiles. Our version is proprietary and is made with a close partner.

How does the membrane work?

Some membranes have to reach a certain level of humidity for the membrane to start working to move vapor out. This one does not need that difference in pressure from inside to outside.

Skyward II jacket and pants, put to the test

With this technology, you can create far more and different-size “holes” for vapor to escape. And with a modicum of air coming in, your sweat is in a constant little circulation chamber where it’s drying quickly.

It’s still waterproof, and you won’t feel the slight air coming through. There’s just enough to dry the vapor that’s pushing out and that allows more sweat to push out faster, keeping you more comfortable.

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OR AscentShell: Who It’s For

How does that compare to GORE-TEX and other options?

The key difference is that moisture moves out faster to keep you drier while you’re active in a hardshell. If you are a super-active user in wet conditions, this hardshell technology works to keep you as dry from the inside as the outside. It’s also softer, stretchier, and quieter than the GORE-TEX fabrics in most peoples’ hardshells.

If you’re standing around in the rain or doing something not as active, then other waterproof technologies like GORE-TEX may be more appropriate for long-term use in non-sweaty conditions.

Taking off the skins, ready to head downhill. Backcountry skiing is an activity where breathability in outerwear is a paramount concern.

Why would a buyer choose this jacket?

Because it gives breathability and comfort in a dependable, waterproof shell without being ridiculously expensive. Plus, we can offer stretch, which is not common in hardshell jackets.

Versatility: We take great effort to dial in the weights and textures of fabric packages to a user’s specific needs. All this combines to make the jacket really versatile.

Price: Our AscentShell garments are also generally a better value to the customer, as we’re able to work directly with suppliers to keep prices a bit lower on these garments.

Performance: For winter hardshell active users like backcountry skiers, or ice climbers, this new technology is a nice advantage to staying dry and comfortable, especially since we incorporate stretch, which allows them to move without restriction.

This article is sponsored by Outdoor Research. See more on the company’s men’s and women’s Skyward II jackets and pants here.

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