How much function is in a pair of underpants? Good question! Through diverse fabrics and processing techniques, manufacturers of functional underwear offer a wide range of specialized textiles. Our buyer's guid breaks it down into a simpler overview.
Functional underwear means that days of slogging through the outdoors with soggy cotten underwear chaffing up a storm and chilling you to the bone during breaks are long gone. No matter what activity you are pursuing and what kind of weather you are in, there is a suitable base layer out there – be it heavy long underwear for the coldest of winter days, body-mapping designs with an integrated Windstopper membrane for variable layering on long treks, or just a simple pair of light, quick-drying panties. Only looking for a top? Take your pick from a diverse selection of everything from light-weight tanktops to cozy long sleeve shirts.
Simple cut, descent, playful details yet highly functional underwear: the Siren line from Icebreaker has proved invaluable for trekking and backpacking as well as for everyday wear. | Photo: Icebreaker
A common trend among base layers or functional underwear of recent years is a shift toward more fashionable designs suitable for the work-a-day world. Brands like Icebreaker, Arc’teryx and Kari Traa, while known for their uncompromising functionality, have been leading the way in transitioning from dreary black-or-white designs towards lively colors and a more modern fit. Outdoor enthusiasts have of course long known how beneficial base layers and athletic underwear can be in the mountains, where functionality ranks far above looks on the list of priorities. Now that they are becoming more fashionable however, many people are starting to realize that their benefits can be equally felt under a pair of jeans or a skirt. The high level of comfort base layers and functional underwear provide is rooted in the most important requirement for performance sportswear: It has to allow for a free range of movement without itching or chaffing. This goal is achieved through seamless designs, flat seams, and wide, form-fitting cuffs which ensure that the base layer fits and feels like a second skin.
Synthetic or Merino? The fiber duel
Base layers are usually worn directly next to the skin, as their name suggests. They provide the foundation of proper layering, since even the best hardshell won’t do much good if the layers underneath retain excessive moisture or don’t breathe. These criteria exclude pure cotton as a base layer material, since it can absorb quite a bit of moisture but then tends to become (and stay) soggy. Modern base layers for outdoor use are commonly made of one of two materials: Synthetic fiber or Merino wool. Sometimes the two are also combined in an attempt to capture the benefits of both. The primary advantage of Merino wool is the fiber’s all-natural functionality and its soft feel. Wool can absorb roughly 30 percent of its own weight in water without feeling wet, and transfers this moisture away from the skin to the other layers for a quick-drying effect. Wool also provides excellent insulation when wet, making it especially ideal for strenuous winter hiking and ski touring. 85 percent of the fiber consists of air, accounting for its excellent insulating capabilities that keep you toasty in the winter and can help cool you down in the summer. As if that weren’t enough, merino wool is also dirt- and bacteria-repellant, und hems odours – natural qualities that are especially sought-after in base layers, since they tend to get grungy and smelly fairly quickly.
Pure Merino or in a synthetic blend?
Here at Bergzeit we carry base layers made of 100 percent Merino wool, by brands such as Devold, Bergans,Mons Royale, Pally’Hi and Ortovox. Numerous other manufacturers have opted for a blend of wool and synthetic fibers in an attempt to get the best of both worlds. Merino-specialist Icebreaker for example uses a small amount of Elasthane to improve the stretchiness of their clothing and help it dry even more quickly.
Soft, soft, even softer: A Modal component on the inner side of Ortovox’s Super Soft provides an extra soft feeling for functional underwear. Outdoor merino wool regulates body temperature. | Photo: Ortovox
Ortovox has incorporated Modal, a cellulose fiber made of beech wood, to line the interior of their Supersoft Merino base layer line. As the name suggests it is extremely soft to the touch, and effectivly wicks away moisture from the skin to the outer Merino layer. The Supersoft liner is perfect for anyone with sensitive skin who values the benefits of Merino wool, but finds the material to be a bit rough despite it’s fine weave. Odlo on the other hand chose to combine Merino wool with 55 percent heavyweight Polyester for their Revoltion line. This blend makes for an extremely breathable and quick-drying garment thanks to the polyester, while taking advantage of Merino’s natural feel and odour-fighting qualities.
Diverse and straightforward: Synthetic base layers
Synthetic fibers can be manufactured to highly exact standards regarding their size and properties, enabling manufacturers to taylor them to specifically suit their intended use. Being a natural fiber, Merino wool is limited in its maleability; a synthetic fiber on the other hand can be optimized in every step of the manufacturing process, from fabric production to the finished article of clothing. Various spinning techniques can shape an identical petroleum-based raw material into various forms, like microfibers or hollow fibers. Different compounds such as polyester, polyamide and polypropylene are also often combined to get the desired qualities in a synthetic fabric. Specialized weaving machines are even capable of joining different materials into seamless body-mapping constructions. Synthetic fiber base layers do not have the odour-fighting benefits of their natural wool counterparts, but are often equipped with silver ions to achieve a similar odour-neutralizing effect. Regardless of the materials used and how they are manufactured, synthetic base layers and functional underwear provide one distinct advantage: They dry extremely quickly, be it a lightweight summer top or a pair of heavyweight winter longjohns. In addition synthetic fibers tend to wear somewhat less than their woolen counterpart.
Frequently used synthetic fibers for functional underwear and base layers
Polyester is a synthetic fiber which is highly valued for the production of performance clothing, thanks to its low moisture retention, excellent insulating properties and durability. PES is highly tear-resistant und can be spun very fine, making it soft and comfortable. It is often used for the production of fleece, as can be found in base layers made of Polartec Power Dry and Polartec Power Stretch. As an addtional bonus polyester is low-maintenance, and can easily be produced using recycled materials. Coolmax is the brandname polyester fiber of Invista, available in various weights. Thanks to its specialized fiber shape Coolmax has a larger surface area than the common round polyester fibers, accounting for its quick moisture transportation, excellent breathability and improved ease of care.
Polyamide is a very robust synthetic fiber, and is also highly elastic. It is often used in synthetic blends to improve a garment’s durability.
Polypropylene absorbs nearly no moisture, which means that it essentially does not get wet. When combined with polyester it cuts drying time significantly.
Elasthane is used both with natural and synthetic fibers to create a more elastic fabric. The more elasthane a product contains, the more stretchy it will be.
Modal is produced from cellulose in the same fashion as viscose, but has improved characteristics: The fiber is soft, durable, low-maintenance and has a pleasant silk-like sheen. Modal absorbs moisture and dries quickly, and does not have the synthetic feel of petroleum-based fabrics.
Tencel or Lyocell is also made of cellulose. The fiber is soft and durable, absorbs moisture well and is cool to the touch. To take full advantage of these characteristics it is most commonly used to produce easy-to-clean summer wear.
Panties, briefs or boxers: How would you like your functional underwear?
Choosing a style of athletic functional underwear is as much a question of the intended use as of personal taste. While bikini panties offer a completely uninhibited range of movement for the legs, briefs or hipkinis may dig in a little less by distrubuting pressure accross a larger area of fabric. Differences in fit may be marginal, but in cold weather a little extra fabric around the legs and hips can’t hurt, especially for those who are sensitive to frigid temperatures. Of course, it is always a good idea to throw on a pair of classic (thermal) long underwear when it gets too cold; ¾-leg bottoms are recommended for skiing and and snowboarding since they don’t create uncomfortable bunches in the boots.
Long sleeve base layer tops are the go-to choice for skiing and other winter activities, but the options don’t end there: Ladies especially have a variety of choices when it comes to summer base layer tops, be it spaghetti straps, racerback or a classic tank top. Though it may seem arbitrary, it is worth putting some time into thinking about the intended use before choosing a style. Wider shoulder straps are significantly more comfortable when carrying a heavy pack for example, while a simple T-shirt provides sun protection. Less fabric on the other hand means extra ventilation and freedom of movement, a definite plus for actvities like running and sport climbing. Oh, and they look good, too.
An important factor in the production of outdoor clothing is of course sustainability; it is after all designed for use in pristine nature, and should be made in a way that seeks to conserve it. Merino wool is a renewable natural resource, in contrast to petroleum-based synthetic fibers. Unfortunately it isn’t perfect either, however: In recent times industrial Australian sheep farmers have been facing heavy criticism for Mulesing, a very painful procedure which is supposed to prevent the sheep from becoming infested with maggots in the hot climate. The brand-name producers of Merino wool clothing represented at Bergzeit are currently checking their supply chains to ensure that their products are made using only Mulesing-free wool. Further information can be found on the manufacturers websites.