How Polartec NeoShell Changed Waterproof Technology - Outdoors Magic

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How Polartec NeoShell Changed Waterproof Technology

Michael Cattanach, Global Product Director for Polartec, on the science behind the brand's ‘high airflow’ waterproof membrane

What comes to mind when you think of a waterproof jacket? Rain protection, obviously, and wind protection as well. But other things might come to mind also: claminess, perhaps; discomfort; and that annoying swishing sound with every swing of your arms. Putting on a jacket has always been a last resort, hasn’t it? We’ll wait as long as we can, until the drizzle becomes more than drizzle, before we’ll finally accept that it’s time to pull the waterproof out of the bag. Then on those autumn and winter runs, we’ve all done that thing where we stubbornly push on in our jacket, overheat and get covered in a thick layer of moisture, refusing to accept that it’s really doing us no favours whatsoever. 

It doesn’t have to be like that though, and we have New England-based Scotsman Michael Cattanach to thank for that. Back in 2011 he led a project at Polartec to develop the brand’s own version of a waterproof membrane. Polartec NeoShell was the result, a material that offered a solution to all of the problems we normally associate with waterproof jackets. It became an immediate success and, to this day, is used by a number of the world’s leading outdoor brands.

“Applying decades of textile know-how to our product range allows them not only to have a little stretch but to also fit who Polartec are.”

“We’ve seen great testimonies from people who had previously used their shell as an emergency garment,” explains Cattanach. “Those folks were amazed they could now take a jacket and wear it all day without stopping and starting to take layers on and off due to overheating.”

Over the years since its launch, NeoShell’s advantages have become “understood and adopted” by even the more high aerobic users according to Cattanach, to the extent that it’s now used in products in the road and mountain bike markets – where wearing a waterproof was previously unheard of.


What’s the secret then? Well, it all starts with the fact that Polartec’s NeoShell membrane is 80% air. It’s made up of millions of nano fibres all tangled together but with spaces and chambers between them that air – moisture laden air – can flow through. Air traveling through from outside does occur, but it has a negligible effect – in other words, wind isn’t a problem. Air escaping from the inside, on the other hand, makes a crucial difference.


The Stadarfell, a Polartec NeoShell jacket by Icelandic brand 66°NORTH
The feel of Polartec NeoShell is often likened to softshell

To Cattanach, NeoShell isn’t really about breathability. To him, there’s more to it than that. It’s about air flow.

“We have true air flow through the waterproof membrane, that’s why people are more comfortable; they are able to directly vent excess heat and moisture before they become uncomfortable,” he explains. “We still get asked about breathability ratings compared to other products but we’ve never had a marketing story that refers to these because fundamentally those tests do not measure air flow. They simply measure the rate that moisture moves through a solid sheet of plastic.”

If we are looking at breathability, Polartec, as Cattanach alludes to, has never given an official number for the moisture vapour transmission rate (MVTR) for NeoShell, but common outdoor industry estimates put it at around the 30.000g/m2/24h mark. For years outdoor enthusiasts tolerated ratings of around 20.000. Even 28.000 was, and still is, considered to be premium level. So with that in mind 30.000 is a very decent number.  

Waterproof Protection

These days the level of waterproof protection that a fabric provides tends to be measured in terms of its hydrostatic head and the higher this number is, the more waterproof it is. In this regard, Polartec with its 10,000mm rating, sits a fair bit below its main competitors, most of whom are in the 20,000s. Does that mean less reliability then? Would you be caught short in this stuff if you headed out into some stormy Scottish weather? Fortunately, as Cattanach explains, that wouldn’t be the case.

Related: Jöttnar Asmund With Polartec NeoShell | Review

“I think I’ve answered this a few times over the years,” he says. “We are trying to make the optimum product for the athletes who value our products. We chose what we think – and what our market research told us – is the goldilocks zone of performance in terms of waterproofness and air permeability. In the real world arms race of data on a hang tag, yes Polartec NeoShell has a lower waterproof rating than some of the competition but we are differentiated by that air permeability translating to true usable comfort. Our product is waterproof, brands make waterproof jackets from them and people stay dry!”

And the reason Polartec NeoShell products are so stretchy and also so quiet in comparison to the other waterproof fabrics? That, according to Cattanach, is down to Polartec just being selective about what fabrics are paired with their membrane. “We’re known for making things at the premium end of the market,” he says. “We want our breathable waterproof ranges to be as coveted as the rest of our luxurious, silky smooth, soft and silent product range. The membrane is special and expensive, it would be crazy to blur that out with cheap and nasty textiles. So applying decades of textile know-how to our product range allows them not only to have a little stretch but to also fit who Polartec are – different to the competition.”

Since the first NeoShell membrane back in 2011, it’s clear that Polartec, haven’t rested on their laurels. In the now highly competitive waterproof fabric market, it would be foolish to do so. According to Cattanach there’s been a “constant evolution” of the fabric, and its development has now been boosted by the huge R&D resources that the company’s new owner Milliken and Co. boast. Still, the message of comfort through breathability and waterproofness, as Cattanach concludes, has and will always remain the same.

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